Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Review - Risk of Rain (PC)

In space everyone can hear you scream (in frustration)

Risk of Rain is another new PC indie game that features the ever popular roguelike elements that we are seeing in more and more games of late (hoorah!). Taking the form of a 2D action platformer, you are tasked with the simple goal of escaping a strange and barren alien world via a teleporter located somewhere on the surface. Sounds simple right? Well, no. Hampering your escape are a legion of alien monstrosities, hell bent on your demise (aren't they always?). As with all good games, nothing is quite as simple as it initially appears. After locating your only means of escape from this hostile planet, you are required to activate the teleporter, an action which results in a countdown, during which monsters continuously spawn into existence in order to make your life as difficult as possible. 

So, a 2D platformer with roguelike elements, set in space, with guns, a multitude of cool powerups and a levelling up system? Sounds like my ideal game, and to some extents it is. First things first, before you get as excited as me by the mere mention of roguelike, you should know that the term may be a slight exaggeration - the levels are not randomly generated, but rather picked from a small batch of pre-made levels. The location of the teleporter and additional items are randomly placed, though, and you have good old permadeath to keep things hardcore. You can only choose from one character at the beginning, the trusty marine, but others become available as you progress. As well as firing his faithful assault rifle, the marine also comes with three special moves - an evasive roll manoeuvre, a heavy shot capable of sending enemies reeling backwards and a burst of rapidfire. Each one can be used as many times as you like but has a cooling down period that must be waited out until re-use is possible. Destroying enemies releases both orbs and coins, the former of which works as XP, levelling you up once enough has been collected, and the latter used to purchase powers and useful items from the many chests scattered around the world. 

Presentation wise, Risk of Rain is slightly hit and miss. On one hand you have some fantastic music, full Xbox 360 gamepad support (essential) and an extensive game log that records and provides details of every enemy and item you find in the game, which can be viewed at your leisure via the menu screens. On the negative side, the environments are fairly bland - though not devoid of charm - and everything has a slightly unpolished look to it. More irritatingly, Risk of Rain has the tiniest player sprite I have ever seen (and I have played Benefactor on the Commodore Amiga) which takes some getting used to. The monsters are more impressive, however, with some gargantuan beasts to destroy in your dash for freedom. Smaller niggles include an inability to play true full screen and the fps counter always being displayed in the bottom left, though I can live with these.

It took me a little while to warm to Risk of Rain, but once I had gotten my head around the play mechanics and the microscopic visuals, I really started to enjoy myself, and before I knew it I was totally hooked. The rather barren landscapes coupled with the wonderful electronic-meets-rock soundtrack create a powerful atmosphere that emphasises the feeling of being totally alone against a legion of foes. The two characters I used - the marine and the enforcer - have great weapons and abilities that make combat both exciting, tense and satisfying, and the collecting of the orbs and money that murdered adversaries drop is as addictive as the best loot games you can think of. The huge variety of powerups you can purchase from the one-use chests or shrines scattered around the stages are both varied and exciting to deploy in combat and include such treats as regenerating health and money, enemies that explode on death, armour piercing shots, electrical storms that zap nearby enemies, damage and critical hit amplifiers and even a shadowy ally to fight by your side. Once I started to improve at the game, becoming more powerful and finding crazy new powerups I became totally engrossed and kept coming back for more. Due to the fact that the monsters will continue to spawn into play over time, there is a powerful risk vs reward mechanic that lets you decide whether to find the teleporter as soon as possible, or take your time and level up your character by killing monsters. 

Unfortunately, Risk of Rain has one major problem. It is far, far too hard. After several hours of game time, I was only able to get past the first stage a couple of times. The spawning enemies that begin once the teleporter is activated are hard enough to deal with, but the game also throws in a boss in the form of a massive colossus, jellyfish monster or even a huge lava beast that continually smashes through the floor and makes life a real struggle. It is frantic and brutal and, whilst certainly achievable, is a real uphill struggle. You can level up by defeating lots of foes before you activate the teleporter, but the game sticks two fingers up at you by making the enemies far tougher in order to compensate. It takes a long time to grind your way up to a suitable level to stand any chance of victory, which makes your death - either at the hands of the boss, or the monsters on the next (even harder) stage - all the more soul destroying. You can choose an 'easy mode' but the game doesn't save your achievements, which makes it an empty gesture. The game also comes with an exciting online co-op mode, though I can only assume this is true as no matter how many times I tried to find or set up an online co-op game, it simply resulted in an error message. This was hugely disappointing as I imagine it would be an absolute blast with other human players battling alongside you with all manner of crazy powerups and abilities. Hopefully this will get fixed soon.

Risk of Rain could potentially have been one of my favourite new indie games, but it is so overly punishing that you nearly always come away from a session feeling crestfallen and slightly broken. While it has a great atmosphere and some genuinely addictive gameplay, I really think the developers need to reassess the insane difficulty level - or at least allow you to continue from the stage you died on - in order to make Risk of Rain a far more enjoyable gaming experience. I will certainly be returning to its sparse alien worlds, despite the overwhelming odds against me succeeding, but I don't relish the feelings of inadequacy and failure that go hand in hand with a lengthy play session.

The Good

  • Addictive and challenging gameplay
  • Combat and levelling up is satisfying
  • Varied selection of interesting power-ups
  • Great soundtrack

The Bad

  • Unpolished graphics and minor presentation niggles
  • Absolutely heinous difficulty level that destroys your will to live
  • Couldn't get a multiplayer game to work at all

Title : Risk of Rain
Developer : Hopoo Games / Chucklefish
Year : 2013
System : PC
Price : £6.99