I’m a masochist gamer, which means I enjoy inflicting unnecessary amounts of pain and tedium upon myself purely for the cathartic relief of overcoming a challenge. Give me Dark Souls for a day and I probably won’t even manage to beat the Taurus Demon, but I’ll surely spend the entire day trying! Call me insane, but it’s this mentality that drives Risk of Rain, a roguelike Sci-Fi Platformer that’s so magnificently brutal that should you get past the third level, it’s an achievement! If you don’t however, you can just try again. And again. And again.
In fact, this is exactly what I did for 2 hours, and it is also the very reason this game is so great. A lot like FTL or Binding of Isaac, this is not the type of game you can simply playthrough once. The landscape is selected from a pre-made selection of layouts, depending on what stage you’re up to, and contains randomly generated elements. So while the layout might be familiar, the placement of objects won’t be. This includes the teleporter, the very thing you’re looking for to get to the next stage. Upon finding the teleporter, you’ll have to fight a randomly selected boss, survive an onslaught of randomly spawning minions for 90 seconds, and then proceed to another randomly selected stage. Of course, not quite everything is left totally up to chance.
When you begin, you can choose from a variety of classes, such as the commando, robot janitor, or acid spitting experiment. Each class is equipped with four unique abilities in a MOBA-esque fashion which allows you to approach the game in a different way; perhaps adopting a hit-and-run style as the experiment, or simply shouting “DEMOCRACY!” when you punch enemies as the robot janitor. You can also unlock more items through challenges and achievements, which provide even more variety on your “160th” play-through. With so much variation, it can get frustrating (and perhaps intimidating on your first playthrough) when the description of an item you pick up is as vague as, “Hooah,” but usually figuring out what an item does is fairly trivial.
Where Risk of Rain sets itself apart from other roguelike games is with it’s difficulty mechanic. While you can choose from one of three difficulty settings at the start of the game, the difficulty increases over time from very easy, to medium, progressing to very hard, continuing into impossible, and finally ending at “HAHAHAHA”. This makes for a very interesting balance between farming for items and progressing through to the next stage, especially when you consider how hectic combat can get at times. While a strong tactic in FTL would be to stall just before the fleet reached the exit point, you may want to be more efficient in finding that pesky teleporter in Risk of Rain. Then again, you might prefer to stall on your “30th” play-through, raking in items and experience, to beef up your character before moving on. If it’s not clear by now, this is not a one-time playthrough game.
By about your 6th hour and 50th time playing the game, you’ll come to the sudden realisation that it looks astonishing. Hopoo Games is literally just two students from the University of Washington that really wanted to make a game; a programmer and an artist. This means that all the pixel art backgrounds, foregrounds, characters, and monsters follow from a single harmonious vision of beautiful desolation. Everything fits, right down to the markers that surround your character as you acquire certain items. While some people may detest the hideously blocky art, it’s a true throwback to retro graphics that frame-rate junkies and pixel lovers will gush over.
However, being a team of only two guys who were too busy making a game or drawing assets, the music was provided by Chris Christodoulou, and it’s freaking amazing. The soundtrack beautifully complements the dark, foreboding atmosphere of the game. One minute you’ll be serenaded through your search for the teleporter with tranquil 8-bit melodies, the next you’ll be tapping your feet to upbeat retro-themed metal as you shoot through hordes of minions. You can get it on Bandcamp, and you should. Because it’s that awesome.
For all it’s artistic harmony and insanely satisfying gameplay, there is no direct narrative. The opening cutscene shows a mysterious man teleport onto your cargo ship and destroy it, followed by a shot of your drop pod burning through the atmosphere, and that’s it before you hit the main menu. As you play the game, you will collect information logs on items and monsters, and this does add some detail to the world you’re flung into. While the logs hint at something sinister at work, you’ll have to make it to the final level to find out what the story is, but even then it’s basically non-existent. There’s a lot of hidden details scattered throughout the logs akin to Dark Souls’ item descriptions, but the lack of any substantial narrative may feel like a gaping hole for some.
After my 12th hour and “90th” playthrough of Risk of Rain, I’m still reaching back for more. I’ve made it to the final stage again and again, but sometimes I barely make it a couple of minutes. It’s a game designed to be played hundreds of times over without ever feeling repetitive; even after my 15th hour and “150th” play-through! It looks and plays astonishingly well, and if you’re willing to look past the complete lack of any coherent narrative, it really is a masochist’s perfect game. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go back and play again. (and then likely again!)