It’s been nearly two and a half years since Hopoo Games released their 2D rogue-lite platformer Risk of Rain on PC, and I couldn’t be more grateful that it’s finally arrived on home consoles via the PS4 and Vita handheld. Especially the Vita. The excellent balance of challenge and fairness, risk and reward, and the way it brilliantly handles difficulty made it hard to put down, and had me white-knuckling my Vita well in to the midnight hours.
The start of the game introduces a bite-sized story wherein a sword wielding villain destroys a space shuttle, and you emerge as the only survivor on a mysterious planet. Other than a brief cutscene at the end, there’s little else to pull you along. Unless, of course, you count the addictive nature of the gameplay, the superb class-based character selection, and one of the most phenomenal soundtracks I’ve heard in recent years.
In fact, before I go any further, I want to say “bravo” to composer Chris Christodoulou. Prior to writing this review, I published a small article praising his work in Risk of Rain. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you really should. It’s up there with the likes of Crypt of the NecroDancer, Super Meat Boy, and Binding of Isaac, and I’d go so far as to say it’s actually better. It’s wonderful.
“The longer you survive, the more challenging the game becomes, essentially going from manageable to OHSHITFUCKFUCKFUCK!!! in under 20 minutes.”
In Risk of Rain your goal is to explore each of the (slightly) randomly generated worlds, locate the teleporter to the next stage, and hold out for 90 seconds (120 on the hardest setting) against swarms of monsters and nasty boss creatures that want nothing more than to hack and claw you to squishy wet chunks. But chances are you’ll die. A lot. I know I did. Though with each death I learned a little more about my chosen class, had time to experiment with unfamiliar power-ups, and potentially unlock a new character.
Each of the game’s playable classes have their own unique play-style, ensuring strategies that worked on one mean absolutely dick on the others. You’re only given the Commando at the start, with its balance of crowd control and evasive dodge-roll maneuvers, but completing in-game challenges slowly expands your roster to an eventual dozen. For instance, completing the third stage unlocks the Bandit class, which can go invisible, lob sticks of dynamite, and deliver an explosive shot that resets all of its ability cooldowns, should it land a killing blow. Purchasing 40 drone power-ups unlocks the Engineer, who can lay traps, summon turrets, and fire off heat-seeking harpoons for large bursts of damage. Don’t want to run and gun? Play as the melee-focused Loader. Want a little more durability? Try the defense oriented Enforcer, which allows you to hide behind its impenetrable shield. There’s bound to be a class you’ll enjoy, you just have to work for it.
I’ve played an obsessive amount of Risk of Rain over the last few days, and I’ve only managed to unlock six classes. That’s half of the game’s roster, and each of them offer a unique experience every single time I dive in. I love that each of the classes are static as well, since having that predictability gives me a leg up on subsequent attempts. I’ve gotten quite good with the Commando and Enforcer, as they’re the only two I’ve managed to beat the game with, but I’ve certainly run in to my fair share of colossal failures in between. The way Risk of Rain handles difficulty though is completely brilliant.
From the moment your tiny hero steps foot on the game’s unforgiving and hostile planet, you’ll notice a timer running in the upper-right hand corner while a sectioned meter fills below it (indicating the current difficulty level). The longer you survive, the more challenging the game becomes, essentially going from manageable to OHSHITFUCKFUCKFUCK!!! in under 20 minutes. This encourages players to weigh risk versus reward. Do you take your time farming monsters for XP and gold in order to buff yourself with powerful upgrades, at the risk of being overwhelmed by increasingly stronger monsters in the late-game? Or do you charge headfirst in search of the next stage’s teleporter, risking deadly screen-sized boss encounters while severely under-powered?
My longest run was 57 minutes, in which the difficulty timer at one point went from “insane” to the utterly terrifying “I see you,” — I see you, by the way, takes those end-of-level boss monsters and spawns them one after the other (sometimes two at once) until you’re either dead or somehow putting the finishing touches on the final antagonist. I was on death’s door for the longest five minutes of my life, and it was fucking exhilarating. Thinking back, I was probably holding my Vita so tight that it was on the verge of voiding whatever warranty I have left.
“Risk of Rain is nothing short of exceptional.”
Risk of Rain is not only exceedingly fun to play, but its variety of alien environments, colorful explosions, and plethora of varying enemy types are beautiful to look at–trust me, the screenshots do this game no justice whatsoever. With so much going on on-screen, between power-ups, monsters, and boss creatures, I’m completely astonished by how well it runs on the Vita. It’s virtually flawless, in fact, but there’s a short list of things I don’t really care for.
I count 105 different power-ups to collect, which are randomly dispersed throughout each playthrough, but their effects aren’t always clear upon pick-up. The Lens Maker’s Glasses, for instance, give you a chance to deal double damage on impact. Other items however, like the Ukulele, have cryptic descriptions that never feel rewarding when I pick them up. One benefit the PC version has over its console counterpart is the ability to mouse over acquired power-ups to view their descriptions. You can do the same by using the Vita’s touch-screen, but I can’t exactly read text hidden underneath my fingertip.
On top of trying to decipher power-ups, there are times where Risk of Rain gets a little too hectic. Once you’ve amassed a full load of power-ups, it’s easy to get lost in the chaos and a good run can be ruined by seemingly impossible odds. As you can see, your chosen character is pretty small on the screen, so you can imagine trying to find yourself beneath a swarm of missiles, swirling ice crystals, 5 combat drones, chain lightning, poison clouds, and two hulking colossi trying to wear you as shoes. It’s rare, but it happens.
The Vita version supports ad-hoc and online co-op, though I didn’t have much luck finding others to play with (even using Twitter for a call-to-arms). I hosted a lobby with no success and waited for matchmaking on multiple occasions, which bore fruit only once in three days. It does support cross-platform play between PS4 and Vita, and PS4’s local co-op allows you to take a friend from your couch online with you (since the game supports up to four players). Risk of Rain is still fairly new on Playstation, so hopefully the community builds over time and random matchmaking actually becomes something useful. Risk of Rain offers plenty of replay value for the solo player, but if co-op is your primary selling point, I’d make sure you actually have friends willing to play before committing.
The few shortcomings worth discussing are vastly overshadowed by the rogue-lite’s demanding-yet-fair challenge, diverse array of playable classes, phenomenal soundtrack, and utterly brilliant game design in how it gradually scales its difficulty over time. Risk of Rain demands its players adapt to any given situation, to become more astute, and will reward your perseverance in exciting and meaningful ways. Whether it’s a prompt mercy killing at the hands of a fiery magma worm, or a near perfect run that ends in a hair pulling stream of cuss words, it’s a world I see myself returning to for a long, long time.
Risk of Rain is nothing short of exceptional.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if it’s worth playing.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a Playstation Vita copy of Risk of Rain provided by the game’s developer, Hopoo Games. I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers and constructive feedback to hard working developers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.