This single-player turn-based tactical roguelike wears its inspiration openly but has enough of its own identity to separate itself and be its own entertaining experience, if not with a few caveats that may be off-putting for some.
Iratus: Lord of the Dead tasks players with taking on the role of the titular Iratus, an undead necromancer, as he strives to surface from his crypt through 5 floors (+1 with the Wrath of the Necromancer DLC, also provided) and take the world above for his own. You’ll do this by amassing squads of up to 4 creatures, each with unique abilities and unlocks, to fight for you through the maze-like floors of the dungeon. In terms of a plot, that’s really all you’re going to get from its opening cutscene, aside from some flavour text, lore and a couple of cutscenes at the end.
The devs themselves are open about Iratus being heavily inspired by the game Darkest Dungeon, and it is a lot of the same gameplay, if not slightly more streamlined. However, the twist with this game is that you are playing as the villains. This allows for some interesting mechanical differences that allows the game to stand on its own and not be just a simple copycat.
The game initially locks you behind the Cakewalk (easy) difficulty for its tutorial, but after beating that (it took me around 40 minutes), you can choose to continue with that run on the easy difficulty or switch to two new difficulties, More Pain (normal) or Good Always Wins (hard). A fourth difficulty can be unlocked by beating the game on hard difficulty. I went with normal. And the difficulties aren’t just changing damage numbers, it also affects the rate at which tougher enemies are in battles as well as how much mana and health you recover after combat and the efficiency of your buildings. The tutorial does a good enough job of explaining the core concepts of the game while leaving enough for you to figure out for yourself.
The game is split into two main gameplay segments, the unit management side of things, which is done from Iratus’s main base in a simple, but visually thematic, menu screen. From here you can create your units from materials you’ve gained from the dungeon, build and upgrade buildings that give bonuses, make potions and perform alchemy. You can also equip Iratus with up to 5 artifacts that provide bonuses in combat.
The other type of gameplay is the dungeon crawling aspect. Once you have amassed one of up to four squads (each made up of up to four units), you can go to the map screen and navigate the current floor you are on. The navigation is linear, and is mostly made up of battles, but also features bonus items, small choose your own adventure style “quests”, healing pools and even opportunities to get new units for your squads.
The meat of this dungeon-crawling chunk of the game, and the game in general, is the combat. It’s a turn-based system, with each of your characters having 5 regular actions and a special action that requires its own resource (Wrath) to perform. The units your squad is made up of will determine your playstyle, and you will unlock more units as you play (a nice way to encourage experimentation). Your units can perform an action per turn, and your unit’s position will determine which actions you can perform. Some actions can only be used when in specific parts of the squad, like the front or the back. However, it’s not just the monsters who can attack, as Iratus himself can perform spells, which also requires its own resource (Mana). The moves range from attacks, buffs and debuffs and area of effect actions.
When it comes to dealing damage, you have three options: Physical, Magical, and Stress. Physical and magical damage are both pretty standard, they damage an enemies health, although they can be blocked by a “block” or a “ward” respectively and you as the player can do this too. It’s when you start dealing with stress damage that things become more interesting.
Stress damage affects the enemies sanity, and they cannot inflict this type of damage on you, presumably because you’re already crazy. By depleting an enemy’s sanity, you can drive them to insanity, which acts as a debuff, lowering multiple stats, but it also has other interesting effects. If their sanity is low, they can flee from combat, attack their teammates or even suffer a heart attack.
This mechanic does, however, feel a little overpowered, at least with the units I was using, as I only found myself losing units during the boss fights at the end of a floor. There are some ways that the team have balanced the sanity mechanic, for example, some enemies do not have a sanity bar at all, but it still feels underbalanced and exploitable.
Another small, but noticeable issue to me, was the lack of interesting enemy designs. Because you are playing as the monsters, your units are the interesting ones in battle. Your enemies (for the first couple of floors, at least) range between humans and dwarves, with the occasional elf or golem, tossed in. It’s all just a little generic to me, especially when the art is as good as it is, and the monster units are great and very distinct. The enemy designs did get more interesting from floor 3 onwards, however.
Combat overall is a satisfying part of the gameplay, unlocking and trying new units is satisfying and can really change how you approach combat and losing a high-level unit you’ve had in your squad for multiple floors can be pretty devastating if you don’t have the materials to create a replacement. There’s enough variety to experiment and find some interesting combinations between the 18 units (you only start with 6, however, and there are a further 3 locked behind 2 pieces of DLC).
Now on to the other aspects of the game. First off, the visuals are fantastic. The game is 2D and the art is great. Monster designs are interesting and backgrounds are fittingly grim for this dark fantasy world. Animations are a little stiff, but I think that’s just the nature of the style of skeletal animation they chose to use for this game, but other than that, everything is very fitting and it feels cohesive.
On the sound side of things, there is one big stand out and that is Iratus himself. He is voiced, in English at least, by Stephan Weyte, best known from his role as Caleb in the Blood series of games, and he is chewing the scenery here in the best way.
He narrates the battles, commenting on the death you deal and revelling in his victories. The dialogue itself isn’t anything spectacular, but I think it’s aiming more for fun little lines, rather than grand exposition. Simply put, he’s great. There’s a decent amount of voice lines too, I’ve heard a few repeats in my time with the game, but it’s to be expected.
Sticking with the audio aspect, sound effects are serviceable, and the music fits the atmosphere of the game, but neither are very memorable. That’s not to say they’re bad, they’re not at all, it’s just that Iratus really is the best part of this games audio. The only issue with the audio I had was that some music tracks don’t loop cleanly, so you may hear when tracks restart, but I only noticed it a couple of times.
The game talks up its difficulty when you boot it. It gives you a warning before you even play that it is a hardcore tactical game, but honestly, I haven’t had all that much trouble. Apart from boss fights, I don’t seem to lose units on the difficulty I’ve played on, and I can’t just change the difficulty because it’s locked in when you start your run. Maybe I just got lucky with the units I used, but if you’re looking for a harder time with your roguelike, maybe crank it up to the harder difficulty. It also feels a fair bit easier than its inspiration, mainly because it removes almost all of the micromanagement of your units because they don’t require anything other than healing outside of battle, which can be done fairly easily. In Darkest Dungeon, your characters would get debuffs that would persist out of battle until you assigned them to the appropriate building to remove them. In Iratus, there isn’t any of that. You can assign them to a building to heal them or level them up, but honestly, I found it more effective to just heal them at your alchemy table for a few resources.
Despite the few little issues I’ve laid out, I enjoyed my time playing Iratus: Lord of the Dead, and I can see myself going back to it to try out new unit compositions and to unlock the last few units. According to Steam, I’d played around 11 hours before beating it on normal, but I imagine playing on the harder difficulties could take a lot longer, and would likely wipe your units a lot more often. In that time, I hadn’t completely lost a battle, and only started losing units more frequently in the new final floor added in the Wrath of the Necromancer DLC. If you are looking for a challenging time, I’d recommend starting on the hard difficulty and, because of this, I’d argue it’s a more friendly version of Darkest Dungeon, despite playing as the villains. It’s a successful addition to the ever-growing roguelike genre and is absolutely worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of dark fantasy games, playing as a villain, or just looking for something similar to Darkest Dungeon.
Iratus: Lord of the Dead and it’s DLC, Wrath of the Necromancer, are available now on Steam
Tom Woods is a Games Journalist for ICUGamer.com. Follow Tom via Twitter @T_Woods93
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