The forecast is grim (and that’s okay) as Risk of Rain finally makes it’s way to the power portable.
Originally released on PC in 2013, this procedurally generated platformer has spent years topping the “best of” lists of critics and fans alike. What was originally developed as a two-man hobby project, has now grown a devoted cult following not unlike that seen around other titles – like Derek Yu’s brilliant Spelunky or Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. It’s a following that obsesses over permanent death, randomized runs, and the satisfaction that only comes from learning to play better.
That’s right, Risk of Rain is in one of the industry’s most polarizing genres; the roguelike. Both hallowed and feared by many, roguelike games seem to delight in the myriad of ways they can punish the player. The odds will always be stacked against you. Your character will die and you will lose everything. Failure is always a mere moment away, but with every death new personal skills and tactics arise from within the player. Determination and perseverance are your only friends in worlds such as this. Be prepared!
The story is a simple and conveyed in dialog-free cutscenes upon loading the game. Delivery vessel UES Contact Light is transporting various strange and dangerous items to an undisclosed location. A mysterious figure warps on-board and causes an explosion in Cargo Bay 1, crippling the ship. Safety measures jettison the cargo and crew in escape pods away from the flaming wreckage. The gravity of a nearby planet snares the flaming ship and the falling capsules, drawing them towards it’s inhospitable surface. As one of the ship’s evacuated survivors, the rest of the story is up to you.
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive on the planet is that the place is pretty empty. Save for a few idol statues from some previous civilization, crashed capsules, and creeping vines, you are alone (unless playing multiplayer) and hopelessly tiny. The first ten seconds on the surface lure you into a false sense of security as you test your character’s four abilities and learn the basics of traversal. The sudden appearance of enemies around you signals that it’s time to get serious. The first few are pushovers, but the in-game timer is constantly increasing the difficulty and frequency of the enemy spawns.
Each kill grants you experience points which level you up in a linear fashion, and money which you spend on items and upgrades you find in some of the many ejected pods littering the landscape. Your goal in each stage is to use these to power up your character and find the teleporter leading to the next level. Teleporters are high tech equipment, and as such require a boot sequence of ninety seconds. During this time, the objective changes to “simply survive” and a boss creature will be set loose upon the level.
These bosses are big, have a ton of hit points, and are usually capable of rendering your character’s health bar to shreds in a manner of seconds. Only clever (or overpowered) adventurers will stand a chance. These fights are made even more hectic by the fact that enemies start spawning left and right. It’s very easy to lose control of the flow in battle and end up dead to a swarm of space jellyfish (while a Magma Worm goes to town on whatever is left of you). Such is life.
Lucky or crafty explorers will soon find ways of exploiting patterns or level layouts to put the heat on enemies and boss monsters. Cool heads will indeed prevail, and before you know it those ninety seconds are over… and now you get to play clean-up crew. In this phase is where Risk of Rain can drag a little, as you are forced into every corner of the world to hunt down the left-over baddies. The number of enemies remaining will be displayed during this time, and a helpful arrow will guide you to the locations of your remaining foes, but I still always found this part to be a bit of a slog. You must eliminate all of them before the teleporter will finally let you warp to the next location – one step closer to finding the wreckage of the UES Contact Light.
The loop is simple and repeated every stage until the final, but it’s never as simple as it sounds. I still don’t know when the best time to fire up the teleporter is. Risk versus reward, and all that. The game is simply full of little variables that intertwine to create a complex tapestry of gameplay that usually results in the player’s death. It is inevitable, but always lends some insight on how to play more efficiently. Players who do not welcome this particular type of learning curve need not apply. Risk of Rain will not hold your hand, even on it’s easiest difficulty setting.
The items you find strewn about in ejected capsules are your chief defense against all the horrors of the planet’s surface. They range from practical to bizarre, and all stack together to create a wholly new character build with every attempted run. Some of my personal favorites; the Ukulele that intermittently fired a bolt of electricity forward as I attacked, the Barbed Wire which surrounded my character with a damage dealing barrier, and Blood Transfusion which added a tiny sliver of health to my character’s total amount with every kill. When these abilities begin to stack together, you will end up dying as some pretty diverse individuals.
Also to be found are drones that, when repaired, will follow your character around either shooting people, or healing him. Drones will add up if you continue to activate new ones and protect the others from destruction. Some of the most fun runs I’ve had with Risk of Rain involved an army of flying drones, buzzing around my head and firing off dozens of rounds. It’s an awesome mechanic that goes a long way towards you coming out on top.
If all that wasn’t enough to have you drooling (it was for me), the developers saw fit to put in challenges that when completed unlock even more things to add to the item pool – even additional playable classes! These classes can be minimally tweaked from the default Commando class (such as the Bandit, who swaps the machine gun attack with a slower, stronger shotgun blast), to radically different (like the Chef, who attacks with knives, or the melee focused, robotic Loader). Each challenge is suitably difficult – some even requiring an exact action in a specific area – but the rewards add more to the chaos at your disposal and increase the fun factor and replayability.
Also upping the fun ante, are the wide array of multiplayer options. Risk of Rain is cross-play with the PlayStation 4 version of the game, and any combination of up to four people playing locally or online is supported. Want to play online from your Vita handheld, while playing with your friend and his brother couch co-oping from the same PlayStation 4, and your significant other wants to join the three of you online from their PlayStation TV? Yeah, you can do that. The PlayStation TV supports local multiplayer with this one as well, putting it into that rarest of Vita game categories. Multiplayer is fun, but the madness on-screen only gets worse. This game could hurt friendships if not played with the right people.
The sound design is well done. Playable characters make grunts and bleeps that give them personality. Enemies emit sounds that will chill your blood. Weapons all pop, crackle, and explode the way they should. Every single element at play is given it’s own sound palette and it does wonders for the player’s immersion. The music is phenomenal and eerie. Walls of synth patter your ear drums, while electric guitar wails remind you of the danger that surrounds you (and that it will all be over soon). The soundtrack found in Risk of Rain is a genuine highlight of the presentation; just get used to hearing the music from the first level over and over again.
Risk of Rain is a brutal and rewarding experience. The controls are tight and never let me down. The amount of content it includes is shocking given its budget price tag. The fast-paced action and randomly occurring item drops make every round feel like a fresh experience. It is so close to being the perfect “one-more run” game. Some pacing issues hold it back a little, and the character size on the Vita screen is almost unforgivable, but fans of platformers and roguelikes owe it to themselves to experience this game.
Risk of Rain is currently available for PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 systems with cross-buy enabled. Buy it for one console and play it on both, it’s a wonderful and adrenaline-fueled addition to the already excellent PlayStation digital library.