What is it? An update to the classic action-roguelike with a few new elements in the mix.
Release date November 8, 2023
Expect to pay £12.79/$15
Developer Hopoo Games
Publisher Gearbox Publishing
Reviewed on Radeon 5700 XT, i5-9600K, 16GB RAM / Nvidia Geforce GTX 1650, Ryzen 5 4600H, 8GB RAM
Steam Deck N/A
Link Official site
With Risk of Rain Returns, the classic action-roguelike franchise has come full circle—as has my scepticism about its latest direction. A fervent devotee of the original, I remember responding with incredulity when a full-3D sequel was announced back in 2017. After sinking over 150 hours in that game I became a full-fledged convert, so much so that I now find myself with a paradoxically similar set of doubts: am I ready, or even willing, to smash my escape-pod door open and resume dealing death in a side-scrolling 2D world once again?
For anyone not conversant with the series, Risk of Rain is one of the key titles that kickstarted the roguelike revolution of the mid 2010s. A lone traveller crash-lands on an inhospitable planet and has to survive across a series of stages to reach the spaceship that allows them to escape. To achieve that, you had to purchase and amass a frankly ridiculous amount of power-ups that synergise in wild and unpredictable ways, unleashing glorious chaos onscreen. The gimmick that differentiated it from peers like The Binding of Isaac was the fact that difficulty rose with time. Finding a balance between thorough exploration to beef up your survivor and swift progress to avoid getting overwhelmed by increasingly powerful enemies presented you with a perpetual, tantalising dilemma. The feeling persists in the remaster, somehow coexisting with a less energising sense of familiarity.
As with most similar games, you're at the mercy of its number-crunching. Risk of Rain Returns is gleefully unfair: the selection of items available, the density of enemies, the location of chests relative to the teleporter you must activate before fleeing to the next level (pending a brutal 90-second boss fight)—any single randomly-decided element may wreck your chances if the dice don't fall your way. To endure these vagaries of fate, you must internalise your survivor's inner rhythm, the way their quartet of skills complement each other, maximising damage output and offering moments of much-needed respite in the midst of endless massacre. Roll sideways with your Commando's Tactical Dive to bring all enemies on the same side, stun them with the piercing Full Metal Jacket shot, then close in for the massive Point-Blank shotgun blast before jumping away to buy the precious seconds needed for each to recharge. Used haphazardly those powers are woefully ineffective. In the right sequence, with the right timing they can be devastating.
Ironing out the kinks
The formula is largely unchanged from the previous two instalments, so what Risk of Rain Returns offers are numerous quality-of-life improvements as well as several helpings of new (or new-ish) additions. Graphics look crisper and sprites slightly larger so that it's—relatively speaking—easier to parse what's happening when surrounded by a horde of infuriated lizard people and giant crustaceans. Crucially, the original's severe frame drops on such crowded occasions are completely absent even when testing the game at fairly modest specs. Chris Christodoulou's standout soundtrack, so tightly interwoven with the trippy mood of the series, has been remastered and several tracks remixed with new collaborators. But perhaps the most essential improvement is the complete overhaul of the multiplayer component: online play was basically inoperable in the original; it's smooth, seamless, and (some minor balancing issues around loot drops aside) arguably the best way to experience the game for veterans here.
As ever, playable characters are genuinely distinct—weaving through enemy ranks as the agile Huntress feels almost like playing a different game compared to charging head-on with the tanky Enforcer. New entries, such as the Pilot (a highly-mobile combatant that can aim diagonally) and the Drifter (who generates temporary items using scrap gathered from fallen foes) bring the not-quite-final tally to 15 and it has been immensely fun trying out these new playstyles or seeing how some of Risk of Rain 2's returning cast fare in two dimensions. Moreover, there are several new items, enemies and unlockable alternate skills that inject further variety into proceedings, as well as a vastly expanded achievement list for anyone that might need the extra incentive.
However, the most substantial addition are doubtless the Providence Trials, a series of character-specific challenges that double as camouflaged tutorials for individual skills. In fact, some of these mini-games are so imaginatively conceived and competently designed, I could easily spend several hours on the more engaging ones trying to improve my score. Specimen Sampling, where you escort a pair of slithering blobs across a lava-filled cavern, is basically a bite-sized version of Lemmings; Caustic Climb has the reptilian Acrid bounce on the acid spheres he spits out in the manner of Bubble Bobble; and in my personal favourite, Piercing Space and Time, you have to utilise the Huntress's teleportation arrows to navigate a vertical labyrinth that rivals any Super Meat Boy or TowerFall Ascension level for sheer platforming excitement.
Of course, these minor diversions and a new coat of paint aside, this is still pretty much the same game I was obsessing over back in 2013. In a genre that has since evolved, both in terms of storytelling (most notably in the Olympian conspiracies of Hades) and combat mechanics (perfected in the criminally underrated Curse of the Dead Gods), Risk of Rain Returns now feels more conservative. In treading familiar ground and revising rather than revolutionising a beloved template, Risk of Rain Returns emerges as a welcome reminder of the series' roots, though not quite a genre-defining classic like either of its predecessors.