A lot of people who don’t really have a great grasp on the video game business and how it continues to exist will connect a supposed decline in the quality of games to the rise of “casual” games, personified by free games funded via microtransactions (or “freemium” games as they’re typically called.) The flaws with this premise are many and varied, of course – let’s start with the idea that games are declining in quality at all – but without getting into all that, we’ll work from the idea that there’s enough room in the industry to support all kinds of games with all kinds of business models.
I might not like walking simulators, for instance, but I don’t begrudge them their existence either; if people like them, they’ll buy them, and if not, the developers can throw a big ol’ fit on Twitter about how Sunset only sold four thousand copies. I think this same sort of courtesy should be existed to freemium games. Sure, there’s plenty of nonsense cashgrabs, but sometimes Goichi Suda makes Let It Die, gives it to you for free, and goes back to doing whatever he does in his spare time. If you need proof that there’s still good in the world, well, there it is.
You might be familiar with Grasshopper Manufacture. That’s probably because they’re one of the best game development companies around. I will stridently fight against the idea of video games being “art” and the embarrassing over-reliance on a poorly understood version of auteur theory in games…right up until someone asks me what I think of Suda 51 and his company, at which point my facade collapses and I sink to my knees, silently weeping. I have not played a Grasshopper Manufacture game that I didn’t enjoy on at least two levels, possibly up to ten or eleven levels depending on my state of inebriation at the time.
Now that we’ve got that background out of the way, let’s actually talk about Let It Die, which is what happens when Grasshopper Manufacture decides to make Dark Souls. I’m going to try and summarize the plot, so stick with me: when you play Let It Die, you are in actuality playing a game about playing Let It Die, an in-game game about ascending the horror-filled Tower of Barbs via the apparent remote control of what appear to be cybernetically-enhanced humans called Fighters. The Tower is, as mentioned, filled with horrors, ranging from traps to mindless zombies to other players’ deceased Fighters, who are back with a vengeance as Haters and ready to kick your unprepared butt.
If that plot summary didn’t make a lot of sense, then, well, you’ve got no idea. Everything about Let It Die is, in true Grasshopper fashion, about as weird as video games get. The Tower itself is a nightmare dungeon…with pleasant employees and floors connected by shopping mall style escalators. Your Fighter will take damage in combat and need to heal…and you’ll do that by eating frogs (that noisily croak “Gero gero!” when you get near them) and rats from off the ground. That is, unless you’ve got enough frogs and rats, in which case you’ll just stomp on them so status-affecting mushrooms grow from their remains that you can pick and use as weapons.
You’ll fight foes wearing all kinds of crazy gear ranging from aprons to traffic cones and will end up wearing much of those things yourself; meanwhile, you’ll wield weapons like a revolver with a barrel several feet long and a steaming hot iron. In the end, it’s all just a video game, so you can stop playing and chat with other patrons of the arcade you’re sitting in for tips. The bizarre mixture of horror and comedy lends Let It Die a unique feel that’s not really comparable to other games; the closest non-Grasshopper games to match what this is trying to do would probably be the first Dead Rising or the little-known roguelike Baroque.
As mentioned, it’s pretty much Dark Souls right down to the control scheme. Everything’s pretty much where you’d expect it to be, with the exceptions of a dedicated jump button and item management being moved to the touch pad (which is annoying and will lead to many wasted items early on.) Combat is still reliant on stamina management, here represented by a transparent view of your Fighter’s pounding heart. Running out of Stamina is, like in Ni-Oh, a death sentence, as your Fighter falls to their knees and likely gets eviscerated. Along with the usual Souls-style trigger-mashing combat, you can also perform powerful Rage Moves via a recharging meter as well as gruesome finishing moves that earn extra experience and money.
