Cute anime girls and Dark Souls is a combination I didn't know I needed in my life, but here we are with Lost Ruins, an indie Metroidvania I enjoyed more than I thought I would.
You play as a girl called Heroine, named so apparently because her parents knew she was destined to be a video game protagonist, who gets isekai'd into the dark fantasy setting of a derelict castle filled with all manner of ghosts and goblins, and that's about the extent of the story. It follows the formula of a Mario game in that you get plot at the start to set up the adventure, at the end to wrap things up, and everything in between is you flattening all the baddies in the way. Scattered throughout Lost Ruins are journal entries by anonymous authors detailing ongoing experiments, lending an air of mystery on what's going down in this castle, but again, none of it's resolved until the very end, and none of it is evokes thoughts like you would have listening to Bioshock's audio diaries. All in all, Lost Ruin's story has no lofty ambitions but isn't so plain as to be dull, and it accomplishes what it sets out to.
The story's, however, not why I would recommend Lost Ruins. That would be the gameplay. Curiously, describing Lost Ruin's combat shares the same dilemma as Tales of Grace's. I'll preface my description by proclaiming how Graces has the best combat I've played in an action-RPG, but when I go on to list its qualities, you would suspect I'm into receiving a paddle to my bum because of its many restrictions. But Grace's combat tops my chart because it operates on pure, unadulterated game feel that even other Tales games don't replicate, and Lost Ruins is similar, though it wins my favor via a different method.
To summarize Lost Ruin's combat, it's clunky. Like Castlevania's whip, there's a delay between when you press the attack button and when Heroine's attack lands, and a claymore swings muuuch slower than a dagger stabs, and even the fastest weapons are slower than most enemies' attacks. It dawned on me how broken—and not broken in a “I just defeated the super tough superboss in five seconds flat” way—the combat is when I tried killing a bat only to discover that swinging my sword in midair stops Heroine dead in her parabola, and then she fell dead to the ground three times because her sword couldn't reach the bat. I took my revenge on my fourth attempt only to die to the next enemy down the corridor. And this is yet to mention how brutally hard this game is. Dark Souls at least has the common courtesy to refill your Estus Flasks, but in Lost Ruins, save stations don't restore your health, and you have to manage your health and mana with whatever scant resources you can scavenge. And forget buying much of anything because the inflation is outrageous and your income amounts to excavating loose change from underneath couch cushions.
Speaking for the narrative, it makes all the sense for Heroine to be awful at combat. She's a middle school girl with sticks for arms whose only combat experience is probably tussling with a sibling when they ate her ice cream. She won't be able to waltz into an alternate universe and detach a goblin's neck from its shoulders.
The gameplay, though, is where the clunky combat serves its broadest effect. Not unlike how the enemies in the Etrian Odyssey games only drop items when defeated with certain attacks to encourage strategic play and spice up battles, the slow, aggravating combat of Lost Ruins encourages the player to utilize the equipment they pick up around the map to make up for Heroine's battle shortcomings. The name of the game in Lost Ruins is decking Heroine out with various accessories, weapons, and shields, combining their effects to turn her into an adorable Sherman tank. I realized what the game wanted from me when I stormed into a goblin stronghold equipped with a SAM spell and an accessory that restored my mana, slaying the defenders from the adjacent postal code, and I spent the rest of my playthrough experimenting with my loadouts, figuring out what went great with what and swapping equipment out to suit the situation, even just to wade through water or make a single jump, and it was the first time ever in a game I devoted so much time to changing my loadouts.
Most RPGs do technically encourage the player to experiment with their loadouts, but only insofar as they provide the options. The swimwear that provides an extra 125% defense buff in water works wonders in the underwater temple, but I can also get away with a straight 50% defense boost, and I don't run the risk of forgetting to change back into my Sunday trousers after conquering the temple. In Lost Ruins, you need that swimwear or else you'll end up electrocuting yourself on your own Thundara. The only other game I've done a decent amount of equipment swapping in is Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and even then, that was only for boss battles, challenge battles, and the occasional spat of grinding. Gaining a new piece of equipment in Lost Ruins was always worth a confetti toss because it got my cogs churning on what I could combine it with to annihilate my foes.
