Review by Matt C.
The roguelike genre, in its modern, post-Spelunky incarnation, has achieved something remarkable: taking the epic journey from a first level peon armed with a blunt wooden sword to a big, badass warrior decked out in the most inconceivably flashy armour, and distilling that down into play sessions typically lasting only an hour or two. Risk of Rain, from Hoopo Games, does this perhaps better than any other game; you’ll start with nothing, reach becoming seemingly unstoppable within an hour, and then get overwhelmed, only to do it all over again. And again. And again.
Related reading: Game Theory; on what the roguelike means to the human condition.
In Risk of Rain, you play as a nameless survivor who finds themselves stranded on a hostile alien planet after a transport ship gets attacked. To escape, you have to travel through all manner of dangerous environments, from the fiery Magma Barracks to the Sky Meadow, which could almost feel peaceful if it weren’t for all the things trying to kill you. Should you make it back to the ship in one piece, you’re free to escape – just as soon as you beat Providence, the godlike being who brought down the ship in the first place.
Fortunately, you’ll most likely have some godlike powers of your own by this stage to put you on even footing with Providence. As you explore the planet, you’ll collect items that all contribute to making you a walking death machine. Some of these are pretty simple, like the Lens Maker’s Glasses, which give your attacks the ability to critically hit, or the Bitter Root, which increases your health. Others are much more creative, like the Happiest Mask, which spawns a friendly ghost each time you kill a foe, or The Ol’ Lopper, which guarantees critical hits against enemies on low health.
Individually, none of these items is particularly powerful, but thanks to the lack of restrictions on how much you can carry, there’s a cumulative effect. Stay alive long enough, and you’ll be doing bonus damage to full-health enemies, critically hitting low-health enemies, applying damage over time effects with every hit, restoring your own health with every hit, causing enemies to explode upon death, leaving a trail of fire behind you as you walk, hurting enemies that get too close… like I said, a walking death machine.
You’d do well to not get cocky, though, because all the time you’re getting stronger, so are the things you’re fighting. Aside from the standard progression from weak, easy-to-kill creatures in the early levels to more powerful ones later on, the overall game difficulty increases over time. Each game starts in Very Easy, where things die easily and don’t really hurt you all the much, but as you play, a difficulty gauge in the corner of the screen fills up. When enough time has passed, it’ll move into Easy, and then Medium, Hard, Very Hard, and so on, all the way up to “COME GET SOME!”. With each jump, enemies become stronger and more plentiful, so no matter how powerful you become, you can’t ever rest on your laurels.
This is the genius of Risk of Rain. Gathering items and becoming all-powerful takes time, but that time lets the world become more threatening. Do you try and rush through the game as quickly as possible, so you can get to Providence while he’s only on Hard, at the cost of amassing a huge set of buffs? Or do you go for maximum power, and hope that this is enough to defeat Providence when he has COME GET SOME! difficulty behind him?
Some of that decision-making will fall to how lucky you get with randomised item drops, but it also comes down to your skill with your chosen survivor. Only the Commando is available initially, but completing certain objectives will unlock others, like the Bandit (my personal favourite), the Sniper, and the Chef. Each character has a unique set of moves, and playing to your survivor’s strengths will help your chances almost as much as the items you collect. With the Bandit, it’s all about being aware of enemy health bars so you can maximise damage output with Lights Out, a move that resets all cooldown timers to 0 if it kills an enemy. The Engineer’s focus is on placing mines and turrets for maximum impact, and the Sniper is all about lining up powerful charged shots.
Related reading: Another thematically strong 2D roguelike on the PS4 worth considering is Abyss Odyssey. Matt's full review.
The unlocking of additional survivors ties into a metagame that creates a sense of overall progress beyond individual runs. There are 50 or so challenges to complete, spanning everything from killing a set number of foes in one playthrough to dealing surviving in lava for a minute straight. Upon completion, each challenge either unlocks a new character, or adds another item to the loot table for future runs. Of course, the best items are locked behind the most difficult challenges, which couples with the pick-up-and-play nature of the game to really drive that “just one more try!” itch.
There’s a co-op mode, if that’s your thing, but I personally found the single player mode to be Risk of Rain at its best, because solitude is such a key thematic component to the game. It’s the familiar story of a lone hero, faced with impossible odds, and being forced to adapt to survive. It’s David and Goliath, it’s Samus Aran on planet Zebes, it’s Rambo. Beautiful yet desolate landscapes sell the idea of isolation, especially with how little screen space your survivor actually takes up. You’re tiny, a few pixels high, facing a huge planet filled with massive creatures.
Risk of Rain makes an effort to critique the one-man-army story, by tossing around the idea that maybe, just maybe, the survivor isn’t the hero we assume them to be. It’s not the most nuanced criticism, but it’s still an important one, and the element of solitude is a key component of that.
By all means, play co-op (offline, if you can – I had a lot of lag issues online). It’s a clever, expertly-designed game that works just as well with buddies as it does alone. But if you want to experience the full richness of the story that’s tucked away, play Risk of Rain alone. Let yourself get lost in the atmosphere. Start with nothing, become a god, then ask yourself – did I do the right thing?
- Matt C.