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Review: Risk of Rain

Risk of Rain
Ah, hm, hello from space. It is cold here and I have died many times, but something awful keeps drawing me back to life. Also there are lizard men and jellyfish and big robots! It's basically heaven. So pleased you could join me.
Risk of Rain, yes, it's quite the game you see. Like Contra turned up to 25, with ever-spawning enemies that will chase you to the end of the earth - or at least from the left side of the screen to the right and back again. And back again. And again and now you fell in some lava how silly, certainly you'll die now. Unless... unless the lava gives us just enough time to recharge a missile barrage, very good yes fire that off. Now jump up onto that rope, and off, leave a little pile of mines for your pursuers to run in to. And sprint, you fool, get away and turn and fire some grenades. That should hold them off! Now if there is just an item down this path oh no it's a dead end oh a giant lizard has spawned quick jump away run run run wait this looks familiar. Isn't this where the boss spawned? Oh dear.

You see there is an escalating chaos and sense of doom that characterises every session with Risk of Rain. The game itself is deceptively simple. You start, crash landed on a strange planet with 4 abilities and a teleporter to find. Enemies pop into the world with increasing frequency as you search, giving up money that you can use to open chests dotted around the level. The chests give you items that augment your abilities, giving you extra health regen, or firing missiles out of you at random intervals, things like that.

Once you make it to the teleporter you have to wait 90 seconds, during which time everything goes mad and a giant boss enemy spawns. These are the panic moments, when everything falls apart and enemies pop into existence pop pop pop before you have time to react. Your only choice is to run, becoming a pied piper of fire sprites and ghouls and alien mushroom men, a growing menagerie of danger a couple of pixels away. If you succumb, dying means you go back to the very beginning of the game, bereft of anything and everything that you've picked up. Here is a video of me showing you how to panic and run away from a big jellyfish, as you do.

And those things, those damnable items, hidden in chests by the cruel will of the random number generator. Their unpredictability makes each restart a fresh new puzzle. The first level might see you pick up drones and ability modifiers that force you to flee backwards, firing in your wake, constantly on the move. Or you might find items that regenerate your health as you kill things, rewarding a more head-on approach. Or you may get a useless combination of drops that leaves you with nothing but a quick trip back to the character select screen.

There are so many items that the balance isn't and could never be perfect, but it doesn't matter. Some items, in combination, will wreck everything and others have no appreciable impact, but this only adds to the tension. The frustration of wasting a successful loadout thanks to a stupid mistake is almost unbearable.

The reason that the items are so sought after is the difficulty timer, which ticks ever upwards. In the early levels this is felt most keenly, because failure to progress your character in time with the enemy difficulty means a quick death. Not only do you have to face more enemies but they hit harder and take longer to kill, and your meagre attacks won't knock them back. Without a decent compliment of augments from items, you don't stand a chance - but the only way to build your abilities is to kill things, so running away without attacking is never really a solid option.

Fleeing seems like a permanent necessity but you have to balance it with attack. In practice any strategy disintegrates as soon as the teleporter is activated, and the unpredictability of item drops means what works in one run may get you killed in the first level of the next.

The uncertainty means that the only reliable way to succeed is to slowly, so slowly, master each character's core skills. These foundations mean there is an appreciable and satisfying learning curve that you won't even notice. Each run that ends in death is more time spent on the treadmill, muscles and mind honed to a sharper point. New combinations blossom unexpectedly and become a mainstay; the precise timing of cooldowns is burnt into your heartbeats, finger twitches.

What reveals itself is a deep and flexible combo system. The four skills of each character combine in different ways that are best suited to their own situations. Crowd control becomes the centre of all things and finding the right order to chain together a roll, a stun shot and a grenade means you can stay away from the giant lizards and other horrible things . The cooldowns on each skill are precisely measured to reward this type of tactical combo work - by the time you've fired the commando's Full Metal Jacket slug shot, followed it up with a spray of suppressive fire and then rolled away, the slug shot will be available again. What keeps you from spamming combos is the level layout - you will eventually run out of space - and the enemy spawning - as suddenly a giant glowing sprite will appear behind you with a troupe of saurian lizardmen, forcing you to rethink. Or die. Probably die.
It's those moments, when things fall apart, that reveal the thrill. Your conscious mind will take a backseat as you scramble frantically away, letting your fingers and brain take over and hope for the best. The slow mastery of the mechanics will shine when you are forced to react rather than plan, and it's here that the memories are created. A daring leap from a vine to a raised platform followed by an instinctive hop to avoid an energy missile leads into a quick turn and fire and fall. Time to think again and assess the environment to create a new route through the immediate area that will draw your pursuing enemies into your weapons. This constant fluctuation between planned, known routines and sudden flights from danger defines the game's flow.

This thrill of the chase and the feeling that you are always barely, barely on the edge of destruction but for your own quick reflexes is intoxicating. It combines with the steady climb towards invincibility that you get as item pickups fill the bottom half of your screen, until you can't even see the new ones you pick up.

The string that pulls forward each time is this promise of ultimate power hinted at by each new ability. It is the power-acquisition of a traditional RPG sped up to maniacal levels. When you restart, the loss of power is almost tangible - no more health regeneration, no extra missiles or explosive ammo - nothing but the desperation to get it all back.

The chaos, particularly during these later levels when enemies and bullets and icons fill the screen, is everything. Wide-eyed acceptance of the endless motion on screen creates an almost trance-like state, a type of seizure of everything but the fingers. There is so much going on that it is impossible to comprehend it all, instead you have to let it wash over you and feel the pattern of the pixels rather than try and discern it.

The music sits in the background of this chaos, adding to the synaesthesia. It doesn't have the punchy immediacy of hotline Miami, but rather, like FTL, becomes part of the overall experience, blending in behind the action in and only revealing itself in the quieter moments of contemplation. In the peaceful valley at the start of each level you hear the gentle themes but they soon get blown away as you climb the mountain of violence.

The sudden destruction of every enemy in a level drops you down the other side, leaving you alone to appreciate the descent. The sounds contribute to the cycle of the action, from calm to chaos and back to calm again, the pattern of Risk of Rain again written across each level.
Risk of Rain is so unashamedly gamey, so delightfully reliant on screen-filling mobs of enemies and precise combos that it's difficult not to fall in love. It looks like a throwback to the days of the Spectrum but there are so many of the best bits taken from games since then that it feels like a beautiful, delightful culmination.

Oh yes, this is a review I remember now. I give it two hundred DPS and a shockwave on touch.


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