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Wot I Think: Risk Of Rain

A positive forecast

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.

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