Iratus: Lord of the Dead felt like it shouldn’t be as fun as it is. You may have heard it described as a reverse Darkest Dungeon. And it is, with a dash of Heroes of Might and Magic in there too, plus the whole dark lord shtick of Dungeon Keeper and Overlord.
The premise is Iratus was once an all-powerful necromancer on the verge of conquering the world with his undead legions. Unfortunately for the forces of evil, some big damn heroes showed up at the last minute to put him down and save the day. But Iratus doesn’t stay dead. Our bad boy is back and mad as hell. So it’s time to raise some minions and take over the world. Iratus is not a complex character, and there’s not much story going on here apart from what’s necessary to move the action.
What our villain lacks in subtlety, he more than makes up for in snark — Iratus’ contemptuous asides, directed at enemies and servants alike. His remarks are well-voiced and motivate the player to slaughter the “innocent” and not care too much about the minions. Because they will die. Again and again.
The monster mash
Iratus: Lord of the Dead doesn’t disappoint with its tactical combat. Somewhat ironically, given the theme, this game has a surprising amount of meat on the bone with its strategy. Developer Unfrozen clearly paid attention in the early access period, and the release version feels well balanced for player options and challenge. One fun twist is that playing the side of the undead abominations, it’s your turn to inflict stress and insanity on the enemy, not the other way around.
Iratus has 18 different undead minions to use. Skeletons, zombies, vampires, mummies, liches — it’s a full-on monster roster. Only a handful are available at the start, with others unlocked via gameplay achievements. They have different abilities that inflict stress damage (sanity) or vigor damage (HP). They can also inflict buffs and debuffs, move combatants, or affect critical hits.
That makes for a ton of options. Choosing the right combination of minions and abilities for the 4v4 turn-based battles is all about finding the right synergies to build powerful combos. And it is very satisfying, especially the stress abilities that drive your opponents insane and potentially kill them with heart attacks. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play that contrasts with the more reliable physical damage route. Iratus himself can intervene with spells.
Enemy teams give as good as they get, too. There’s enough variety of foes out there that you can’t rely on just one combo to carry you through the game. Every action has a random element, and a lucky crit can turn the tide either way. Like all the best tactical games, you’ve got to manage risk and react smartly when things don’t go to plan.
In-between battles, you can mess around in Iratus’ chamber to level up abilities and minions. Iratus himself has several different skill trees that boost your economy, his own magical spells, or troops.
There are also plenty of stats to level up and consider, which should delight the spreadsheet-loving type. Defeating enemies yields items that can be combined into new monsters. Then there’s the graveyard, your “town” that provides various support buildings. With all the stats and systems in play, it’s a good thing that the game progress itself is very focused.
No rest for the wicked
If there’s something that distinguishes the Iratus: Lord of the Dead experience from Darkest Dungeon, it’s momentum. You don’t explore a dungeon. Instead, you have your map of the current level, and you know where the boss is and what types of encounters are on the way. Although you can choose different routes to move your forces through, there’s no backtracking. You’re forced to move inexorably towards the boss room/exit.
This means that there’s no grinding lower-level dungeons in Iratus. You either move past the encounter in front of you, or it’s game over. Fortunately, enemy losses persist, so if your A-team gets wiped in a difficult encounter, the damage they inflicted on the enemy (unless it’s a boss) carries over to make it easier on your next wave of undead. Monsters can be leveled up instantly through the use of brains, a droppable item, so even an experienced team isn’t too painful to replace. The only way to lose for good is to run out of materials to create new units.
This constant forward momentum keeps the player from feeling stuck in a spiral of loss and recovery. People who found Darkest Dungeon too frustrating could well find Iratus more to their taste. The less-open design also means that subsequent games are unlikely to diverge too much, but after completing the game, you unlock a couple of new units to try on future runs.
The aesthetics are the biggest letdown of Iratus, at least for me. Unfrozen didn’t copy Darkest Dungeon‘s heavy ink-lined graphical style for Iratus: Lord of the Dead. What we have instead is serviceable, if generic, dark fantasy art.
We’ve all seen Iratus and his minions a hundred times before in other fantasy games — and probably kicked their asses. All the female minions have busty, fan-servicey designs falling between sexy Halloween costumes and BDSM cheese. Many of the animations also look quite stiff and disinterested, even for the living. There are a couple of cool quirks here and there, like the candle-covered skeleton or the gunner zombie, but otherwise, Iratus‘ visual language doesn’t have much personality.
Although everything in Iratus sounds like something we’ve seen before, the fine-tuned alchemy of its tactical gameplay sees this flesh golem of a strategy game rise above mediocrity. As my dread armies laid low yet another band of smug do-gooders in a wave of madness and heart failure, I couldn’t help but let out a haughty cackle. I love it when an evil plan comes together.