Iratus: Lord of the Dead Review
Iratus: Lord of the Dead is a reversed dungeon crawler. Instead of playing a group of heroes who travel through a dungeon to face some ancient evil, you play Iratus, who is a necromancer that has been unintentionally freed from his tomb by foolish grave robbers. The necromancer sends his minions to conquer a series of catacombs in order to make it to the surface, where he can realize his dream of extinguishing all life. As a traditional villain, Iratus leaves most of the dirty work to his minions, whom he supports from a safe distance with his magic. The necromancer must also manage a number of resources, so he can replace dead minions, bolster existing ones, and increase his own powers. Anyone who has played or seen Darkest Dungeon will see its influence on Iratus: Lord of the Dead. Iratus must escape his confinement and defeat all the mortal enemies who face him. Each battle is potentially dangerous, and minions are only to a certain degree expendable. Battles are from the side view, and undead minions have different powers which can be executed dependent on where they stand in the battle formation. The game also has some rogue-light qualities, such as having only one save and a somewhat random dungeon floor layout. But Iratus: Lord of the Dead is in many ways its own game, for better or worse.
Being a Really Bad Dude
Text blurbs like this one are few and far between. This game is not for players looking for a long or interesting story.
Let me make it clear, this isn’t a story-based game. In fact, I’ve already detailed the vast majority of the story above. Unlike in say Tyranny, where you can choose to play someone really evil, or a basically decent person in an unpleasant situation who has to make some terrible choices and then has to witness the suffering their choices create, Iratus is an over-the-top cartoonish villain. He is the only voice acted character in the game, and all we get from him is a random remark here and there during or after a battle. For example, Iratus laments that the blood of his slaughted enemies may assist plants to grow since Iratus hates plants as much as any other kind of life.
Iratus occasionally weighs in with a snide comment. Here he is reacting to the mummy's critical hit, which has driven two of his enemies insane.
Iratus’s minions are also beautifully drawn, as are his opponents. The art style is dark, but also decidedly unrealistic. These visuals match the comic book feel of the game well.
Most of the game is narrated by text blurbs. We get one when we enter a new dungeon layer or face each level’s boss monster. Also, the necromancer’s undead minions also occasionally have something to say in battle, and each one has his or her own character. For example, while the Zombie’s lines reflects his very basic intelligence, the Bride of Iratus is obsessed with pleasing her master, the Lich expresses a detached curiosity about the suffering of his enemies, and the Banshee clearly regrets being forced into battle, cursing Iratus, lamenting the deaths of her enemies, and imploring her opponents to flee.
One could feel some sympathy for the Banshee's reluctance to serve Iratus. That doesn't make her any less effective at terrorizing the necromancer's enemies.
The game’s comic book atmosphere, with its dark humor and wonderful art suits Iratus: Lord of the Dead well. And while the game’s texts and voice acting are nicely done, they are also very sparse.
From the Depth
The undead must climb their way up through five dungeon levels for Iratus to reach his goal. Above the necromancer’s tomb are laborers working in a mine. These are the first victims of the undead minions. Above them are the halls of the dwarves who are overseeing the miners. Each level of the dungeon has its own very distinct enemies. The dwarves are very different from the rather weak miners below them.
The miners you face on the first dungeon level are weak, but that changes quickly.
You can see the dungeon layout from above. At certain points you have a choice, for example go left or go right. Almost every other room is a battle. Between battle rooms are positive event rooms. For example, one type of room lets you heal all the minions in the active party or recover any mana Iratus may have consumed. In another type of event cultists offer Iratus a choice of 3 minor magic items. When looking at the dungeon layout you can see what sort of event occurs where, though not all the details of an event (for example, you can see cultists are on a dungeon tile, but you don’t know what 3 items they have to offer). You can see all the opponents on a particular square when you are next to it. If you are farther away, you can see one of the four enemies. At the end of each level is a boss battle. This means you can choose your path forward to some degree, though in my playthrough I usually only chose when I arrived at a fork, rather than plan in advance as most paths seem about as good as any other. On the other hand, at some points I really needed something immediately (like bonus xp or extra mana) and so this swayed my choice.