Having to change out equipment so often does seem like it would slow down the pace of the game, but Lost Ruins is slow-paced and methodical from the get-go, its high difficulty demanding that you take your time and think over your options before leaping into the fire. Enemies may be faster than you, but they're not so fast as to whiplash the player with the extreme turn in pace, and the only enemies that do have you put on your dancing shoes are the bosses, but even with them, you have ample time to prepare beforehand, and opening up the inventory gives you a breather from the intensity.
The obvious downside to the clunky combat is that you have to stick it out until you assemble a decently sized armoire, and my razing of the goblin stronghold was a few hours in, so players who drop titles that don't immerse them within the first twenty minutes won't see Lost Ruin's full appeal, including its beautiful scenery.
For such a decrepit setting, Lost Ruins is one of the most gorgeous games I've seen, combining detailed pixel art with brilliant lighting and particle effects à la Octopath Traveler and recent Square Enix HD-2D remakes, and the effects are as stunning here as they are there. The artwork's so easy on the eyes that you'd entice a friend into playing by showing them a slideshow of screenshots, though they'd wonder why half the monsters are wearing middle school sailor uniforms.
For its foreboding atmosphere and hostile environment, Lost Ruins adopts an anime aesthetic, but it adopts it in the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 manner, which entails taking in its most prevalent tropes, and it suffers from tonal dissonance as a result. If I were isekai'd into a grimdark fortress where I was at the bottom of the food chain, you'd find me cradling my knees and sniffling for my mommy, but Heroine twirls in place like she's in line for the bathroom, though this is the least of the discrepancies. One pocket of the dungeon has two zombies dressed up for an idol concert, and they ask you to find their dakimakura, and while this juxtaposition is amusing, I can't help but wonder where two zombies picked up idol culture in Dracula's foreclosed castle. And then there's the pickup-sized mammary glands animated on ones. I welcome sexual content when the context welcomes it, but Lost Ruins lacks the meaningfulness of Fear and Hunger's orgy, the normalcy of Vinland Saga's nudity, and even the dumb catharsis of a power fantasy isekai, serving no purpose other than to pitch a tent in my pants, and monster girls trying to unsubscribe me from life isn't one of my kinks. I wouldn't say Lost Ruins's pandering breaks the experience, but it did take me out momentarily when my reward for defeating a boss were her blue-striped panties whose description mentioned a yellow stain.
At the end of it, I think I'm supposed to look upon Lost Ruins's anime-ness with the same fondness as Resident Evil 4's campiness. To some degree, the walnut-sized segment of my brain attracted to anything anime lit up seeing the game's anime flourishes, but by that same merit, I couldn't shake the feeling I was at the intersection of two disparate realms, in which one was cut content from Lordran and in the other was High School DxD. Incidentally, on the market is another Metroidvania with an anime aesthetic set against a sobering backdrop, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, and it balances its anime cuteness and dreadful atmosphere to greater success by treating its cast of sprites as people would when monsters are running amuck and they aren't sure if they'll make it till dawn, as well as dressing them in modest gowns and armor fitting a medieval setting. Admittedly, Momodora 4 does also have a boss you defeat by slapping her tits, but that's one crack in its worldbuilding rather than the web of girls' undergarments and maid costumes threaded throughout Lost Ruins.
Lost Ruins is among the most curious combinations of genres and aesthetics, with some material my mother would be dumbfounded to see, but it's a surprising gem, sporting a combat and inventory system that gel so seamlessly and perfectly together. My greatest disappointment is that there's no new game plus that grants me the delight of stomping through the castle ruins with my full armory, testing new equipment on old enemies. Rather, it has a variety of difficulties and game modes to freshen up a repeat playthrough, the most notable being one in which you swap between three bosses from the main story, and it reminds me of playing as Albus from Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia: your set-in-stone loadout gives you an advantage in combat, but if you struggle against a boss anyway, you can't swap items around to give you an edge. It wasn't the new game plus I salivated for, but it did allow me to sink my teeth back into a game I wanted to keep playing.