The most significant way that Let It Die differs from the Souls games is in its many roguelike elements. I mentioned Haters earlier, for instance; these are essentially the game’s version of the classic NetHack and Dungeon Crawl “ghosts.” When your Fighter inevitably dies, they’ll return as an undead Hater to terrorize both your next character and other players’ Fighters. Defeating a Hater will return them to your collection so they can be used again, but a particularly high-leveled and well-geared Fighter may result in quite the nasty battle if they get Haterized. There’s also a strong focus on managing equipment durability a la many Japanese Roguelikes; your gear is fragile and unlikely to last even a single floor if you lean on it, so learning to conserve your resources and make do with what you find is essential.
There’s more to it than just exploring the Tower and collecting loot, of course. You’ve got a crafting system that allows you to make your own gear, for instance; since crafted gear is more durable than the junk you find in the Tower, you can get a lot further using stuff you make yourself. You can also work with the Mushroom Magistrate, a lady hopped up on fungi who’s ready to slap stat-boosting decals all over your Fighters, and you can level up your Fighters through some sort of weird floating stat-injection robot. As you progress through the tower you’re able to unlock more powerful Fighters for purchase via ingame currency that can grow to higher maximum stats; this is a big deal for success in both single-player and multiplayer modes.
Let’s talk about that last bit: Let It Die’s essential weirdness is on full display in the game’s multiplayer mode. It’s essentially a form of the base-defense mechanic seem in Metal Gear Solid V or Clash of Clans; you’ve got your own train station/base to defend with your collection of Fighters and are able to attack other players’ bases as well. They’re never actually present for these battles, which boil down to a battle royale against their Fighters, so it’s more of a psuedo-multiplayer mode. Victory allows you to rob your opponent, most notably by knocking out one of their Fighters and carting them off to your base for a little re-education. You’re just as vulnerable yourself, though, and they can strike back to recapture their stolen Fighters.
Frankly Let It Die has a whole lot going on for a game you can download right the hell now without paying anything for it. That’s saying nothing about the entirely fantastic soundtrack (from Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka) and entirely passable graphics. The ever-present multiplayer option also pushes you to build a whole stable of Fighters to keep your base safe from raiders. This feels like a solid budget title that just skipped the budget part.
Finally, we’ll touch on the elephant in the room: this is a free game, but it’s 2016 and nothing’s really free. What does Let It Die want from you? Well, as mentioned, Fighters are delicate flowers. They’re going to die a lot. When they do, it’s a pain in the butt to get them back…but it doesn’t have to be that way. Using Death Metal, the game’s premium currency available in varying denominations averaging around 10 for $5, you can pay an oddly-chipper insurance saleslady to get right back up when you fall.
Given the crushing difficulty, it’s no surprise this will be a tempting option when you bite it while fighting a boss; it also means that the hardcore sort who really love this kind of game and are willing to embrace defeat as a chance to improve won’t have much use for insurance at all. I could see there being some complaints about the game being excessively hard to encourage spending on insurance, but…it’s a Souls-style game and a roguelike besides. Both of those genres are known for their extreme difficulty, and with that in mind the challenge feels right in Let It Die.
Aside from that the game has a premium subscription option offering several conveniences, you can expand your storage capacity (which is a vital part of crafting as the materials eat up storage slots) and you can speed up your in-game crafting timers…and that’s pretty much it. For what it’s worth, it appears that Let It Die is going to be handing out free Death Metal every now and again that can be used as you wish. The fad in freemium games over the past year or two has been loosening the clamps a little when it comes to squeezing the cash out of players, and in line with this Let It Die feels pretty generous so far.
I’d still recommend Let It Die if Grasshopper Manfacture had wanted $60 for it. They don’t. I’d probably still recommend it if it took a horrific turn into pay-to-win Hell some ten hours down the line, but that doesn’t seem to be the case just yet – ask me again in a couple weeks. You can have it right now without paying a dime, and while the game will ask you every now and again if you want to toss it a couple bucks, it’s pretty courteous about the whole thing. In return for your $0, you get a competent dungeon crawler and frog-eating simulator that, if nothing else, will be one of the more memorable games you play this year.