I fall for Risk of Rain 2's trick every time. An hour into a good run my character is plastered head-to-toe in bizarre power-ups, like a katamari rolled through a novelty shop. Yes, I have three teddy bears strapped to my thigh, but those are important, because teddy bears have a percentage chance of blocking all incoming damage. Obviously I have seven needles stuck into my head. How else am I going to massively increase my attack speed? When I'm loaded down with dozens of items, Risk of Rain 2 always fools me into feeling unstoppable. "I am a golden god" echoes through my mind. And then something hits me so hard it knocks the godhood right out of me, and whoosh. Dead in an instant, game over. How did I ever think three teddy bears would be enough?
What is it? Clear skies, full loot, can't lose
Expect to pay $20/£15
Developer Hopoo Games
Publisher Gearbox Publishing
Reviewed on GTX 1080, Intel i7-7700K , 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? 4-player co-op
Link Official site
Risk of Rain 2 is a roguelike less concerned with where you're going than the loot you pick up along the way. For the last year it spent in Early Access, it actually didn't even have an ending, just an endless sequence of repeating levels that threw more and more enemies at you until you succumbed to the inevitability of math. This suited the game fine. It's nice that it has an ending now, a grand final stage and boss fight that gives me an out before I've accidentally gone two hours without blinking. But it doesn't really change what Risk of Rain 2 does so well.
Like Slay the Spire, Risk of Rain 2 is a game about finding items that make you stronger in ways both obvious and unpredictable, stacking and stacking and stacking until you're perched on Olympus. On the screen you're shooting and slicing your way through a bizarre menagerie of creatures on alien worlds, but what you're really doing is compulsively climbing a finely tuned power curve again and again and again.
The idea here is as basic as videogames get, and yet Risk of Rain 2 does it far better than most similar games I've played. Part of that is its unwavering commitment to power creep. It does not try to reign in numbers, to make sure you can't do too much damage, to make sure no combination of its dozens of items is exploitable. This game knows that all the fun is in that exploitation, of shredding a boss to mincemeat in five seconds and howling with delight.
Each character—there are 10 of them, with wildly different playstyles and items that suit them best—has its own satisfying exploits. One of my favorites is the Engineer, who moves around slowly and throws out a pile of explosive bouncy balls as his main attack (it makes me think of a McDonald's employee tripping and launching an armful of plastic ball pit balls into the air). The Engineer's real power comes from a pair of autonomous turrets he can put down. A good Engineer is always on the lookout for Bustling Fungus, an item that heals you and nearby allies if you don't move for two seconds. Guess what never moves? Turrets! Stack Bustling Fungus and stand still next to your turret to heal twice as fast.
The turrets share your buffs, gaining other benefits like attack speed and crit chance. The last time I played as Engineer, I picked up a rare item that would revive me if I died, though it would only work once. I watched one of my turrets get destroyed by a boss, only to magically reappear three seconds later. It didn't really matter—I could've just put down a new turret—but I love that the game plays fair with its items, and allows for those sorts of discoveries.
Risk of Rain 2 isn't worried about giving you absurd abilities because it knows that it'll out-power creep you, eventually. The difficulty level ticks up and up the longer you play until it reaches the infinitely scaling challenge of HAHAHAHA, eventually spawning piles of boss enemies with six-figure health pools on top of you the second you load into a new stage.
This game revels in damage numbers, not because you need to pay attention to them, but because it knows that the fun of power creep is seeing three hundred unreadable numbers layered on top of one another, habanero red crits peeking out. I'm bored by loot games that give me a sword with slightly better stats, but I love how Risk of Rain condenses an entire power curve down into an hour, and instead of getting better equipment, I'm stacking ukuleles that make all my attacks radiate electricity to nearby enemies, or feathers that let me jump five times without touching the ground.
This all works because it feels so good to play, which may be surprising if you've only looked at screenshots. Risk of Rain 2's characters appear tiny against the vast landscapes you run through. Jumps are generously floaty. The graphics are simple, nothing that would've looked shocking on a PC 10 years ago. But characters move and aim precisely as you whip the mouse around, and everything in the game has been built to scale up aggressively. The floaty jump is suddenly welcome when you've tripled your move speed. The vast, mostly empty levels take you minutes to cross in the beginning, but only seconds when you can quadruple jump across a gap or have an item that launches you forward out of a sprint.
Risk of Rain 2 nailed all of these things on its first day in Early Access, but since then it's added several characters, and I've enjoyed learning all of them. My favorite of the new batch is the Loader, who's essentially Ripley in her exosuit in Aliens. Loader is all about heavy melee hits, with a charge-up super punch that sends you careening across the map. At first I found it clumsy, because it kept launching me away from the action. But then I learned to pair it with my utility ability, a grappling hook, tethering to enemies before smacking them and then bungeeing back to catch them on the rebound.
There is almost nothing to do in Risk of Rain 2 except focus on the action—you're not making decisions about level up points or collecting ammo or dealing with any resources except money. Its levels, which have some randomness to them but feel mostly familiar, are big but mostly empty, just dotted with item chests to find and a teleporter to activate to leave the stage. But they have a vibe. The emptiness is actually compelling. In the brief moments between the screen being covered in lasers and explosions and numbers, I feel like a marooned explorer in a strange land, and I want to know more about it.
I promise I'm not just being whimsical. I can tell Risk of Rain 2's developers fostered this sensation with care. Despite being a game with no dialogue and no cutscenes except for when you boot up the game and after you slay the final boss, there is a story here, told in log entries you can hunt down and unlock for the items and enemies and environments. I don't care much about the story, but I adore the secrets, of which there are many.
Many of the characters are unlocked in strange, opaque rituals that are trivialized by a walkthrough or wiki page, but magical to imagine stumbling open myself. There are stages you can only reach by performing some arcane procedures, opening alternate teleporters or jumping outside what appears to be the bounds of a stage. Most of these I experienced through friends who'd already unlocked them, which brought back the experience of leading someone to a hidden door in Wolfenstein 3D or being shown a secret exit in Super Mario World. There's a strong spirit of playground discovery in Risk of Rain 2 that I don't think I've felt in a game since I deliberately played Fez without a guide. Even if you look them all up, there's still fun to be had in discovering how much more there is to find in these stages than it first appears.
I've spent most of my time with Risk of Rain 2 in co-op with two or three friends, and that's how I'd recommend it to most people. Singleplayer just doesn't deliver the scale I'm after, the madness of countless enemies and damage numbers on screen, and playing solo dilutes some things I like about the game. It's perfect for a Discord hangout. While you're searching for the teleporter in each stage and fighting smaller clusters of enemies, you chat about life, and what this item or that one does. You can half pay attention. And then you reunite and focus up to take down a boss. In multiplayer, there's a nice ebb and flow. Solo, I found the hunt for the teleporter and items grow tedious more quickly.
Still, ascending that power curve is hard to resist either way. There are still items I've never seen, and chests that I haven't unlocked, gated behind a timer that demands a speedrunner's pace to open. I'll open one someday—once I've unlocked the alternate abilities for every character, probably many months from now, on a random Sunday my friends and I all happen to be active in Discord at the same time with an hour or two to kill. Dabbling in godhood is an all-seasons sport.