Wot I Think: Risk Of Rain

I have died so many times. Risk of Rain is a small game and not altogether perfectly formed, but it also reminds me of The Binding of Isaac in all the best ways, except with cooperative multiplayer and weird science fiction in place of poo and blood. The ferocious difficulty and hordes of monsters also remind me another recent favourite – Teleglitch. Here’s wot I think.

Risk of Rain has been out for a while now but I’ve only just found the time to write about it. There are lots of words because it’s a deceptively complex game to describe, not being quite what it appears to be. It’s not particularly retro in any meaningful way, despite its appearance, and it doesn’t have a great deal in common with most ‘roguelike platformers’. It is, despite the comparisons above, a rather unique game and over a week of courting, I’ve become quite infatuated with it.

During an average playthrough I kill hundreds or thousands of aggressive creatures, smite a godlike being or two, and die just once. Since I started playing last week, I’ve only managed to reach the end of the game once and it felt like one of the more significant victories of my accomplished life. The willpower required to persevere through the hypnotic patterns of the final onslaught was extraordinary. I thought that hours had passed but it turns out I’d gone from hapless crash survivor to bio-engineered harbinger of hot alien death in forty six minutes.

During each attempt to escape the hostile planet that each character or group has become stranded upon, a base set of four abilities provide the means to attack and defend. These are specific to each of the ten classes, all but the first of which must be unlocked, as must many items. It’s those items that are most reminiscent of Isaac, creating a mostly randomised build for each playthrough, and forcing the player to adapt to strengths and weaknesses.

Most items provide stat boosts or passive abilities – a seed might allow the player to heal rapidly when stationary, a mask might create spectral allies when enemies are defeated – but occasionally, a device fits into the fifth action slot, providing an extra attack or skill to trigger at will. Every active ability, apart from the most basic attack, has a cool-down time, ranging from a couple of seconds for a dodge or combo to a minute or more for a weapon of screen-clearing devastation.

Although the side-on view, basic platforming and apparent roguelite elements muddy the waters somewhat, the skill systems, timing of attacks and large mobs of enemies mean that Risk of Rain plays less like a straight-up action game and more like an ARPG, or an MMO trapped in a permanent combat loop. That might sound like a terrible place to circulate during leisure time but Hopoo Games have made the system work extremely well.

Risk of Rain’s world isn’t as random as I’d expected. There are several zones on the planet, only a handful of which will be seen even during a successful session. The player’s starting point and objective change, making exploration necessary, but the position of platforms and pits is always the same, as is the placement of environmentally appropriate jump-pad equivalents, ladders and vines.

A level loads, a message instructs the player to FIND THE TELEPORTER, and the game is afoot. There’s no guidance beyond that initial order and within seconds monsters are spawning to the left, to the right, above and below. Chaos! The Commando’s rattles away but even the most basic grunts have robust health bars. They swarm like ants to sugar and when airborne jellyfish stream across the screen, and large stompy beasts phase into view, the game can be over before its begun.

On my first attempt, I was left with several questions:
1) Why do I need to find a teleporter?
2) What does a teleporter look like?
3) Why are so many monsters appearing all of the time?
4) Is this game still in Early Access? Because, damn, it feels like a prototype.

It only took around fifteen minutes to find definitive answers to all of those questions.

1) Because I need to get to the next level.
2) It’s got a glowing red bit.
3) Because I need things to kill.
4) Nope, although there are a few patchy elements.

Along with the randomisation of enemies, objects, entrances and exits, Risk of Rain uses a rather large stick to keep the player moving. That stick is the passage of time. At the top right of the screen, a bar gradually fills, regularly hitting a new notch on the thermometer of doom. Or chronometer, I guess, but it looks a bit like a thermometer and feels like it’s about to boil over, like cartoon mercury in the frothing maw of a feverish and rabid Pluto.

