The roguelike genre has exploded in recent years thanks to a burgeoning indie development scene. Fuelled by easy access to consumers worldwide through Steam and a growing casual gamer market, the genre has seen some fantastic titles in recent years with the likes of Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy finding a strong fan base. But is newcomer Risk of Rain the perfect storm, or a wet blanket?
Every expected element of a roguelike is here, such as random maps, plenty of random and powerful loot, unlockable characters and goodies, brutal difficulty, and of course the ever-present threat of permanent death without saves. Enemies are unlimited and appear out of thin air constantly, so there’s rarely any time for a breather during the action.
The game, at least in theory, is simple. Kill enemies for cash, which is then used to unlock chests or try your luck at shrines for upgrades. Once you find the teleporter, activate it and survive a 90-second assault by limitless spawning enemies and a boss, then move on to the next level on your journey to the final boss. The game’s difficulty is indicated by a gauge in the top right corner which slowly but inexorably increases over time, a source of constant pressure that provides a clear incentive to complete each level as quickly as possible.
Each of the ten playable characters has a unique set of four skills, most of which are on cooldown timers. The default Commando character for example can quickly and safely roll away from threats, or fire with a powerful drilling shot or automatic burst in addition to his standard gunfire. There is plenty of variety with all characters equipped with interesting and unique abilities and attacks, including a few who are limited to melee combat.
Upgrades are also varied an imaginative, and often synergise together with great results. For example a perk that explodes enemies on death can create massive chain-reactions, especially combined with the “drop a piece of dynamite every time you shoot” item. Players can collect an unlimited number of upgrades and the resulting carnage and screen-shaking explosions are very satisfying. Collectable automated drones can also assist, softening up nearby enemies and reducing the burden on the player to do all the hard work.
Unfortunately said enemies are at best uninspired. That they come in a variety of different shapes, colours and sizes doesn’t detract from the fact that the overwhelming majority of them simply move in a straight line towards the player before activating a melee attack. A few might shoot and there are a tiny number of flyers, but these are a clear minority. There’s little requirement or ability to dodge or time movement and attacks for best results; instead the gameplay primarily focuses on applying as much damage to enemies as possible to kill them before they kill you. Of course, if this type of gameplay appeals to you then you’re in for a great time.
While almost all indie roguelikes feature simplified graphics that would have been considered dated a decade ago, Risk of Rain has perhaps taken the trend a little too far. Graphics don’t necessarily need to be beautiful as long as they convey information to the player – which way you’re facing, what sort of enemy is charging at you, and so forth. Risk of Rain’s very basic pixel graphics however often make this information difficult or even impossible to glean at a glance, especially considering that the player character is literally about half a centimetre tall on a standard 24 inch screen, and some enemies are no larger. At the risk of sounding old, it’s also a killer in terms of eye strain.
In the game’s options menu there is a “zoom level” option, allowing the screen to zoom in up to three times on the player character. Unfortunately, this means that far less of the surroundings can be seen, which makes exploration and finding the all-important chests and teleporter significantly more difficult. In effect it means players need to choose between a lack of information about their surroundings, or a lack of information about local threats. That developers Hopoo Games included the zoom option indicates they were well aware of the issue but were unwilling or unable to provide a solution that satisfied both needs.
While the graphics may not impress, the music certainly does. A fantastic soundtrack accompanies the game, and matches its fast and unrelenting action perfectly. Music is sometimes underappreciated for its role in setting the mood and pace of a title, but Risk of Rain’s outstanding music is a great credit to musician Chris Christodoulou and is one of the few game soundtracks you’ll find yourself humming when not in front of the computer.
And yet, for all its strengths, there’s just something missing from Risk of Rain. There’s less of a sense of achievement in unlocking upgrades than in many other games of the genre, and subsequently less motivation to keep playing over and over. Likewise, the upgrades themselves simply provide extra firepower or survivability without really changing the gameplay. The unlockable characters certainly demand different strategies – at least within the realm of “smash everyone as quickly as possible” – but it’s quite possible to unlock the majority of those in less than 15 hours of gameplay.
Risk of Rain is a solid entry into the roguelike market and will certainly appeal to fans of the genre. Fast paced and brutal, it offers an unforgivingly high level of challenge that will keep even experienced players on edge. Unfortunately it lacks the addictive qualities that the genre is well regarded for, and is unlikely to win over any new players. For those looking to grow their collection of roguelikes however, Risk of Rain is a solid addition worth a look.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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