Version tested: PC
Risk of Rain is an immaculate platformer. From each precisely-timed leap that carries you from harm's way, to the crispy pixel visuals of you gunning down a preposterous giant crab, to the looming, grandiose soundtrack, right down to you laughing at the jokes in the main menu's unlockable encyclopedia: absolutely everything is as it should be.
That's the first thing you'll notice. The second thing you'll notice about Risk of Rain, perhaps 15 minutes in, is that it's not particularly interested in being perfect. Beneath its veneer of professionalism, this game is as mad as a bag of legs.
Risk of Rain's plot - your cargo ship crash-lands on a hostile world, sprinkling its varied cargo across the surface, you have to use what you find to survive, GO! - isn't what powers it. Nor, really, does the traditional roguelike urge to see what content lurks beyond your best play-through.
Rather, what sets Risk of Rain humming like a tuning fork is the bizarre puzzle at its centre. That begins with this: the enemies that spawn in Risk of Rain get tougher as time goes on. 15 minutes in, you'll be subjected to an impossible onslaught of monsters. 30 minutes in, you're on a difficulty setting simply called "Hahahaha." To keep up with this you'll want to gain XP and items as fast as possible. The easiest way to do this is by summoning each level's boss, which you can do whenever you find that level's teleporter. But the boss is always accompanied by a horrific 90 seconds of regular enemies teleporting into the level at an unprecedented rate, appearing all but right inside your chest cavity.
...Which is a long way of saying that in Risk of Rain you have to level up against the clock to survive, but the only means you have of getting more monsters into the level is by upending a bucket of them over your head.
So by design, the game always runs too slowly or too quickly, with you either swearing as you tramp ominously across a peaceful wasteland (tick, tock! tick, tock!), or swearing as you sprint from a laughably huge flock of pterodactyls. The challenge is in managing the game's pace, which is fascinating. What makes it fantastic fun, though, are the MOBA-inspired elements.
In Risk of Rain you have to level up against the clock to survive, but the only means you have of getting more monsters into the level is by upending a bucket of them over your head
A generous 10 characters, from the default Commando, to the acid-sweating Acrid, to the unexpected laser swordplay of the Mercenary, all possess marvellously different powers. While each has a default attack and no barrier to entry, learning to use each one well - learning to fire off each of the context-specific moves at just the right moment, and "feeling" when each of their cooldowns will end - is like learning to play a musical instrument. Because, don't forget, the aim here isn't to survive a taxing fumble with a new control scheme. It's to kill as fast as possible, chaining your powers together in dramatic combos.
The Bandit's a wonderful example of how joyous that can be. Armed with a rifle, but also short-range grenades, your maximum damage comes from forming huge packs of enemies then fighting very close to them - which is exactly as intelligent and safe as it sounds. But then you also have a headshot skill that does 600% damage and resets the cooldown on everything if you get a kill with it, including the headshot skill. So you're trying to fight close, but not too close, while trying to kill enemies with the headshot button, not too early (or it won't kill them), but not too late (or you won't get the most of its 600% damage). It's equal parts wonderful and absurd, and those aren't even all his skills. To say nothing of the items you'll be fretting over!
Remember the cargo I mentioned your ship dropping? There are exactly 100 of them for you to randomly find in Risk of Rain, from a ukulele, to a meaty cube, to a self-propelled missile system, to an ancient war banner, all of which buff your character in some way.
Remember those skills you were trying to keep in your head? OK. How are you going to change up your tactics when you stumble across some barbed wire, which damages enemies when they get too close? Or a bustling fungus, which regenerates your health when you stand still? Or a teddy bear? Or a plasma hookshot? Or all three? The answer is almost certainly "I'll fight exactly the same, Christ, I have enough to think about!" But whether these random items end up synergising perfectly with your character or ultimately get you killed, they make Risk of Rain riotous, unpredictable and work with the randomly spawning enemies to force you not just to work, but to react.
The one thing all of Risk of Rain's quirks have in common is that they defy mastery. You'll struggle with the impossibly tricky skills of all but the default character. You'll struggle with the items because they're wild and really just luck of the draw. And you'll absolutely struggle with the central problem: your panicked need to level up, often leading to you fling yourself into a boss you're not ready for. (Incidentally, playing Risk of Rain with an XP deficit is never as frustrating as it is in the MOBAs from which it takes inspiration, because in all but the last boss fight you can run away. Which means that standing, fighting, and dying is always your decision.)
But you will want to master all of it. Because suddenly, we're back to that very first thing you noticed: This game is immaculate. The enemy design, the sound effects, the powers, the fights, all of it feels wonderful.
Mostly, anyway. With Risk of Rain offering the player so much control over its pacing, the game can go too far in one direction. Your character's movement isn't the fastest, so wandering an empty level as the timer counts upwards can feel pretty dismal. Worse, though, is the gravity that's always carrying your game of Risk of Rain towards nonsense. At higher levels especially, combat becomes a slaw of enemies, buffs, debuffs and explosions. It's by no means unplayable, but it's imprecise enough to be a lot less interesting after the first 15 minutes of a game.
But any time Risk of Rain loses its sheen, you can always start again, with a new character. You can always go online with friends and enjoy the game's robust co-op mode. And starting that new game is always so appealing because of the slow opening. You're free to warm up, to find your first few items, and see where this game is going, before things slowly accelerate into panic, dread and near-inevitable death. Lovely!
8 / 10