A ship crash-lands on a mysterious planet, and an explorer crawls from the wreckage. There are vast tundras, staggering mountains, and dried lakes that go on forever, splitting the land like a scar. It is all so very big, and the explorer is so very small – and he is not alone. All around him, the wildlife and natives of the planet react to his presence. They react with gnashing fang, acid spit, and even stranger things. The explorer has only a single life to live, but the monsters are never ending. And they are growing stronger every minute.
Harkening back to the day of the 8 and 16-bit platformer, Risk of Rain
is deliberately inscrutable roguelike that relishes in its masochistic difficulty curve. Skipping any kind of pretense of a tutorial or any of the modern hand-holding gamers have come to expect, your little spaceman is dropped into a random, semi-procedurally generated map with little more than the vague instructions to "Find the Teleporter" to go on. Vicious monsters begin to spawn almost immediately and it doesn't take long to realize how hopelessly outmatched your little guy is, and it only gets worse from there.
If you've played games like The Binding of Isaac
, and Teleglitch
, you'll probably be familiar with the general set-up. Risk of Rain is a perma-death roguelike where you have only a single chance to make your way through the game with each playthrough. You explore some semi-randomized maps (while enemies, treasure chests, and the location of the exit, are constantly changing, each map generally features the same layout with minimal variation), and of course, fight some of the most frustratingly deadly and unfair monsters you've ever seen in a videogame.
The central conceit of Risk of Rain
, and what makes it stand out from the pack of other recently released roguelikes, is the timer. A large clock in the top right of the screen mercilessly ticks upwards with every second. The longer you take, the more frequently the monsters spawn, and the stronger they grow. Every five minutes, a bell marks the passing into a higher level of difficulty, starting at "Very Easy" and eventually tipping into the realm of "Impossible" and "HAHAHAHAHA." If you haven't been efficient at collecting upgrades and items, you may soon find yourself surrounded on all sides by monsters you don't have a prayer of defeating. The mission quickly turns from "how far can I get?" to "how long can I survive!?"
There is an incredible sense of urgency packed into every second of RoR
because of that timer. Every choice and action becomes crucial. What way do you explore after spawning? Should you stay in this area and try to clear out enough monsters to earn enough gold to open another chest, or just book it while you can? While you only take miniscule fall damage, you'll be cursing yourself each time a missed jump forces you to reclimb a ladder, burning precious seconds. RoR
is not a relaxing game, it's a pressure cooker.
As you might be familiar from games like The Binding of Isaac
features a plethora of items to be found. Most of these apply some kind of passive bonus to the character like a better chance for critical hits, a bonus to regenerating health, or a small demon in a jar that might cause enemies to explode when you kill them, you know, standard stuff. Others occupy the fifth slot in your inventory to be activated at will, usually with a tremendous cool down period before you can use it again. These are your typical screen-clearing bombs and the like, as well as more esoteric (and deceptively powerful) options like a Repair Kit that will instantly fix up any drones on the screen.
And much like Isaac
, part of the fun of the game is watching the strange transformation these items will wreak upon your tiny spaceman. You start as a small blip of pixels, a little speck that seems hopelessly outmatched by the towering wildlife and monstrous aliens after your blood. But all of that can change with a few lucky item drops. Wreathed in barbed wire, encircled by a fleet of drones, randomly spewing missiles, summoning poltergeists, and leaving a trail of fire at your boots, you may not even recognize your little explorer by the time you reach the final stage.
More items are unlocked as you play by passing certain milestones or achievements. While each run is a self-contained perma-death affair, there is a certain sense of progression as you open up new and better options for pick-ups. The requirements for unlocking some of these items can be vague, but you should naturally stumble upon plenty of them over the course of normal gameplay.
- Of course I'm going to play as the robotic janitor. Was there ever any doubt?
Much like the items, there are additional character classes to unlock. While you start with only the standard Commando in his adorable bubble-dome, it doesn't take long to expand the selection. Characters are unlocked through either progression based achievements (killing bosses, getting into further levels, etc) or by finding them hidden in the game. While the idea of finding the characters in the wild is fun, in practice it becomes a frustrating luck-based affair. Even if you know where and on what level a certain character is supposed to be hanging out, there is no guarantee they'll be there in any particular playthrough. This is especially aggravating when the character you want to unlock is hidden in the last level of the game.
Each character naturally promotes a unique style of play with their skills. The Commando is balanced around various attacks that root him to the ground, but can stun or herd the enemy, and his get-out-of-jail-free dolphin dive – knowing when to dig in and when to GTFO is key. The Mercenary and Miner feature agile fast moving attacks that double as dodging manoeuvres, encouraging you to keep it hopping. The mechanical HAN-D robot on the other hand has a suite of moves designed to keep him in the thick of battle. An Overclock boost increases his speed and power and can be extended by pounding multiple enemies. His brawling prowess is complemented by an array of seeker drones that can autonomously fly off and leech back health from the enemy while he fights, and so on. Learning how to best utilize each character's tools and abilities is essential if you hope to weather the storm.