Whenever the doom meter ticks across into a new portion, the overall difficulty of the game rises, meaning more enemies will spawn and that they will be tougher. It’s around halfway to the top that the readout says ‘INSANE’ and the screen is the platforming equivalent of bullet hell. Monster hell. Sometimes my tiny man is obscured for minutes at a time, although that doesn’t always stop me from carving my way through a problem. It’s when the game is most frantic that the similarities to MMO combat are clearest – different mobs and bosses require different modes of attack, and I skip from one rhythm to the next as the situation demands.

One warsong might be made up of an area effect blast to knock melee combatants away, followed by a burst to weaken them, a dodge to leap backwards and a peppering of small arms fire throughout. By the time the first such cycle is complete, cool-downs have lapsed and another chorus begins. Items add trills of instrumentation or heavy percussive beats – the aforementioned ghost-spawning mask breaks up the rhythm, encouraging a single volley and then a retreat to let the phantoms do their work while the enemies pursue.

Collecting items usually costs money, which spills from enemies like sweets from a piñata. Unlike candy, it will fly directly into your pockets from a great distance. If candy did that, you would look like a terrible person at children’s birthday parties and would never be able to participate in Trick or Treating. In this case, it’s good that money and experience orbs are collected automatically because it means you can avoid standing still for even one second, always pressing toward the teleporter or the next stash.

And that’s the big decision – is it better to explore, hunt and kill, in search of treasure and items, or to find the teleporter as quickly as possible so as to keep the difficulty level low. Triggering the teleporter begins a countdown while the device powers up. During this countdown so many enemies appear that you’ll be forced to retreat and find a new vantage point. There will also be a boss, which could be a giant version of a regular enemy with super powered attacks or some sort of enormous Magma Worm.

When the countdown finishes, enemies stop spawning but the exit doesn’t open until every single one is dead. This is one of the rare occasions when Risk of Rain offers a helping hand, in the form of an arrow pointing toward the nearest living thing. Go and kill all the things, that arrow is saying, before I decide you’re taking too long and throw another Magma Worm at you.

That’s it. Find enough teleporters, spread across varied terrain with increasingly horrible monsters, and the final level makes an appearance. It’s stupendously difficult and changes the rules slightly, just in case you’d become comfortable, which you definitely haven’t on account of the thousands of hideous aliens that want to kill you.

There are odd systems to discover, such as shrines which are essentially slot machines, demanding money or hit points and occasionally paying out with a reward when the offering is made. Sometimes a terrible creature will be summoned, causing subwoofers to rumble ominously as it roars and spits thundering death. There isn’t a great deal of variety from one attempt to the next though, with class variations demanding the biggest change in play style. A shame, then, that EDIT there are no clues as to how one might go about unlocking each character I was too dumb to notice that the achievements give clues as to how classes are unlocked and therefore only have access to three of the ten. (thanks lovely comment people!)

Co-op is enjoyable, with up to four people allowed in a game, but I’ve had almost as much fun playing on my own. As long as I unlock a new item or creature description, progress has been made. If ever proof were needed that decent flavour text really can add to a game’s quality, this is it. Every item has a shipping note attached to it, address and all, and they tell brilliant little stories of mad science and weird mysteries, often comedic and always worth reading. A sort of mini SCP Foundation of oddities, armaments and freakish anomalies. How astonishing that this short-form roguelite combat game has some of the best writing I’ve seen in a game this year.

There are technical niggles. Keyboard controls are fine but I play with a joypad because the four actions map comfortably to bumpers and triggers. Despite recognising my 360 controller, the game’s menu screens require the sort of pointing that only a mouse can provide. I really don’t mind leaning across and poking the rodent every once in a while, I’m not THAT lazy, but here I am complaining about it anyway. The fixed resolution is slightly more distressing – the Steam overlay pop-up is so large that I thought I was in for a particularly nasty boss fight when it appeared and there are black borders aplenty.

