the artistry and psychology of gaming


Risk of Rain

Risk of Rain

The Good:
+ Wildly frenetic combat is full of satisfying destruction and rewards
+ Unlockable characters offer significantly different play styles
+ Impressively fair and balanced for a roguelike
+ Co-op multiplayer is a pleasant surprise

The Bad:
– Not enough content to remain fresh after multiple playthroughs
– Pixelated visuals disrupt the gameplay in multiple ways
– Barebones narrative is a missed opportunity

I can’t say with certainty what started the recent mini-boom of modern indie roguelikes; perhaps Spelunky was simply a lot more popular and influential than I realized. But one thing’s for sure: I’m damn grateful for it. In addition to spawning a handful of classic titles, the trend proved to be a massive well of untapped genre combinations, from Rogue Legacy’s use of Metroidvania-style progression to Don’t Starve’s twisted take on Harvest Moon gameplay. One of the most recent games to appear under the roguelike banner, Risk of Rain, introduces it to a Contra-style action platformer, creating what is easily the fastest-paced entry in the genre, and one of the most chaotic games I’ve ever played.

It starts out simple enough: as the lone survivor of a starship crash on a hostile alien planet, you must scour the surface for lost items to help you survive against increasingly powerful wildlife, while finding the teleporter that will take you to the next area, and eventually back to your ship. It’s the “increasingly powerful” part that makes things interesting. Risk of Rain’s most notable feature is a persistent timer that tracks how long you’ve been alive, and periodically increases the difficulty accordingly. But it doesn’t just increase enemy health. New enemy types and variations of old ones with new abilities appear with time, and most crucially, the rate at which they spawn increases. This guarantees that after a few minutes in each level, your foes will be so powerful and frequent that you simply cannot destroy them all before the next wave arrives. Reducing, healing, and avoiding damage become paramount at this point, even though that last one can feel all but impossible since most enemies can match your speed. But you can’t simply ignore the enemies, since you need the money and experience they drop if you hope to have any chance down the line.

What grows from this is a game where spamming every weapon you’ve got while keeping as much space as possible between you and the alien horde is not only an art form, but the art form that you will need to master if you hope to progress. I’d call it twitch gameplay, but “seizure gameplay” seems more appropriate. And it’s not just your enemies that contribute to it; many of the upgrades you’ll discover add additional offensive capabilities to your arsenal, from a trail of fire behind your feet, to mortars that launch with every fifth shot, to self-sufficient mechanical drones that fire on targets even when you can’t. If you were to just watch the gameplay, you might assume it’s a skill-less mess of constant explosions. But to play it is an intense experience demanding timing, speed, and practice. It’s almost addictively satisfying, and not just because of the eventual triumph over immense challenge, but because the moment-to-moment play is so visceral; launching crackling barrages of ammunition feels like controlling a spirited fireworks display that occasionally rains gold down into your hands.

You're in there somewhere.

Despite the focus on action, Risk of Rain strays much closer to the roguelike’s RPG roots than its modern peers, with the exception of Rogue Legacy. For one thing, its gameplay is dominated by flashy damage counters and chance percentages. More to the heart of the RPG, however, is the game’s focus on character classes. Throughout the game, you’ll unlock 10 classes, all with drastically different play styles mandated by their four unique attacks. There’s a character that relies on a heavy shield to nullify damage, a character that specializes in inflicting damage-over-time status effects, and a character that can augment its offensive power with turrets and mines, just to name a few. It’s remarkable how different each character feels, especially since the number of support abilities (i.e. abilities that don’t cause damage) for each class has been kept to a minimum. This means there’s likely at least one character who fits your own style, even if you find yourself getting crushed using the early options, and it also means there’s plenty of variety for curious players who want to try everything.

It’s a good thing there’s variety in the characters, because the novelty drains away from the rest of the game pretty quickly. It’s not that there’s a smaller amount of content compared other modern roguelikes (there are 100 items, some of which need to be unlocked). It’s just that the pace at which you collect them is much faster than we’re used to, so you’ll burn through most of what the game has to show after only a few hours. Repetition is the bane of the roguelike – the common flaw that will probably prevent any member of the genre from being perfect – and that hasn’t changed here. On the plus side, at least you’re likely to experience most of the game’s content regardless of your level of investment (contrast Spelunky, which has huge chunks of the game walled off to me because I’m so damn bad at it). However, you’ll start to pick up duplicate items after only one level, and it’s entirely possible to collect every item the game offers in a single playthrough, which severely dampens the thrill of discovery on subsequent runs.

