Early last year, two students at Washington University – developing under the name of Hopoo Games – created a small roguelike platformer called Risk of Rain. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign and the backing of publisher Chucklefish, they pushed a fully realized version of their game to Steam in November and have since earned the title of Student Showcase winner at IGF 2014. The title is well deserved, as Risk of Rain is unforgiving, brilliant fun.
Risk of Rain opens with a short cutscene in which a sword wielding figure attacks a cargo spaceship. When the ship crashes onto an unknown planet, the crew has only one survivor: you. There’s not much more to the story than that, but it works in favour of the mysterious atmosphere the game aims to create, and keeps room for all the lore of the planet’s deadly creatures. A soft electro-rock soundtrack sets the mood, while seriously tiny pixel-art characters assure the player knows exactly how feeble they are as they search for a way to escape.
In the beginning only one character class is unlocked, but that’s not a bad thing. The Commando is simple to use and helps to ease players into the momentum of the game, as it is one of the most agile and range-diverse characters available. Each character has four unique attacks and different movement patterns. Some characters will unlock through level progression, but others will only unlock after completing unspecified challenges. Because of this, unlocking a new character is often a surprise, and the varying attack pools require diverse playstyles that keep the game fresh. One character, the Enforcer, is slow with low-range, but is capable of becoming a walking shield that can absorb attacks, which can be especially useful as enemies layer on the screen. It’s not perfect however, and there’s no one character that will immediately coast you to safety.
In a complete playthrough, players will visit at least five different areas of the planet. Each area has multiple possible levels, and each level has a number of variants in design (except for the final, titular stage which only has one). The goal in each level, a teleporter, can be found anywhere from right near spawn, to anywhere across the map, and players will have to fight and kill the planet’s creatures as they seek it out. When activated, the teleporter begins to prime and a boss with quadruple-digit health spawns. The players is then forced to kill every remaining enemy in order to leave the area. Every kill will earn the player experience to level up, resulting in more health, and earn gold to purchase game modifying items that will soon be a necessity for survival. As a roguelike, Risk of Rain allows players only one life to make it to the end, which is especially difficult when dozens upon dozens of enemies begin to swarm. In an average playthrough, players may not make it past the second area.
The game starts easy enough, pitting slow, infrequent enemies against the player as they search for the teleporter, but in five minute increments the difficulty increases from ‘Easy’ to the dastardly ‘HaHaHaHa’. Even the death screens are discouraging, mocking the player with messages such as “ur dead LOL get wrecked.” There’s not much hope for the players, but the compulsion to prove the game wrong and succeed can be a driving force. As the difficulty peaks, enemies which are normally bosses will begin to spawn normally, and players will be forced to use every resource available to survive. It’s a system that accustoms both rushers and completionists who want to scour each level before finishing, and it helps maintain freedom in play. However, it can also be unforgiving at times, especially to players who are still learning mechanics. Fortunately, there are item dispensers available that help players keep up with the pace.
The items in Risk of Rain are nothing short of awesome. Scattered across each level are randomized selections of dispensers and totems which may or may not reward the player for a monetary sacrifice. Each one of the
100 items are highlighted by a different colour classification that indicates their rarity. Most have a stacking effect that persists during their respective playthrough, but the player can also hold one more-powerful item which requires a recharge period between uses. One particularly cool item allowed me to create “ghost” duplicates of every enemy on the screen to assist me in my fight, and another made every shot I made do explosive damage. Multiples of the same item will cause effects to add, and furthermore there is no limitation in the amount of persistent items at a time— the bottom of the screen can literally become filled with power-ups over the course of the game. Items are randomized on each level, but because of their immense usefulness later on, it sometimes felt that survival relied on me lucking out and getting the good ones early. There is some skill to using the items, but as the game progresses to the state of chaotic, there’s not a lot of time for strategy.
What it lacks in depth, Risk of Rain makes up for in content. Certain level variants have secret areas which give access to even more secret characters or items. There’s a multitude of unique enemies, and variants of those as well, each with their own collectible log entry. The backstory is lightweight, but the lore of each creature is interesting, and adds a sense of depth to the world and its inhabitants, despite them never doing more than mindlessly killing. Each player character has their own short ending sequence, and there are secret, permanent upgrades for those with the skill and effort to find them. There’s even a port-based online co-op mode that’s cumbersome to set up, but incredibly welcome. All of these things keep the game alive as the player continues to die.
Risk of Rain isn’t a particularly deep experience, but it’s often imaginative and a riot of fun to fight through its challenges. It nails the atmosphere of a mysterious planet, and really makes the player feel helpless at times, in both good and bad ways. Risk of Rain is perfect for the action platformer junkies and the thick skinned old-school gamers, but it’s relentless and will likely scare away those still playing Candy Crush on the bus.