What happens when you leave a couple college students alone in their room with Gamemaker studio and a plethora of games from their past to influence them? Risk of Rain happens. A genre bending, wait...make that a blended indie sweetheart who made it through the trenches of the Steam Greenlight program. Cross a roguelike with metroidvania, sprinkle on some 4 player co-op and dangle a tasty bunch of useful collectibles in front and you’re left with one of the best co-op games I’ve played this year.
Hopoo Games isn’t kidding around when it comes to getting straight into the action. Immediately following the crash landing onto an unknown planet, the upgrades generously begin to come. These upgrades will shape and mold the character, building a drastically different loadout with each play though. The arsenal of available power-ups clocks in over 100, giving an immense amount of possibilities. As the character levels up and more power ups are collected, you begin to feel invincible. This dream is quickly shattered by the reality of death. It’s a roguelike, it happens. That inevitable tantrum subsides and then you start again. A 5 minute session can be as rewarding as a 25 minute one. The flow of life and death happening here here is a beautiful thing.
Trust me when I say there will be many lives lost during your time in Risk of Rain. It is one of the most difficult games to grace my hard drive. A run can be going perfectly, and then one costly mistake turns everything bad (I’m looking at you, Spelunky). It's okay because there is a surprising amount of variation, from location, bosses, and the drops from mobs. It changes how you will survive every time you start a game. The first thing players will miss but should take into account is the timer in the top right of the screen. As time passes the game gets more difficult; enemies gain health, hit harder, and spawn more. The constant pressure of wanting to move forward is in perfect balance with the choice to look for more items in the level. You may just need an extra eight percent health pickup or missile droid, but just don’t take too long looking for it.
The pickups/power-ups/drops range from defensive items which allow you to take more damage to your typical increased attack speed buff. There are also items with some crazy abilities such as summoning spirits to help you, or a personal favorite the Tesla Coil, which zaps any enemies in close proximity. Some runs will put you in command of a small platoon of droids, shifting your role from agressor to more of a passive general. Other times the stars will align for a perfect front line fighter where each killing blow nets you more health, permanently while a barbed wire shield damages everything that tries to touch your character. Most of the time it will be a mix of items, but you learn to make it work. Each game is different, and therein lies the beauty of the roguelike. Of course, it all comes crashing down when you dive into a crowd of enemies and lose the dozen items collected over the course of a single run. C’est la vie.
Combine the gigantic item pool with a roster of 10 classes and you’ll start to see the combinations are limitless. Each class has four abilities; their basic attack, a special form of locomotion, and two bigger attacks with a longer cooldown. Managing the abilities in a fight and surviving through the frey takes some skill and practice, and don’t be afraid to run because it's usually preferable over standing still and fighting. Initially only the Commando is available, thankfully he is a very competent hero in both solo and group situations. The generic gun-toting hero can crowd control with the best of them, but you will soon unlock more heroes for completing specific objectives. I won’t spoil how this is done, as each character is unlocked differently, but I would encourage everyone to explore the levels carefully. There’s nothing quite like a full four player co-op squad with everyone rocking a different class. Just picture the HAN-D tank robot up front, with a sniper in the back, while the engineer tosses out turrets and the commando is pushing back the hordes of enemies.
The objective of each level is to find the teleporter. Now while the levels are pre-designed, the spawn point, teleporter location, and boss are all randomly generated. Making it to the teleporter involves you mowing down enemies, some light platforming, and finally surviving. Sounds easy enough? When you eventually get to the teleporter gird your loins because once you hit the switch there is no turning back. A 90 second timer begins to count and a boss spawns, plus all of his friends he invited to the party. If you manage to survive for the 90 seconds and take out the boss, it doesn’t end there. All of the remaining enemies who have spawned also need to be eradicated before the teleporter will open, so there is no room for cowardice.
I’ve mentioned playing solo is very rewarding. It allows you to learn the ins and outs the characters and how to stay on your toes and survive. Really though, Risk of Rain shines in co-op and I highly suggest you find some friends with the game or pick up the four pack and force your friends to play with you. Each class compliments each other, and the random power-ups are all shared so there needs to be some planning and co-operation both in and out of combat. If you want to succeed you’re going to have to use teamwork and coordination because Risk of Rain scales with more players. It’s not a walk in the park and you’re going to die a lot, but thankfully if one person makes it through the teleporter then everyone spawns in the next level. The net code isn’t quite perfect, as there is some lag when you have a full foursome, but it doesn’t break the game by any means. You will have to compensate by sticking together and protecting anyone experiencing lag or internet hiccups. I’ve never seen a game of this nature, let alone a roguelike bring co-op into the fold. Nothing brings friends together like being flayed by a giant magma worm on a distant alien planet.
This is the part where I talk about the music and how righteous of a job Chris Christodoulou did with the soundtrack. For the sake of time and drool, I’ll simply say this is why we have ears. The music is too damn good.
For a game where I’ve died more times than survived, it feels weird recommending Risk of Rain. I usually warn players against overly difficult games unless they know what they are getting into, but I can’t express how important it is to experience Risk of Rain. The variety of items, enemies, and environments gives it almost infinite replay value. Players are free to experiment with team combinations, item loadouts, and classes. The unlockable items and challenges will keep even the most hardcore busy, but it is really all about grabbing a group of space travellers and dying over and over again.