Cloudy with a chance of being eviscerated
Roguelike elements have been steadily gaining popularity in the past few years, especially among independent developers. Titles like The Binding of Isaac, FTL: Faster Than Light, and Spelunky have taken the ideas of random level generation and short games usually ending in permanent character death, and applied them masterfully to each of their own gameplay genres.
Risk of Rain follows in those footsteps, applying the same roguelike mechanics to an exploration-based sidescrolling shooter. Like the aforementioned games, it can be brutal, with punishingly impossible scenarios and quick defeat for those who are not prepared. Unlike them, Risk of Rain suffers from a few technical issues that detract from what is otherwise a great experience.
Risk of Rain (PC)
Developer: Hopoo Games
Publisher: Chucklefish Games
Release: November 8, 2013
Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit
The basic premise behind Risk of Rain is simple: explore a randomly selected level, find the exit teleporter, fight off a huge wave of aliens, and then repeat until death inevitably shows up. Killing enemies along the way nets money and experience, the former of which can be used to purchase a random smattering of the hundred or so items available.
What throws a wrench into it all, and really sets the tone for the whole experience is a timer in the top right corner of the screen, constantly counting up. As time passes, the monsters that spawn become more powerful, able to take and deal more damage. The timer sets up a risk/reward scenario in which the player can be cautious and thorough, gaining as many items and as much experience as possible before taking on the boss and moving on, at the cost of having to face more formidable enemies.
The result is an environment that rewards a balance of exploration and speed, causing the player to be in a frenzy at all times. Even when no aliens are on screen and actively threatening murder, there is an aura of tenseness in knowing that dawdling too much will cause the eventual monster spawns to be insurmountable.
This all takes place in environments that are kind-of-sort-of randomly generated. The levels themselves are pre-built, with several possible levels available to be randomly selected for each stage. Within those randomly selected levels, the entrance, exit, item locations, and monster spawns are all randomized, so no two plays on any given level are identical, and runs can vary widely in which levels are selected.
Somewhat ironically, the constant variation makes individual runs with a given character feel quite similar to one another. Since the player can never know where exactly to go, it is always a frantic search that can be fraught with the bad luck of having chosen to explore in the wrong direction, or the fortune of stumbling upon the teleporter early.
Though each run with a given character feels similar to previous runs with that character, gameplay changes drastically depending on which character is in play. The default is a Commando, who is highly mobile and has good range on his attacks, but can typically only affect one enemy at a time. In contrast, the Enforcer is much slower and focuses on crowd control, able to knock aliens back and attack with a small area of effect. In total, there are ten different classes to choose from, but only after unlocking each.
Slightly irritatingly, Risk of Rain is not very clear on exactly how one unlocks additional classes, or really, how to do anything. There is basically no hand-holding; players are given the one instruction to "find the teleporter" without any indication for what it looks like, which direction it may be in, or the small detail that an enormous boss will show up once said teleporter is found. That's not to mention the completely hidden mechanics governing the Left 4 Dead-esque AI director, which must be discovered through repeated play. The lack of transparency is not gamebreaking, but it could be a turn-off for some who prefer more help getting started.
More obnoxious are the various technical issues that haunt Risk of Rain. Right off the bat, watching the opening cutscene to its completion causes an audio glitch that has a siren blaring nonstop until the player dies. An immersion-breaking framerate indicator is always on the bottom right part of the HUD. The "fullscreen" mode does nothing except add a solid black border around the game window without resizing it at all.
Most egregious are the default controls. The keyboard layout does not suit the frantic gameplay; I often found myself hitting the wrong button and activating the wrong ability at the wrong time, turning what would have been a life-saving maneuver into an exercise in frustration as I took a beating and waited for a cooldown. Native gamepad support is included, but binding movement to the D-pad on an Xbox 360 controller causes a lot of missed ladders and non-movement as the game ignores diagonal input.
Risk of Rain includes online multiplayer for up to four players, or local multiplayer for two. In some ways, the multiplayer is easier, increasing base firepower right from the beginning. As the game progresses, it becomes even more difficult, as neither experience nor items are shared between players. As with the single player, once a character is dead, he's out for good. So while playing with friends is potentially more entertaining than going it alone, sitting and waiting while your friends have all the fun is not quite so good.
Graphically, Risk of Rain delivers above average pixel art, although the tiny player models take some getting used to. The aliens are the real stars, and they are well drawn and animated. The sound design is excellent, with the soundtrack portraying the antagonistic alien worlds fantastically. During one emergent instance, I was killed and thrown off a tall tower, falling several screens just as a musical crescendo hit, creating an incredibly dramatic scene that I will remember for a long time.
All things considered, Risk of Rain is a lot of fun. Though it is held back by its technical faults (which can be reasonably expected from a project created by two students), it has the right stuff to elicit the "just one more run" response that roguelike games are known for. With a little more polish, it could be truly great, but as it is now, it's still totally worth checking out.
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