Multiplayer gives the individual characters a little more room to breathe and express themselves. Some of the more idiosyncratic classes that I thought were a bit lacklustre in single player came into their own when the team was able to split the attention of the monsters. Instead of being hopelessly on the run, the Sniper was able to focus on the big game and make the most of those charged critical hits, while the lumbering Enforcer was better able to find a solid defensive position and work on crowd control when he wasn't the only one on the field.
I was worried that adding more players to the recipe would spoil the difficulty of the game. This is definitely not the case. While the extra firepower and the ability to split up and search for the exit certainly makes the early stages easier, having to share the loot and gold among 2-4 people means none of you will become the fearsome blackhole of alien destruction you might be used when hogging every trinket for yourself. By the final stages, splitting up the group will be a fond memory, and you'll need to work together as best you can to manage the laughably unfair hordes of nearly invulnerable monsters.
While playing with random strangers results in the typical mad scramble of greed you might be used to in something like Borderlands
– where every player jumps on every item they can in a micro-demonstration of the Tragedy of the Commons – playing with a coordinated group raises the game to the next level. When you can actually coordinate who gets what items based on what they need or what would be most useful for a particular cast member, you can cultivate a truly spectacular team. Multiplayer goes from being a fun diversion, to feeling like it's the way the game is MEANT to be played.
Which is why it's such a shame that it is absolutely broken.
- Oh wow... just... wow.
Connecting to an online game in Risk of Rain
gave me some wonderful flashbacks of the late-90's. Eschewing any kind of server browser or quick-game connection UI, Risk of Rain
expects you to manually input the IP and port number of your host. I haven't texted somebody an IP address in nearly a decade, and while the nostalgia trip was nice, it is a decidedly horrible way to run a multiplayer game.
Thankfully there are 3rdparty server lists and chats dedicated to bringing RoR
players together, but it is an incredibly shoddy work around for an incredibly shoddy set-up. Sadly, even once you jump through all the hoops necessary to connect to a game, you may not be in for a good experience. Lag and de-syncing was a common problem in the games I played, sometimes resulting in players unable to pick up items or interact with the teleporter. Needless to say, they didn't last long. Multiple 4-man crews quickly dwindled into power-duos, or left me flying solo mere minutes after starting.
It is an unbelievable shame that RoR's
multiplayer is hamstrung in such a fundamental way. When I was able to find a match and everything worked, it was some of the best co-op I've played this year. It taps directly into the same impulses that made games like L4D
and Gears of Wars
Horde mode abiding favourites with my friends for years. Sadly, I don't think I'll be able to convince many people that putting up with all the frustration of getting a match together is worth it for RoR
. I know Hopoo Games is a small group, but this was a real missed opportunity that could have taken their game from a being a fun little title to something great.
is a sad game. It deals in desperation, in hopelessness. Rendered in a gorgeous faux-retro pixel-art style, everything in RoR
dwarfs the player. The music, brilliantly composed by Chris Christodoulou, is tense, haunting, and worth the price of admission on its own.
is intentionally light on story, the background of the game is slowly filled in through the shipping details of the items you scavenge throughout the game and a journal detailing the monsters and wildlife you encounter. Many of these little descriptions were surprisingly wistful or tragic, and by the time you've collected the last monster log, you'll probably start to feel like maybe you were the jerk in this situation. It isn't a big thing, you could certainly go through the entire game and enjoy it without ever peeking into any of the superfluous detail. But it's the kind of subtle world-building I appreciate. The developers didn't want to make just another masochistically difficult roguelike, they wanted to convey a message, or at least express an emotion.
That feeling helps carry the game. Risk of Rain
isn't as smooth as something like Isaac
. There's more technical jank, items spawning in unreachable areas, containers floating off the ground, and the gameplay isn't as balanced or fair. Where part of the skill of Isaac
is being able to roll with the punches and succeed despite bad luck, there were definitely times in RoR
where I felt failure was out of my control. The game refused to drop any decent items, kept spawning the worst type of enemy for my character, and it was inevitable that I'd be eventually drowned to death by the timer.
But that spooky feeling. The way the world looks, the music that stayed with me after I left the keyboard, it kept me coming back for more.
Risk of Rain
might not be the most polished roguelike to hit the market in the last few years, but it has a charm all to its own. If you like a little tinge of sadness with your maso-core experience, Risk of Rain
is the title you've been waiting for.
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