It’s a situation we’ve all found ourselves in some point of our lives. The space-truck you’ve grabbed a cheap ride on crashes on an alien planet. As the only survivor crawling out of the escape pod, you now need to shoot, claw and blow up your way back to the wreckage of the truck in hope of escaping this surprisingly hostile planet. Some call it an adventure, but I call it a playthrough of the best indie roguelike since Binding of Isaac, Risk of Rain.
The first thing that one must mention about Risk of Rain are the aesthetics. The low-res pixel art style is something many indie games do with varying levels of success, but Risk of Rain manages to pull it off gloriously. The game simply looks gorgeous. Monster design and animations are excellent, my personal favorite being the iconic Rock Golems, lumbering stone beasts who try to crush you between their enormous hands. For being an intensely action-packed title, the game manages to also have a surprisingly harrowing and somber atmosphere. The excellent soundtrack consists of ethereal synth melodies, which combined with the washed out color palette of the game, create an image of a beautiful yet strange and alien planet, seemingly trapped in an eternal twilight. The little bits of story exposed through monster descriptions tell an oddly sad tale of a land being violently ravaged by an outsider invader, the player.
At its core, Risk of Rain is a 2D platform shooter that takes considerable hints from the previously mentioned masterpiece Binding of Isaac. You start off as a considerable weakling, but as you fight through the stages, you gather up randomized loot that increases your ass-kicking power. If you die, it’s game over, and you need to start all over again. There are ten character classes available, nine of which are locked at when starting the game for the first time. Like in Binding of Isaac, additional characters are unlocked by performing certain feats ingame, such as beating a special boss. Each character has four different abilities, one of which is a basic attack and the rest three being special moves with varying cooldowns. You will be watching those cooldowns very closely, since the game is rock hard right from the beginning. Simply surviving the very first level requires you to constantly use all your abilities just to scrape by. Enemies spawn out of thin air or burst up from the ground all around you, and each one of them is out to smash, bite or electrocute you to the sweet embrace of death. Combat in Risk of Rain is a constant and intense affair. Dodging enemy attacks, while simultaneously trying to dispatch them in the game’s multi-tiered platforming environments, creates challenging gameplay scenarios which require a good amount of skill and dexterity to pull off. Learning the enemy attack patterns and using the geometry of the levels to your advantage are paramount.
In order to progress, you need to find a teleporter placed somewhere on the level. Activating the teleporter starts a countdown, during which the enemy spawn rate is massively increased and a huge boss monster appears for you to deal with. Once the countdown is over, you need to mop up all remaining monsters on the level, after which you can continue on to the next level. The levels you progress through are not randomly generated, but instead there is a set of base areas, and each of these areas has a handful of slightly different configurations, while still retaining the rough basic layout. I feel that this is a pretty good tradeoff between offering variety and making the levels easy to navigate. Crafting good 2D platforming spaces that create interesting gameplay scenarios is not an easy feat on it’s own, and generating them procedurally is a quite enormous programming challenge. A playthrough consists of first beating four levels, after which you are given the choice of either redoing areas for more loot and experience, or moving on to the fifth and last area.
The ten different character classes are delightfully varied. Each one has an unique playstyle defined by their abilities and stats. As such, each character requires different item buildups to minimize their weaknesses while maximizing their strenghts. The game has a bit over hundred different items for the player to pick up, most of which offer passive buffs like attack speed or health regeneration. In addition, there are a handful of items with activatable abilities, of which you can carry only one at a time. In contrast to Binding of Isaac, the items in Risk of Rain do not usually drastically change the playstyle of a character. Instead, the items tend to enhance the intrinsic abilities of the character. As anyone who has played Binding of Isaac knows, getting good items that work together well is a bit of a crapshoot, and its easy to end up with a completely invalid build. Risk of Rain counters this by giving the player more power over the items they pick up. While most of the item drops are random, you are very often given the choice of one between several items, making the possibility of planning your character build more viable. For example, the Commando class has an excellent attack speed, and therefore benefits more from chance-on-hit items than the Engineer, who spends most of his time running around laying mines and dropping sentry guns.
There is one catch to all of this however. In Binding of Isaac, it is typical to slowly and methodologically clear the levels, minmaxing your resource usage and backtracking your way through levels in order to squeeze out every last bit of advantage before descending to the next level. This is a privilege Risk of Rain doesn’t provide. Time, like everything else on the planet, is out to screw you up. When starting a run, the game’s difficulty level is set to Very Easy. However, every few minutes this difficulty is bumped up a notch, from Very Easy to Easy, then Medium, all the way up to the ominously named HAHAHAHAHA. Each bump of difficulty increases the enemy spawn rate, health and damage. You also start to get more elite varieties of the enemies, which sport an even higher health pools and damage, in addition to having special abilities such as poisoning you or teleporting around. And if this isn’t enough, at certain point boss monsters start to spawn randomly with normal enemies, making your survival even more unlikely. The teleporter events are truly terrifying at higher difficulties, when hundreds of enemies flood the level.
This timer element is a key feature of the game, and the one that makes it so intense. You need to constantly make progress at a breakneck pace and pick up items in order to surf the wave of insanity the game throws at you. Loiter too long, and you’ll succumb. Picking up items isn’t that straightforward either, since in order to grab the loot, you need to pay increasing amounts of money, which is gained by killing monsters. Carefully grinding up the cash you need to unlock each loot box in the level at your leisure before activating the teleport event is simply not an option, since being left behind on the difficulty curve will very quickly foil your chances of beating the game. Running against the clock is the central risk-versus-reward hook of the game. Will you go opening that one last treasure box in the other end of the level, even if it’ll cost you several minutes? Will you redo more levels after the fourth one instead of going for the last one? Tooling up for the last level is important, but how much is enough?
Admittedly, there is one design flaw with the timer system. After the HAHAHAHA difficulty level, which kicks in at around 40 minutes, only thing that increases with time is the enemy health. Since it’s possible to redo the levels over and over again, you can farm on for hours, eventually reaching a critical point where it’s practically impossible for you to die. This is referred to as godmode in the game’s community, and it’s universally recognized as breaking the game’s balance. Reaching godmode is by no means a simple feat, and it usually requires a very long session, clocking several times the amount of time a typical run will take. There are hopes in the community that the developers will recognize this and provide a solution, possibly by adding endlessly scaling difficulty levels.
Risk of Rain is excellent. It’s beautifully realized, challenging but fair and oppressively intense. It managed to trap me to that same “one more run”-mindset that caused me to play Binding of Isaac religiously for hours. All things considered, I do think that Binding of Isaac is still the more difficult game to finish, and it provides more incentives for replaying, but Risk of Rain makes up for that with it’s enjoyable and tense combat and variation between characters. Risk of Rain also sports co-op multiplayer, so you can brave the challenges with up to three friends online. I definitely suggest that you should play it, if modern tough-as-nails roguelikes are your thing.