Taking inspiration from other titles is common practice in the gaming industry nowadays. People create homages to games from the past, build upon mechanics from titles to create something new and others simply create the same game but with a few twists in order to make it their own. Iratus: Lord of the Dead wears it’s inspirations from Darkest Dungeon and Slay the Spire on it’s shoulders but this isn’t a bad thing by any stretch. In many ways this game works as a mirrored look to your typical experience in Darkest Dungeon but does this lead to a good gameplay experience overall? Let’s find out.
The story follows the nefarious titular character, Iratus, a powerful Necromancer who at one point was set to take over the world with his undead hordes. However after he was defeated by heroes he was locked away in an ancient tomb and left to rot for over a thousand years. That is until a group of miners accidentally uncovered his body and allowed him to reanimate again thus beginning a new conquest to take over the world with your undead hordes and establish yourself as a true master of death. It’s rather refreshing to play as a blatantly evil character in a game as recently many attempts have been made to create sympathetic or misunderstood protagonists however this time Iratus is just simply an evil person who has an abhorrent fear of death and will go so far as to take over the world to prevent armageddon so that he cannot fully die. While his personality doesn’t really expand beyond those boundaries reading some of the codex entries and minion descriptions you can see elements of the main character’s personality drip through and make a rather amusing character for how cartoonishly evil he is. Unfortunately the world itself is just a rather generic fantasy land with elves and dwarves and not too much else to really make it stand apart. Of course the undead are expanded upon greatly and do have an interesting variety but regardless your adventure essentially is the same from start to finish and doesn’t really evolve past that. However of course this may be expanded upon in future content releases.
The presentation of this game looks gorgeous and really takes that cartoon-yet-gritty inspiration from Darkest Dungeon and rolls with it. All the enemies and minions look extremely well designed and some do truly look quite horrific. Everything is hand drawn and animated extremely well which helps to give this game some light hearted personality despite all the blood, gore and horror you will actively be participating in. The sound design while nothing too special helps to make the game a relaxing experience which for a tactical RPG is extremely important as it helps you to focus on what is most important, the battling. Unfortunately the music is rather forgettable as I can’t really recall a single music track for battle. Instead I mostly remember Iratus making comments over my battles which were fun for a while but ended up dragging on and getting repetitive over time. The dialogue and flavour text stated by your minions was fun and again helped to make the experience seem more silly than serious however at times it didn’t make too much sense for the characters to be speaking in such a way. I mostly noticed this with the Skeleton minions as despite them visually and mechanically being seen as horrific monsters that took hits and stayed silent they constantly made skeleton puns and silly jokes which was a bit jarring to see. Regardless if you’re a fan of this style of game then this is a visual treat and being seen from the more evil side of the coin helps to make it visually distinct from the inspirations and makes it a joy just to see these characters in motion.
In terms of gameplay if you’ve played Darkest Dungeon then you know what to expect really. A forewarning however is that this game is incredibly difficult. You will lose battles, lose powerful minions that you built up over time and this may lead to you having to completely restart campaigns at times just to recover. The main difference in this game is that instead of exploring dungeons and areas you instead simply travel set paths on a map sending you to combat encounters and treasure chests. This is mainly what makes the world feel a bit lifeless as it just seems as though there is no outside world and I’m just simply travelling along a paper map to get to my destination. In combat however it’s a very tactical RPG affair with turn orders, statistics and RNG that you would expect. One of the biggest innovations however is that due to you being an evil character now you can instead of simply killing your opponents attempt to whittle down their sanity meter to give them negative status effects such as betraying their comrades, skipping turns, running away from the fight or even simply dying of fright. It’s a bit more RNG reliant than traditional combat however it’s an incredibly fun experience to literally scare enemies to death and it’s a wonderful homage to having the tables turned on you in Darkest Dungeons where rather than your sanity being in danger your opponent’s sanity is instead. Iratus can also directly involve himself in battle by casting spells on enemies such as healing all characters on screen, including enemies, or causing enemies to go insane. You gradually unlock minions over time and instead of recruiting party members you simply build them from materials and resources that you gather over time and from battle. This makes minions rather expendable as you can simply build a new one with materials and if you’re lucky level them up quickly by using brains that have certain level thresholds. It truly makes you feel like a master Necromancer which is ultimately the aim of this game which it certainly accomplishes easily.
However this expendability is where the game’s biggest faults come from. You see while this game very much emphasises difficulty it unfortunately stems more from how the progression system was designed rather than intentional purpose. Battles are challenging and at time random that is completely expected and fine but the problems come up once you start to lose minions. You can recover from a few losses but if you keep losing eventually your resources will run dry and you will have to start multi-hour campaigns again which is extremely frustrating. This is mainly due to the fact that you can’t go backwards in the map to re-fight enemies. This means you can’t grind to level up your minions to prepare them for fights such as bosses which can eventually lead to you hitting a complete blockroad in which you are stuck throwing level one minions at a boss with no hope of defeating it and no way of gaining new resources. This led to my first campaign restart and it truly felt disheartening as I was really enjoying myself up to that point, and I was playing on the easiest difficulty setting so I can’t imagine how irritating this would be to those playing on harder settings. This is a massive shame as this ends up bringing down the experience for me despite the clear love and attention this game has gotten from the developers. By just allowing us to refight enemies and grind for experience I believe this could fix the main issue of the game and make it a far more enjoyable game.
In the end then this is a game for those who really want a challenge and don’t mind getting extremely frustrated and having to try again and again despite the game actively working against you. The combat is fun and tactical, the presentation looks gorgeous and I really enjoy playing the bad guy this time but until the game can fix the main flaw of being unable to refight enemies I don’t know if I would attempt to go through it again. Luckily because of this being in Early Access and the developers are clearly passionate about this game and already patching and tweaking the experience I think that these issues could be solved fairly quickly and with more content planned for the future this is most certainly a game to look out for if you are a fan of difficult RPG experiences. Being bad never felt so good.