Battles are always 4 versus 4. Each round every minion and every opponent can attack. Anyone who has played Darkest Dungeon will be familiar with the combat. Some actions will move minions or enemies in the formation, which can be helpful or harmful depending on the skills of the individual. The undead can deal physical, magical, and stress damage. The latter can drive living opponents mad, and eventually even kill them. There are also buffs, debuffs, and stances which let an individual acts if some specific event occurs (sort of like an overwatch in other tactics games). Iratus can also cast a spell if he has learned any and has enough mana at his disposal. Combat works well in Iratus: Lord of the Dead, because there are a number of options (each minion has six skills) and as Iratus learns spells and you unlock more and more minions, the possible clever combinations of skills and spells increase.
Enemies all have their individual strengths and weaknesses. Constructs like this one are immune to stress damage. The Living Armour also has (surprise!) a high armour value, making it resistant to physical damage. Magical damage is the way to take this thing down best.
In addition to mana, Iratus builds up wrath as combat goes on. All minions have a skill that has a cost in wrath. These skills tend to be very powerful. For example, the Ghoul can consume (instantly kill) an enemy at low health and then heal herself up to full health once during the battle. The Vampire, on the other hand gains a blood halo, which means all of her damaging attacks heal her for the rest of the battle. Or the Wraith does stress damage to all enemies and moves them to a random position in the formation.
Unlike Darkest Dungeon, where dungeons levels are fairly small, but you have to survive a number of battles and explore a number of rooms with limited resources before returning to the safety of town, in Iratus the 5 levels are pretty big (my play through lasted 16 hours, so over 3 hours per level), but you can return to your base whenever you are not in combat. This means instead having to worry about being worn down over multiple battles or by running out of resources, the focus is on surviving each battle as best as possible, as in between battles you can switch out minions, or heal them at a cost.
After each battle, you get loot. Loot can be divided into items for either Iratus (who has 5 equipment slots- armor, weapon, ring, amulet, and a consumable) or minions (who each have 2 slots). You also get body parts, which are used to build minions, and brains which can instantly raise up the level of the minion to the level of the brain (stick a level 17 brain in a level 1 minion and it becomes level 17). In addition, you get digger spirits which can be used to build your base. While this is fairly basic, Iratus can at least destroy any equipment which he doesn’t need to gain additional experience.
It should also be noted that you can reset a dungeon level, if for some reason you think Iratus and his minions aren’t prepared to advance to the next dungeon level. I never used this option, but I think it might be useful at higher difficulty levels.
Where Evil Dwells
Between combat, Iratus will find himself at his base. His base offers a number of possibilities. First you can expand it by building or upgrading buildings. In addition, he can use parts to create new minions. He can also use alchemy to transmute unwanted parts into health, mana, or a new higher quality random part. I only used alchemy sparingly, because I was afraid of running out of the parts which I needed to construct new minions to replace the ones I lost in combat. It turns out I was a little too conservative in this respect, but my feeling was it was better to be safe than sorry. Its also here where you can manage the inventory of the necromancer and his minions, as well as where you can level them up.
Once you have a larger group of minions, you'll want to park some of them in the arena. There they get xp, even if they are not part of the active team.
Iratus has a number of buildings at his underground tomb. These require digger’s souls and undead minions to build and upgrade. While building a structure only requires one of the basic undead minions, the upgrades require some minions you don’t start the game with and have to unlock. For this reason, I wasn’t able to fully upgrade all of my buildings by the end of my playthrough. Some buildings remain useful throughout the game. Any undead who sits out a battle in the mortuary (which starts out with 1 slot, but upgrades can add 3 more) are fully healed. Also, any minions you put in the arena gain xp. The statue of Iratus restores mana after every battle and the abode of wrath gives Iratus a fixed amount of wrath at the beginning of a battle. There are other buildings which offer nice minor perks, such as increasing the necromancer’s xp gain or increasing the chance of finding a magic item.
Creating new minions was one of the most motivating factors for me to playthrough the game. I started out with blueprints for six undead minions, 4 of which could be brought into battle. These were the tanky front line Death Knight and Skeleton, the devoted damage dealing Zombie and Bride of Iratus, and the stress inducing Wraith and Banshee. Since each minion has six skills, they play out fairly differently despite filling similar roles. The death knight, for example, has a very high armor value which makes him hard to damage, and has a drain life skill which makes it rare that he is in danger of falling in battle. While his damage output is only moderate, he can do both physical and stress damage, making him pretty versatile. The skeleton is less tough, but he can buff other minions, and has two very useful physical attacks. One is armor piercing, making him ideal for taking down enemy tanks, and the other gives him multiple low damage attacks, which is super for stripping the protection off of enemies.
