Review: Risk of Rain

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Some games take awhile to click, and the distance between starting a game and it clicking can be enough to kill it. That was a problem for me the first time I started Risk of Rain, because it was one of the clickiest games I’ve played. The deceptive simplicity of its side-scrolling shooting lulled me into thinking it was just a poorly-balanced arena crawl. But I stuck it out until it clicked, and I’m intensely glad I did. Once you learn to work the diverse cast of characters and the murderous timer, you’ll start wondering where the last few hours went.

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You play a space castaway shipwrecked on a very unpleasant planet. Enemies teleport in regularly to eat your face, and the only way to escape is to find and activate the teleporter. The catch is that flipping the thing on summons the boss and starts a 90-second delay until enemies finally stop spawning. In addition to the layout and enemies being mostly randomized, planets are also covered in chests to open, pods to crack, shrines to try your luck at, and helpful drones to reactivate. All of this requires money, earned from murdering the things trying to murder you. That earns you experience too, which boosts your damage and health, and can trigger some item effects.

So let’s talk about items. Risk of Rain was one of the originators of the hundreds-of-unlockable-random-items school that titles like Binding of Isaac made such effective use of. Each one provides an effect like chances to freeze or chances to explode or damage auras or double jumps or rockets everywhere. Most are passive, but there’s a set of active-use items you can carry one of at a time which provide powerful effects like stopping time and blowing up sections of the screen. Your success then depends on collecting tons of these items and becoming a burning, regenerating, rocket-launching dervish of destruction. Completing certain challenges can unlock more items for the pool, and there are super special hidden artifacts that provide important global effects once found on the different planets.

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The trick is surviving long enough to get this stuff, and that’s where the game has trouble clicking. Your tiny hero is surprisingly slow, and three of their four abilities are on very restrictive cooldowns. Most enemies are faster than you, reach further, and take what seems like a ton of damage to defeat, so your first few rounds are going to feel like a struggle against the mechanics. There’s also the timer to battle, which kicks up the difficulty as time passes to punish too much exploration in true roguelike fashion. Your first few lives will go fast, and it might be daunting to stick with it long enough to start unlocking the more interesting characters.

If you do manage to stick around until the mythical click, though, you’ll be treated to a challenging, technical shooter with loads to discover. Assembling an arsenal of items and clearing screens of aliens never gets old, and the challenges and collectibles will last as long as your interest does. And the backdrop for all of this is a unique ephemeral sci-fi setting that feels more like the dreams of alien worlds that H.P. Lovecraft described (minus the racism) than a space adventure. These are strange and beautiful worlds you fight across, which add to the satisfaction of conquering the bizarre beasts in your way. The learning curve may be steep, but the view from the top is well worth the effort.

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