See those items at the bottom? It takes less than an hour to accumulate that many.

Part of this lack of longevity may be due to the game’s curious decision to not use randomized level layouts. While items are scattered randomly, and enemies just spawn wherever they want, levels are simply picked from a small pool of variants each time. Fair enough; another common flaw in roguelikes is their inability to feature deliberate level designs, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about the hardcoded level designs in Risk of Rain that justifies their use. The game’s nearly nonexistent story is another odd decision. It consists of an opening cinematic and a weightless finale that plays with such sobriety that you expect it to carry some deep meaning that just isn’t there. The otherwise well-written, often darkly humourous item and monster logs make this void infuriating, because they’re full of intrigue regarding the nature of the planet and its inhabitants, and long paragraphs detailing dozens of events that have nothing to do with the plot, which is given a couple of sentences, at most.

Of course, roguelikes are known for having a structure that’s generally unsuitable for storytelling, but I think this particular instance bothers me partially because Risk of Rain is so adept at quelling that other flaw roguelikes are known for: chance-based difficulty. The solution here is simple: only positive elements are randomly generated, while negative ones are constant. The most catastrophic thing that can happen is that the game will select a boss monster that you don’t like fighting as much as the others. It’s possible this contributes to the game’s insubstantial feel, but compared to the frustration of minibosses pretending to be shops in The Binding of Isaac, I’ll take the insubstantiality. This setup works both ways, too; while some items and object placements are undeniably better than others, there are no combinations that make the game an instant win, since, as previously mentioned, the items are designed to be horded and stacked. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the better ways I’ve seen of diminishing the pain of failure in this unforgiving genre.

The other big surprise to be found in Risk of Rain is its excellent co-op multiplayer. It’s nothing groundbreaking – it’s basically the single-player game with up to four people – but as in the run-and-gun platformers that inspired it, blasting hordes of aliens is just more fun with extra people. The difficulty is a little skewed toward single-player, however; even though you must share items in co-op, the ability to divide the enemy swarms between players is much more useful than any item. That said, the way multiplayer facilitates using different classes’ abilities in tandem adds hours of depth to the game. As a final positive point, I need to mention the game’s wonderful soundtrack, which is full of eerie, warbling keyboards, muted electronic beats, and (for boss battles) harsh guitars. It’s basically the essence of science fiction distilled into musical form, but it’s also catchy, detailed, and way more technically complex than game music normally gets. You could argue that mellow electronica doesn’t suit a game about frenetic carnage, but it perfectly captures the feeling of exploring an alien planet, and it helps convey the otherwise unsubstantiated story idea that the setting is actually peaceful and beautiful when humans aren’t around.

And then humans are around, and it becomes a conga line of pain.

I do have other, less significant issues with the game, however. The graphics are the first that come to mind. I love pixel art as much as any veteran gamer, but the pixel art in Risk of Rain was a very poor choice. There’s simply too much happening onscreen at any given moment, and it’s easy to lose your sprite in the action because nothing has clearly defined borders. Furthermore, certain level palettes are terrible at conveying what is and isn’t a platform. I also can’t think of any reason for the game to use a deliberate retro style; it’s not similar enough to any particular game or art style to elicit nostalgia, and it’s not even particularly attractive in this case. I’m also not a fan of the zoomed-out camera position and impotent jumping physics, which, while presumably intended to make the world feel large, only make the player feel small (which I only just learned, from Risk of Rain, are not the same thing). Finally, this is a game with a lot of repeating sound effects, and while they sound fine at first, you will tire of them after you’ve heard them literally hundreds of times…which only takes about an hour.

But, like I said, these are relatively insignificant issues. Sound effects and graphics are merely footnotes to Risk of Rain’s intense, absorbing gameplay. If you’ve been looking for a game that will induce “one more turn” syndrome in you, this is it. It’s not the most sophisticated or attractive game, but it will keep you playing even after you’ve seen everything it has, simply because playing it is so much fun. It’s got a brutal but well-planned difficulty curve, an original concept built from familiar parts, and a solid multiplayer mode in a genre that usually doesn’t even bother with such things. Trust me, it’s worth the risk.

Score: 7/10

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