Iratus: Lord of the Dead took me by surprise a little over a month ago during E3 2019, so I nominated it for one of TechRaptor's Best of E3 awards. I only had a short look at this brutal strategy title and left wanting to play more. With its Early Access debut looming closer, I was finally able to have a more comprehensive look. Iratus is developed by indie studio Unfrozen and published by Daedalic Entertainment. You play as the eponymous necromancer, who creates undead in an effort to purge the living. Not much has changed from my E3 demo, but Iratus is still fun and engaging.
Gameplay-wise, Iratus plays similar to Darkest Dungeon, but still sets itself apart from Red Hook Studios' title in several ways. For example, my favorite mechanic in Iratus is the ability to craft undead minions. You do not head into town, searching for adventurers down on their luck. Instead, you use the bones, rags, and ashes of your enemies and craft unique and spooky allies. There is enough variation in each minion that they all feel very useful in their own ways. In other words, no minion felt less powerful than the other.
In Iratus, you navigate a large dungeon via a map and encounter fights, quests, and chests that grant you certain rewards. Exploration is very basic, however, as Iratus largely focuses on combat gameplay. If you prefer exploration and story in the games you play, Iratus likely isn't for you. Quests offer scenarios à la FTL, giving players a choice that can either end in disaster or grant a reward. For the most part, though, dungeons comprise many combat encounters with a few boons sprinkled in the mix.
In combat, minions deliver either physical damage or degrade enemies' psych by causing stress. Each minion has six different abilities which are all quite varied. For example, some minions can buff their allies or themselves. Others can use a "stance," which is like readying an action from a tabletop RPG. Once meeting the criteria for a stance (such as if an enemy moves), the minion creates a powerful effect. Other minions simply deal a great amount of damage and nothing else. I created my parties of four with one damage type in mind, so the team delivered physical damage and another uses stress attacks. Bear in mind, you use only one party per combat encounter, so use their strengths wisely to succeed.
Iratus has incredibly fleshed-out combat. I find myself preferring my stress-inducing party, using my ghostly minions to scream and terrorize unsuspecting enemies. Reducing the stress bar of an enemy causes insanity. Once this bar reaches zero, your next stress attack has a chance to end the enemy's life once and for all. Stress appears to be a weaker way to eliminate enemies at first, but it creates interesting chaos in battle. Stress induces negative effects on mobs, causing them to betray and inflict damage on each other, or go berserk and flail wildly at both their as well as your minions. Inflicting health damage might be a safer route, but it isn't anywhere near as fun.
Combat is both Iratus' greatest strength and weakness, however. Iratus is in Early Access, so it requires balancing in combat. Some enemies appear much stronger than others, inflicting far more damage or are just tougher, health-wise. Moreover, your attacks miss on enemies more times that seems reasonable. The hit rates of my minions would often be quite low for reasons unbeknownst to me. This extends combat encounters far longer than I would like. Some enemies can negate attacks with certain buffs, causing even more frustration as you whittle down their defenses over a long-drawn battle.
Outside of combat and exploration, Iratus touts a deep strategy layer. The necromancer manages his own undead town, which allows you to heal hurt minions, train them for more experience, and embark on missions to gather resources. To create and upgrade buildings within this town, you sacrifice existing minions. There are trade-offs in Iratus, which requires players to think every step of the way. The necromancer even boasts a skill tree with passive skills and spells, which inflict damage and status effects upon enemies. Proper party management and allocating resources correctly is key. With all of these elements at play, developer Unfrozen creates a compelling, layered strategy experience.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the voice acting of Iratus himself. The necromancer speaks often during combat and while managing your town and minions. Iratus features some great voice lines, and the voice actor is extremely creepy and even funny. Stephan Weyte voices Iratus, who took the role of Caleb from the classic FPS Blood. If you played Blood, you know Weyte is excellent. Other than voice acting, I enjoy the overall art direction of Iratus, as well. The detail of each minion appears lovingly-crafted and thoughtful. Appropriately disheveled-looking enemies reflect the grimdark atmosphere. My only complaint as far as presentation goes is the music, which is a single song on a continuous loop.
Overall, Iratus offers a comprehensive package thus far, even in Early Access. With three different dungeon-like areas to navigate and truly brutal, difficult gameplay, there is a decent amount of content available for Iratus' Early Access launch. The strategy layer and meticulous planning of your party is a component I can't wait to experience more of. If you find the combat the most enjoyable part of games like Darkest Dungeon, Iratus will make you feel right at home. Unfrozen definitely appears to have a winning formula, so the future for Iratus looks bright.
TechRaptor previewed Iratus: Lord of Darkness on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. It launches on Steam's Early Access on July 24, 2019.