Risk of Rain [Review]
It’s not often that my interest in a game stems from the work of its music composer. Chris Christodolou, the creator of the heart-rending soundtrack for The Sea Will Claim Everything, once again works his magic in Risk of Rain, creating a stellar soundtrack that needs to be heard to be believed. I listened to one track before the game even came out and instantly bought it. I’m listening to it right now as I write this review. Speaking of reviews, the game that soundtrack is a part of is sweet, sweet roguelike goodness.
Right when you start it, you might be wondering why your character is so small. The main character is pretty tiny – so small you can barely make out many details on him. This design decision gives the game this incredible sense of scope as you play it, giving the setting and events a gravity that weighs down on you. Many of the backgrounds are these huge, serene views of planets and moons, and just seem so big compared to your character that it’s hard not to feel insignificant in the game. The same goes for the monsters, as while they don’t start off big, you’ll soon be fighting creatures that are the size of office buildings in comparison to your character. Almost everything seems like it is bigger and more dangerous than you are just from looking at the game, and that assessment is absolutely correct.
There are a lot of dangerous creatures in this game, and while size is a great indicator of how much damage one is going to do, you need to have a healthy fear of everything that wanders this game. Sure, the basic guys can be knocked back using your regular shots, but it’s not long before tougher golems start to back them up — weathering your shots without problems while providing a shield to the weaker enemies. Beyond them, stranger ghost-like creatures may appear, or imps that teleport on top of you and start hitting you before you pick up on it, or giant beings of light that slam their fists into the ground for astronomical damage. Beyond them, there’s even bigger bosses that can tear you apart in seconds if you’re clumsy, and in a few more seconds if you’re not.
So, what’s an intrepid space explorer to do? Well, you have a nice variety of attacks you can do with your character. You have your basic shot, which actually fires quite quickly, but if that isn’t enough you can use a rapid-fire shot that fires in both directions and has increased knockback. If that won’t get you through, you have a powerful blast that goes through enemies and will knock back just about everything. If that isn’t enough, you’ve got a handy combat roll to get you to safety. All of the abilities other than the basic attack have cooldown times, so you won’t be able to use them whenever you like. Those cooldowns are quick, though, so it’s only a second or two before you can let loose with a power shot again.
Now, I don’t know about you, but a couple of different shots don’t sound all that helpful when we’re talking about fighting something the size of a city block. The game also has items you can buy using money you grab from monsters, and these items are all very, very useful. They’re relatively cheap to unlock, although they are randomized a fair amount of the time, but there’s really no downside to getting any of them. Some items let you randomly freeze enemies with a shot, others make them drop healing items when hit, and some cause dead enemies to explode. I’ve played for hours and not come close to seeing every type of item you can get, so there are a lot of options on what you can equip.
Variety isn’t the best part, though. The greatest thing is that you can equip as many of them as you can pick up. If you have fifteen different power-ups you’ve found while playing, you can have them all equipped at once. I was firing shots that made the enemies drop health, did extra damage to healthy enemies, caused random freezing, made enemies slow, fired random rockets and mortars, and restored my health with each shot. It made me so excited for every single item I came across, and there was no useless fiddling with equips or picking which items I wanted to use the most. Picking up any item is good, and will start helping you instantly, getting beyond ridiculous in a hurry. I loved the power-up system so very, very much because of this.
There are also optional powers you can grab. These seemed a bit rarer or were dropped by bosses, and most of them deal fantastic damage. They act like another ability but with much longer cooldowns, but they are usually well worth the wait. Many of them either home in on enemies or just make life terrible for them, like the one that created a ghost image of every enemy on the screen to fight for me. Given that there are points where I was fighting almost a dozen enemies at the same time on this one thin strip of land, that ability saved my life. There are several other useful ones as well, and combined with the items and regular powers gives you just enough of an advantage to get through some of the hordes of enemies you’ll face.