In the crypt I can build new minions using the correct parts. To the left you can see the blueprints I've unlocked and those I haven't. The tool tip tells me what I require to unlock those I haven't. In the case of the bone golem it tells me how many bones I still need to collect.
In addition to the six basic minions you can unlock 12 more. Unlocking these range from very easy and straightforward (the mummy, for example unlocks once a minion reaches level 5) to fairly difficult and complicated (the vampire unlocks once you recruit three. I suggest looking through the skill trees of Iratus, if you need to figure out how to do this). By the end of my playthrough I managed to unlock 14 of the 18 minions. Two of those I did not unlock require a player to finish a playthrough at what is called “more pain” difficulty, which probably can be considered the game’s “normal” difficulty. At the end of my playthrough I still needed to collect 4 of the 40 bones for unlock the bone golem (I could have spent my skill points differently to have sped this up) and I had no clue how to unlock the Dhampir (though I did look online afterwards, and it could be potentially doable, if excessively difficult to accomplish in one playthrough.) The developers did a great job here as each new minion unlocks new possibilities, and many require using tactics I would have otherwise shied from. For example, unlocking the Shade requires driving 80 enemies insane. I would have never found out how potent stress damage could be in the right situation had I not played out this tactic specifically to unlock the Shade. The powerful Ghoul requires you to do a massive 3500 damage to your own minions. Coming up with an efficient tactic to get her unlocked was both enjoyable and rewarding.
The Dhamphir (the first enemy unit) is one of the minions you can unlock by recruiting. However, she first appears as an enemy. If you can figure out how to recruit her on your own, I'd be impressed.
Leveling up minions is pretty simple. Each minion has a number of attributes which can be upgraded, but they aren’t always the same ones. Some minions do no physical damage, while others do no stress damage. Some rely on evasion to avoid damage, while others rely on armor, or blocks (negates one physical hit). Also, every 6 levels you have to decide between 1 of 2 possible upgrades for one of the minion’s skills. Iratus, on the other hand, has 4 separate skill trees, where you can buy things ranging from more effectively harvesting body parts, to passive boosts for minions, to spells which buff, cause physical, magic, or stress damage, to summons, and improved wrath abilities.
Iratus: Lord of the Dead is one of those games that is looking for the right audience. One of its greatest strengths and weaknesses is that you can quit and save after every battle. I often played 2-3 battles and did some management in 10 to 15 minute stints. I rarely played more than 45 minutes in one sitting, largely because for the vast majority of the game I was playing through relatively short battles. There really isn’t much exploration, because you don’t have to worry much about resources, since you can simply exit the dungeon after each battle. That made it, at least for me, a great game for those moments where I had limited time to relax; in other words, super for in-between. On the other hand, I would not recommend it for those players who want to lose themselves in a game for hours at a time. Iratus: Lord of the Dead offers much more tactical depths and mechanical options than most “in-between” games do. Also, a potential player has to tolerate the premise that they are playing a cartoonish villain. That’s something that won’t appeal to everyone, even though the game doesn’t have much of a story, and we mostly hear from Iratus in the form of his one liners when an opponent dies, gets critically hit, or when a battle is won. In addition, one playthrough took me 16 hours, and the game kept my attention for that long, but replaying at a harder level to unlock an extra minion or two wouldn’t probably be enough to motivate me to do a second playthrough, though I do suspect that the ending cut scene I got might not be the true ending. So, players looking for a long game with a lot of content might also find it disappointing. I do think, that Iratus: Lord of the Dead does what it does fairly well. Combat is well conceived, skills, minions, and other systems are well designed. The game also looks and sound good. So if you’re one of those people who can accept Iratus: Lord of the Dead, for what it does well, and not for what it doesn’t do, than I think you can get a good amount of enjoyment from it.
The Bride of Iratus (far left) is going to die from burning damage on her next turn. Only the Ghoul and the Dark Knight (in the first two slots) can heal themselves. This battle is going to be a nail biter!
Information aboutIratus: Lord of the Dead
Developer: Unfrozen Studios
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2020-04-23
· Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
- Clever skill and spell mechanics.
- Great game to play when time is short.
- Very atmospheric like a dark comic book.
- Well done art work.
- Combat works well and that is the heart of the game.
- Not all too long (16 hours for a playthrough)
- Not satisfying to play hours on end.
- Not everyone wants to play a villain.
- Not much to do outside of combat.