Risk of Rain Review: Catch your death

Imagine stepping into a warm, inviting hot tub. As you relax in the water, an attendant pours in some bath salts. You register a rise in the temperature, but think nothing of it. The attendant returns, this time sprinkling fragrant herbs into the water. It's getting hot in here. The attendant is back, pouring some concoction into the bubbling water. No, not bubbling. Boiling.

That's when the lid comes down, and you realize that you're not being cleansed. You're being cooked. Welcome to Risk of Rain.
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Risk of Rain

Risk of Rain looks and feels every bit like your stereotypical PC indie game. Its simple 2D shooting and platforming mechanics are accompanied by simplistic characters and backgrounds, and the air is filled with a stylish electronic soundtrack. Your tiny, pixelated Commando runs and jumps around alien landscapes, dispatching enemies with an assortment of special abilities. As monsters are killed, you gain experience and earn gold to buy items from the chests strewn about each level, augmenting your abilities and generally making you a more formidable warrior. Eventually, you'll come across a teleporter. Upon activating it, you're told to survive for the next 90 seconds, during which a gigantic boss and additional waves of monsters spawn into the level. If you manage to stave them all off, the teleporter will whisk you off to the next level.

Risk of Rain is, at first, very familiar, even comforting. You'll take down foes with relative ease as your Commando effortlessly dodges out of harm's way. The huge boss creatures and extra waves of enemies summoned by the teleporter will provide more of a challenge, but there won't be cause for any real alarm. Eventually, however, you will notice the meter in the corner of the screen, and you will very quickly come to grasp its significance.

You see, the longer you play Risk of Rain, the more difficult it becomes. The meter fills with every passing moment, and the difficulty ratchets up every few minutes or so, appropriately marked by the ominous tolling of bells. Monsters increase in number and ferocity, and they become harder to kill. What begins as a simple action game evolves into a hectic, attention-demanding nightmare. When the diabolical thermometer reaches "Impossible," you'll think you're a hero. When it reaches the ultimate difficulty, called simply "HAHAHAHA," you won't have time to think at all. Endless waves of enemies spawn in faster than you can put them down. If you can evade that, Risk of Rain starts spawning bosses in just for kicks, whether you've activated the teleporter or not. Before long, the screen is saturated with robots, lizardmen, enormous crabs, gargantuan stone golems and hideous demons, and all of them are out for blood.

This key mechanic of escalating difficulty adds a layer of strategy to Risk of Rain that elevates it beyond its basic mechanics. Once you've cleared a level of all its beasties, you're free to scour the landscape for any item chests you may have missed. Without enemies to kill, however, you're not earning any experience, and every minute you spend looting allows future enemies to grow stronger. Spend too much time looking for goodies and you may find yourself surrounded by foes beyond your capabilities in the next level. Spend too little time and you may miss out on the crucial healing buffs, powerful weapons and robot drones that will give you an edge later on.

To drive the tension home, to make it meaningful, Risk of Rain gives you only one life. The joy comes from amassing items, gaining experience and watching your character evolve into a godly killing machine, all the while knowing that one misstep will send everything crashing down. It's possible to clear Risk of Rain in about an hour and, as you might imagine, losing all of your experience and equipment after 45 valiant minutes is devastating.

That's probably the dividing line for Risk of Rain's potential audience. Some will shatter their monitors and never play again. Others will see death as a challenge and immediately restart, driven by a need to succeed, prodded along by a steady dopamine drip of unlockable item drops and character classes. My favorite is probably the Huntress, who can move while shooting in the opposite direction – a very handy trait in a game where retreat is essential.

The necessity of retreat could be seen as one of Risk of Rain's weaker elements, as later levels see you spending more time dodging enemies than attacking them, and it occasionally feels like late-game success depends on lucky item drops. The final levels are much easier with a handful of drones that will attack monsters as you bravely run away, for example. Still, the luck of the draw is part of what makes Risk of Rain exciting. Whenever you do assemble the perfect collection of drones, damage buffs, shields, auto-firing missiles and magical, health-restoring mushrooms, it's exhilarating to watch the monstrous hordes fall before you.

It's a hard-won thrill, and one errant bullet or second of distraction is enough to undo it all. If you can accept that challenge, if you can pick yourself up and start all over again whenever you fail, you will lose hours to Risk of Rain. Whether you mean to or not.

This review is based on a Steam download of Risk of Rain, purchased by the reviewer.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.