I also wonder how long the repetitive sequences will keep my attention and to what degree I’m actually improving rather than simply finding better items now that they’re unlocked. Learning the layout of each area does help and the tactical choice, whether to search for a few objects more or advance, is a more educated gamble with every attempt, but the day that I find the final object in the database, I’ll most likely be ready to move on for good.


  1. AshEnke says:

    I don’t understand everyone going “There’s no way to know how to unlock characters”
    It may not be that obvious, but characters unlock are linked to characters achievements, so the achievements menu you can see the unlock conditions.
    Some are cryptics, I agree (but that’s good), like “Clear a path for the survivor”, but others (“Purchase 40 drones”, “Beat the third stage”) are obvious.

    It could have been in the character menu, but it’s still not hidden (and the achievements menu is very important anyway to see items unlock conditions so it’s not a bad place to put it).

    Anyway, agree in full with the review.

  2. Gurrah says:

    A shame, then, that there are no clues as to how one might go about unlocking each character. I still only have access to three of the ten.

    Hmmm, the achievements attached to the 9 unlockable characters do give you clues on how to get access to them. I rather like that’s it isn’t absolutely clear, because characters in this game of chance really are the only constant and unlocking one of them is a powerful moment indeed. That being said, three of them can be found by having certain areas spawn in the stages that can be interacted with, happy hunting!

  3. Reapy says:

    Yeah, this game is very fun, but I feel like it is limited or needs a little something more that I can’t quite place my fingers on. That and the frame rate drops when it gets busy with monsters on screen and probably needs some more clever work on the engine in the background to cut down a bit on the work the game is doing.

    I’m at a point where I have a few classes unlocked but I’ll do a 30 minute run or something and walk away with nothing unlocked. I would love to be able to try out the other classes, but some of them seem random or require you getting a bit farther more constantly than I can yet.

    The randomness of the items can be frustrating as well, sometimes you get a good configuration of them or just get mostly useless drops one after the other. I almost think crimsonland style was a bit nicer in that you normalize the randomness a bit more by getting 5 random choices each level, but even that still had its problems.

    Co op is fun, but as you add more players in the pacing feels a bit off. I’d say 2 or 3 is a nice sweet spot, but at 4 items start to get harder to spread out amongst everyone.

    Still all in all a good game worth paying attention to. Makes me think of a whole bunch of things that would fit really nicely into the format is has laid out.

    • SgtStens says:

      Crimsonland! Wow, I had forgotten about that one. I wish someone would remake that, or something like it.

      (Update: It seems to have been greenlit on Steam just two weeks ago and promised to launch within 90 days. Woot!)

  4. unwashed says:

    Woo Risk of Rain! I’m loving this game almost as much as Teleglitch. There’s something deeply addictive about the gameplay, and the variety and oddity of items are both right up there with Binding of Isaac’s, only not nearly as gross (sadly?)

    I just recently started recording gameplay of it, here’s the link to the playlist if you’re into that sort of thing.
    link to youtube.com

    Overall I’d emphatically recommend it, especially if you like being chased by hordes of monsters that want to kill you a lot.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Teleglitch is so scary!

      But mostly I haven’t gone back to it since I crafted a nailgun for myself since I ran out of all of the bullets, and…it turns out my many boxes of 400 nails each couldn’t be used as ammo.


      • unwashed says:

        You need to mix the nails with EXPLOSIVES to have WEAPONIZED NAILS that can be loaded into your makeshift nailgun. What’s not to like!

      • Memph says:

        My issue with wanting to love it, but not, is thanks to it expecting you to use the insanely finnicky/irritating knife attack so damn often.

        • Metr13 says:

          Funny how I have pointed that out on the dev blog all that time ago. Eh.

          Still, love that game.

          As for Risk of Rain, it’s a goddamn drug. “I’ll just kill a few minutes before the first death”, I tell to myself, only to be lost for hours, farming to see if I can get fully invincible with enough damage reduction items.