These groups are pretty relentless, too. Not only do you have multiple tough enemies fighting you, but often new enemies will appear out of the air if you stand around too long. Staying in one place is a bad idea, as is sticking around and fighting everything that shows up. I often fell into a nasty habit of trying to clear an area out before moving on, and this usually resulted in a stupid amount of enemies showing up. The only solution during many of these points was to run, but not everything fights using melee, so I’d take dozens of shots while running away. Barring that, lots of the enemies move fast or can teleport with you, and even those that can’t will rarely give up once they catch sight of you, running you down on foot. With only one life, you need to get familiar with your weapons and items in a hurry if you want to have any chance against these creatures.
They’re only going to get harder as you go, too, and not just because you’re progressing to new stages. The game has a timer that runs any time it isn’t paused, and as it passes certain times, the game’s difficulty will go up. This means that harder, more dangerous enemies will begin to spawn, so it encourages players to move through the game as fast as possible. With that in mind, there is also an experience system, so you’ll also want to take some time to kill enemies and get stronger. These two systems always seem to be fighting with each other, making me feel like I need to hurry up while also wanting to stop and get stronger. It made me feel nervous no matter what I was doing, always feeling like I’d made the wrong decision about what to do and was going to die for it. And I typically did.
With all of this stuff going on, though, I endured some criminal slowdown. It’s not often very noticeable, but I picked up on subtle changes in my firing speed when a lot of enemies were on the screen. The worst it ever got was when I used the power that created a ghost double of every enemy, as doing that pretty much brought the game to a halt. It was pretty painful, and something I hadn’t seen since playing games on the NES. It’s the type of game that doesn’t look like it would be all that strenuous on a PC, but it can be at times. It’s not going to be an issue for everyone, but it’s something worth thinking about if you’re considering grabbing the game.
A more common issue is the control scheme for the game. I’m not a big fan of playing platformers on PC without a controller, and the controller support for the game is a bit weird. The attacks all work fine, but when played on a controller the game can be pretty fussy about the directional buttons. Moving in any one direction seems to cancel out the others, so pressing up to climb a ladder will stop you in midair if you’re jumping toward said ladder. It’s an odd design flaw, and one that resulted in a couple of pointless deaths. You can play with the standard PC controls, but they felt a little weird for someone used to a controller. It’s nothing unplayable either way, but it’s a bit clunkier than I’d like.
It’s a really fun, if stressful, game, but once again the music in it just makes it that much better. There’s a sense of crushing dread and depression in tracks like ‘Monsoon’ that dragged me into the gameplay. It really made me feel the desolation of the lonely planet you’ve crashed on. There are some other neat tracks that reflect the weird nature of the places you end up, such as the song that plays in the underground caverns, ‘Cyclogenesis’. Other songs just drive home the fact that you’re in way over your head, as ‘Hailstorm’ makes it impossible to miss that you’re probably only steps away from getting killed. And that song from the trailer? Gat Dang.
It’s a great soundtrack that stands out, with the entire game feeling cohesive to a theme of depression and oncoming hopelessness, but somehow making that awesome to listen to. Some of these tracks can be downers, but many of them have an upbeat tone to them that makes them really fun to listen to. It’s a strange soundtrack that grew on me in moments and dug its hooks in. Not much out there can make me feel defeated but motivated quite as much as Chris Christodolou’s work here, and once again the man has blown me away.
If you appreciate good game music, or just good music, your money spent on this game won’t go to waste. Risk of Rain is definitely one of those ‘One more play’ games where you suddenly notice it’s six in the morning. It’s very challenging with its tough enemies and constantly-increasing difficulty, but the various abilities and items balance it out nicely, creating a game that is vicious but fair. The visuals might seem a little stark at first, but looking into the gigantic backgrounds while facing enemies that get bigger and bigger gives the game a feeling of scope. You can literally see how much trouble you’re in, and all while taking the in the splendor of some beautiful pixel-art vistas. Doing all this while listening to some great tracks really turned it into an amazing package, so if you want to blast some aliens on a dangerous world, your wallet should be in your hand this instant.
Risk of Rain is available for $9.99 on Steam.