Risk of Rain Review
We're also looking at an early morning hail of heat-seeking missiles
Posted by David Will (Quill) on Dec 8, 2013 - 9:00pm EST (130 days ago)
I don't want to give those of you who read the Eldritch review an eerie sense of deja vu or anything, but honestly, somebody needs to point fingers at this trend in indie game development, and it might as well be me. It's truly fascinating to watch the roguelike being broken down, bit by bit, and re-purposed in whatever form people find possible. Aside from Eldritch, that plucky little stealth-em-up, there are now roguelike platformers, roguelike shooters, roguelike tactical RPGs, rhythm-action roguelikes (I'm dead serious) and presumably there's a Cooking Mama roguelike in the works somewhere out there too. Still, Risk of Rain is, if nothing else, an excellent demonstration of why this madcap dash to disembowel the roguelike happened in the first place: there are still plenty of jaunty angles left at which its eviscerated organs can be worn.
Erm. Let's move away from that mental image as briskly as possible. Like every indie game with a budget that couldn't cover a Happy Meal, Risk of Rain proudly wears the retro aesthetic, with everything that usually comes as standard with it – chirpy low-fi sound effects, a window resolution equivalent to pressing your face against a screen door and a set of sprites that even the laziest of Minecraft players could replicate – but nothing embraces that spirit like the storytelling. “Oh, you want a story?” the game sneers, insulted by your presumptuousness. “Fine. The big baddie made you crash-land on this alien planet. Everything here, and I mean everything, wants you dead. Find a way to get off here before I get bored and drown you in enemies.”
“Actually, you know what? I think I'll drown you in enemies anyway.”
Therein lies the main appeal, if you like, of Risk of Rain: the difficulty curve. Being dropped into a new game, rosy-cheeked and innocent, you'll quickly notice a meter in the top right, patronisingly labelled 'Very Easy'. This is the game's way of giving you a head start before it catches up to you and pounds you into the dirt. “Get moving,” the game says with a wicked glint in its eye, still evidently annoyed that you had the audacity to ask for a story. The difficulty quickly ramps up at an alarming rate regardless of how ready you are for it, so every level becomes a desperate struggle to find money, items and the exit teleporter before the game can kick things up another notch. Once you find one such teleporter, the game asks if you wouldn't mind holding off for a minute or so while it throws a boss battle at you, still spawning in enemies and raising the difficulty as it goes. Immensely stressful though it is, especially when you can't find the exit and the looming sense of being behind schedule begins to creep over you, I'm actually quite impressed. It's rare to see a game so steeped in mindless action take on the task of creating meaningful tension, and even more remarkable to find one that succeeds. It's the same satisfying sense of operating under pressure that characterised FTL, albeit with fewer sadistic random encounters. Fall behind and Risk of Rain will eat you alive. Challenging doesn't do it justice. This is challenging multiplied by hostile to the power of Dark Souls, and for a game like Risk of Rain I wouldn't have it any other way.
Being influenced by roguelikes means that randomness does drop into the equation somewhat, so that you can still be utterly brutalised by a bad run if Risk of Rain is feeling petty. Throughout the game you'll find chests and containers scattered around the place, filled with mystery items that augment your character by either occupying a usable item slot or choking up the bottom half of your screen with passive effects. To the game's credit, they all have their own imaginative effects, with their own little log entries that I ended up obsessively reading, and none of them ever feel useless to the point where you're disappointed that you invested time in finding them. Acquiring them over time and turning yourself into a one-man army also helps to replicate that trademark roguelike feel of having a character that grows in value and thus raises the stakes, something that Eldritch somewhat struggled with. Having said that, some items are definitely better than others depending on your chosen character and current situation, so it's quite possible to waste enough time on inefficient equipment to the point where you get obliterated by the end of the second level, regardless of how well you're playing. Also, while I like the exploration aspect and the omission of a mini-map, the randomised positions of your spawn point and the exit teleporter mean that it's a very real possibility for you to spend a frustrating five minutes or so bumbling around on the same level while the game gleefully cranks the difficulty all the way up to 'Treat Me Rough'. Really though, these are just an unfortunate consequence of combining randomised game elements with a semi-enforced time limit, and they were never a deal-breaker in my eyes.
The more perceptive among you are probably already raising an eyebrow as you skim the screenshots in the sidebar and re-read that last paragraph. Why all this talk of roguelike elements without any references to the level generation? Is it good? Is it bad? Can we expect to get stuck in an inescapable room on occasion? Well, prepare to raise your other eyebrow and possibly spit-take your warm milk, dearest reader, because Risk of Rain doesn't actually have randomly generated levels. Oh, it makes a few weak attempts to hide that fact, moving platforms around and plonking down an inconvenient wall here and there, but the structure of the levels remains stubbornly the same. I was certainly taken aback, since the tile-based construction seemed to cry out for such a purpose, and I always took it as read that you started a design document for a game with roguelike elements by writing 'randomly generated levels' in big letters in the centre of a whiteboard and working your way out from there. Perhaps this was part of efforts to combat the encroaching problems mentioned previously by at least letting players memorise the general level structure, but it's a tad disappointing nonetheless. At the very least, it would have provided an excuse for why the majority of the levels feel so featureless and empty, consisting as they do of same-y platforms that stretch to the horizon and bland terrain without any meaningful structure or direction.