  5. Phendron says:

    Great fun this one. My biggest problem, might just be that I’m tech illiterate, but I can’t make co-op work at all. I bought the 4 pack for my friends and only one of us was able to find an open port to run a multiplayer game. I disabled the firewall on Windows and my router, still no luck.

    Other than that, though, had a blast. I have half of the characters unlocked, trying to beat the game 5 times now so I can play the Cyborg Ninja character.

    • Keymonk says:

      I suggest trying out Hamachi for that. It emulates a LAN and it usually lets you bypass port forwarding. :)

      link to secure.logmein.com

      • Metr13 says:

        Stop spreading that herecy.

        To OP – you want virtual lan, use Tunngle. Works a lot more reliable than hamachi.

    • Jockie says:

      I gave up almost instantly trying co-op with another RPSer. We basically couldn’t be bothered with the fuss of going into our router to unblock ports and I always get issues with my network if I leave Hamachi installed.

      I am slightly bemused that this is a problem we still have in 2013, where games come out that require this much effort on behalf of the user to get working as intended. Is it really that difficult to code a functioning multi-player component, or just use a service that will handle that part of the game for you (I.e. Steamworks)?

      I hope to god Starbound doesn’t suffer the same issues (I am baselessly basing that fear entirely on the fact that Terraria was an almighty clusterfuck to get working back at release).

      • Baines says:

        Considering the effort I still run into with trying to get two machines running two different versions of Windows to communicate, I’d say yes.

        Last year I was still using a WinXP/Win7 set-up where the Win7 machine could see the WinXP machine but not the reverse. Now I’ve got a Win7/Win8 set-up where I have to use a mixture of homegroup and regular network sharing (Microsoft *says* to use homegroup, but homegroup won’t let you share system folders while old network sharing does), and the first time I set it up it took maybe ten minutes for both machines to let each other access files. That is just trying to get the OSs themselves to work with each other, so yeah, I’m not surprised people still have network issues with games.

      • Gurrah says:

        I’m sorry, but if opening up a port to play a game in multiplayer/coop is too much hassle for you for how long have you been playing games over the internet? I really am curious. It used to be standard procedure to have open ports, and going into your router setup and opening a range should take 1-2 minutes, tops.

        • Metr13 says:

          Well, sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes you need to have two players to get out from behind the same NAT, sometimes your game will work with uPnP in misterious ways while not telling you the actual port, and sometimes no matter what you do it just won’t work until you send it all to hell and route it all through port 80.

  6. dE says:

    It’s entirely possible to break the game. A point in time where you have so many upgrades, you’re invincible. The longest I went was 3 hours. That’s when it becomes really crazy with at times 5 bosses on screen, enemies covering the floor like a carpet. It’s crazy, although really rather stressful too.
    I enjoyed and still enjoy the money I paid for this. I’ve only got one complaint – the arrow pointing towards enemies to kill, also points towards your ghosts. Which makes it a bit annoying.

    Oh and fuck you game, for some of the Unlocks. No damage til third teleporter, yeah well no, but thank you.

    • Niko says:

      It feel good though, in a MWAHAHAHA I AM INCARNATE OF DESTRUCTION way, when you have a lot of stuff like canisters and ukuleles and ceremonial daggers monsters just explode and start chain reactions and it’s so very noisy and feels awesome.

      I also want to note that the game tells its story in a non-literary way, except for all the item description text in the database, and while the plot is really simple, I find it quite neat for some reason.

  7. aliksy says:

    You compared it to mmo combat but you don’t appear to mean “what’s on the screen has no bearing on what actually counts”, nor “stand around using your autoattacks on things that can’t kill you unless you fall asleep.”

    • Vandelay says:

      I thought it an odd comparison too. Looks like you actually need to play the game rather than pressing numbers occasionally from the videos I’ve seen of this.

      I would say a MOBA was a better comparison.

      • Niko says:

        That system reminds me of Awesomenauts a bit (the only MOBA I’ve played. That one match in Dota 2 doesn’t count).

