Sometimes, it’s good to be the bad guy. I think my first experience with playing as “the big bad” was 1997’s Dungeon Keeper. In it, you play as an evil overlord directing your minions to build underground lairs with traps set to kill interloping do-gooders. It flipped the script on dungeon crawling games in an extremely satisfying way. I don’t think I’ve come close to getting quite the same evil thrill I had with the original Dungeon Keeper until I played Iratus: Wrath of the Necromancer.
It’s a thrill I almost didn’t get. Released last year, I completely missed rogue-lite role-playing game Iratus: Lord of the Dead. I regret that. It takes Darkest Dungeon’s formula and flips it on its head. Instead of playing as a group of adventurers at the mercy of terrible creatures, you get to play as the terrible creatures. You don’t have to worry about your characters going insane, either—but as necromancer Iratus, you can command your minions to drain the sanity of your enemies as you fight your way to the surface while rebuilding your undead empire.
In Iratus: Lord of the Dead you play as the titular necromancer. Iratus was imprisoned for a thousand years until a group of hapless miners uncovered his tomb and gave their bodies in service of his undead army–unwillingly, of course. Your goal as Iratus is to fight your way through five subterranean areas, full of a diverse range of foes that will try to keep your evil at bay. Meanwhile, you will be constructing an underground lair to support your push to the surface.
Iratus: Lord of the Dead looks and feels like Darkest Dungeon in a lot of ways. But unlike Darkest Dungeon, where every party member is vital, Iratus: Lord of the Dead allows you to create an entire army of undead to send against your enemies. It doesn’t mean resources are abundant, but it doesn’t have the same feeling of hopelessness that permeates Darkest Dungeon. In fact, aside from the lingering threat of difficulty spikes, Iratus: Lord of the Dead can feel manageable if played smartly—and not so much at the mercy of a random number generator as similar roguelikes—though luck certainly plays a factor.
In Iratus: Lord of the Dead you engage in turn-based combat, carving your way upwards, while building a base down below. There are more systems in Iratus than I was expecting, but none of them are overly complicated. The graveyard consists of a number of structures that can be constructed by assigning a minion to them. Every constructed building bestows a buff or another bonus, and can be upgraded as you play. The chamber of Iratus allows you to do a number of things like plan battles, create minions, and equip Iratus with artifacts that can buff minions and damage enemies. If you have the Wrath of the Necromancer DLC, this is also where you create potions.
As you can see, there is a lot to Iratus: Lord of the Dead—but none of it feels like bloat. Instead, it makes the game feel different than what you would expect in a roguelike—and it certainly makes it easier. Iratus: Lord of the Dead does have four difficulty modes, with the hardest only unlocked after beating the ”Good always Wins” difficulty. The two easier difficulty modes are very easy, and make Iratus feel less like a roguelike, and more like a traditional dungeon crawl. It doesn’t really start to feel like a proper, punishing roguelike until you play at the “Good Always Wins” difficulty.
The meat of Iratus: Lord of the Dead are its battles. They are turn-based, and positioning matters. You can take up to four minions into battle, and there are a lot to choose from—18 after you unlock them all, or 21 if you own the Wrath of the Necromancer DLC and supporter pack. Minions can attack with different damage types, buff allies, or debuff their enemies. There are so many different types to go over, it would be hard to cover them all in limited space. I did find most of them had good utility, and I can only think of a couple of minions that I avoided using.
One of the most fun aspects of Iratus: Lord of the Dead is the different damage types. You can do physical damage, magic damage, or drain your enemy’s sanity. Reducing a health bar to zero is the obvious way to kill an enemy, but I started to adopt a playstyle that favored sanity reduction. If you drain your enemy’s sanity, any further sanity loss can lead to their instant death. I heavily leaned on enemies that drained sanity, and then found other great synergy with minion types that can do physical or magic damage based on that drained sanity. It’s incredible fun. Of course, there are multiple enemy types, and even constructs that don’t have a sanity meter at all—and can only be taken down by depleting their health. But with most minions able to deal multiple types of damage, few were so niche as to be useless.
Enemies are varied, too—and once you start getting used to the encounters, you’ll know what types of minions to send in to counter them. You can have four groups of four minions ready to go at any point—so if you lose an entire group, you game isn’t over. If a minion dies, you can always make more–the bodies of your enemies will sustain your ranks.
As you kill your foes, you’ll start accumulating body parts—these are the pieces that make your minions. Back in your underground lair, you can assemble these parts to make different types of minions, as you assemble them out of armor, bones, ectoplasm, flesh and more. You can even find higher quality body parts that you can use to assemble new minions, or swap into existing ones. Minions level up too, and you can distribute attributes and talent points amongst them. If you find yourself running out of higher level minions, just find a higher level brain and slap that into a low-level minion, instantly making them that level. Gathering minions of different types feels a little bit like a deckbuilder—except what cards you can have are based on the parts you have at hand.
As a roguelike, Iratus: Lord of the Dead is a long game. Everything I’ve discussed is what you’ll experience and interact with in ONE RUN. Runs aren’t over in minutes or even a few hours—most of my playtime has been in a single run to the exit. Battles don’t take particularly long, but there is so much to do, and floors are all so big, it takes a while to work through. I found this strangely refreshing from the normal rogue-lite formula.
The DLC adds even more to the mix. Just recently released was Wrath of the Necromancer DLC which adds a fair amount of content to the base game. There are two new minions, additional minion skins, new enemy types and bosses, and a new final floor—the cemetery. The final floor adds more length to an already long game, but, again, it’s more of what I was already enjoying so I don’t mind it. The two minions are a bit of a disappointment, however. I was hoping the abomination would be more of a melee powerhouse, but it excels at buffing allies and debuffing enemies instead. That’s a good role to fill, but I was hoping for something more monstrous—at least he can swallow enemies whole under the right circumstances. The reaper is mostly about dealing damage, both physical and magic, and feels like it had little utility otherwise. I might not be using the reaper to its full potential, but that’s a minion I usually pass over in favor of other more interesting minions.
Iratus: Lord of the Dead is a surprise. I really like what it is. I saw some early reviews mention how it feels incomplete—and if that was the case before, it’s definitely not the case now. Wrath of the Necromancer adds more of what I already liked, even though its two new minions aren’t that impressive. But I really enjoyed my time with Iratus: Lord of the Dead, and will probably return to try to complete it on its highest difficulty.
Iratus: Lord of the Dead and DLC Wrath of the Necromancer are available now on Steam.
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