      • BooleanBob says:

        I think Adam must have played mostly glass cannon classes in his RPGs like I did, because the comparison immediately made sense to me. The commando plays a lot like, say, a WoW mage; you kite, kite, kite, blink away, kite, kite, kite… in principle, yes, it’s a bit more like a dote-em-up, except that the low cooldowns and lack of mana management makes the skills feel weirdly disposable, even though they’re so important.

        I found the game a bit maddening. At first I thought I was the problem, in that I was playing terribly and constantly fumbling through my rotation, doing the exact opposite of what I wanted to at the worst possible times. So I dedicated myself to mastering just one of the classes and constantly tweaked my control setup to minimise the mistakes.

        Turns out the game is pretty much impossible no matter what you do. The core mechanic of go faster > be underequipped or go slower > get mobbed to death on an earlier level is more a constant source of stress than excitement, and so much seems to depend on factors beyond your control – how close to the teleports you spawn, whether you start moving arbitrarily in the right direction towards them, whether there are enough powerups en route between you and said teleports and whether they contain good loot, what the bosses are and whether they spawn somewhere you have a hope of killing them efficiently, whether some enemies get knocked off a one-way cliff and take you on a minutes-long diversion away from your objectives – that it doesn’t particularly matter how well you play, you’re going to be waiting a long time for the stars to align for a decent run to occur. With playthroughs that can easily take upwards of thirty minutes, that’s not really a fun proposition that spells F U N to me.

        Or maybe I’m just really bad. Still really bad.

  8. Hahaha says:

    Acrid is easy mode

  9. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Binding of Isaac has poo? Good lord why did I not know this before? Now a must buy

  10. Phasma Felis says:

    Best bugfix entry so far: “Movement speed is reduced while having a large number of goat hooves and buying witnesses.”

  11. Phasma Felis says:

    The fixed resolution is slightly more distressing

    FYI, from the FAQ: “How can I change the resolution to be bigger? You can change the scaling in the option (top right of the main screen, or hit ESC in-game.)”

    • dE says:

      Yes. You can scale up the fixed resolution by 2 or 3. You can’t change the resolution itself. Has some funny sideeffects like huuuuuuge steam popups covering up a quarter of the screen.

  12. DantronLesotho says:

    I am loving Risk of Rain so far. I really can’t wait to see where this game goes. The combat is varied enough not to get stale, the gameplay itself is really solid, and the powerups are some of the most innovative I’ve seen in a game like this. I’ve seen myself steadily improve as I get to know the attacks and character classes better and it seems fair. I really love how most (note: most) of the characters can be unlocked by completing challenges that happen just from playing the game enough instead of meeting crazy goals. I do hate fall damage though, but that’s a minor complaint.

    And the music; oh the music is so good. And the excellent pixelart reminds me of what it’s like when games REALLY get it right.

  13. Flappybat says:

    It takes too long to finish a game; The levels are too big for their own good and random items make farming preferable to rushing as the difficulty caps out and without decent tanking items you are quite likely to die.

    For some reason you can’t unlock half the characters in multiplayer.

    • unwashed says:

      This is true. My main gripe with the game is in fact the lack of a save-and-exit feature when you complete a level. There’s many times I’d have liked to play Risk of Rain but didn’t because I knew the play session couldn’t last over an hour.

      Nothing that can’t be patched in though.

  14. David Bliff says:

    I’ve been having tremendous amounts of fun with this as well. It didn’t “click” with me at first – both because I was using keyboard controls and because I didn’t get good unlocks on my first several playthroughs. But then you get some better items (and the Huntress is basically unbeatable, especially if you get robots to help) and it makes way more sense. This is a game where feeling powerful feels like you’ve really earned it, and it’s immensely satisfying.

  15. Metr13 says:

    This game is simply amazing, and I completely agree that anyone should play it through at least once. That feeling of achievement at the end is something of pure bliss, and is eons above anything other games made me feel for quite a while.