Game review: Rad is never the same game twice
Psychonauts creators Double Fine return with a new roguelike that takes a very 80s view of post-apocalyptic survival.
When we interviewed Double Fine about Rad recently we were worried that the game was going to get lost in the melee of next week’s Gamescom event, which would have been a terrible shame as it seemed to be a very promising, and typically idiosyncratic, take on the roguelike formula. But thankfully review copies were sent out early and we can now say with certainty that this is one of the weirdest and most enjoyable indie games of the year.
Coming from the director of Stacking and Headlander you’d expect Rad to be peculiar, but actually a lot of the surface stuff is fairly straightforward. Rad is a roguelike, which means that every time you die you lose everything and – with just a few exceptions – have to start again from scratch. It’s a very popular genre amongst indie developers and while the context can differ Rad’s top-down view is reminiscent of action role-players such as Diablo.
The weird part comes into when you consider the game’s post-apocalyptic setting and the fact that every time you defeat a mutant you build up a meter that when maxed out will grant you a random mutation. This can be anything from a pair of wings to another person growing out of your arm or a snake for a head. Although perhaps the oddest thing is how happy you are for these mutations to happen.
Although Rad has more storytelling than the average roguelike most of the details are skated over at first. But it’s made clear straight away that the game’s setting is actually a post-post-apocalyptic world, where nuclear war wiped out most humans sometime in the 80s, after which a second civilisation, called the Menders, attempted to restore the environment but failed and ended up disappearing themselves. As an ordinary human you’re coaxed into leaving the safety of your makeshift town, at first simply to restore its power but eventually to work out exactly what has happened to the world.
Rad makes a fairly unremarkable first impression, as you start out battling mutants (initially things like fireball-spitting octopuses and trilobite-looking critters) simply by hitting them with your hi-tech baseball bat, which magically makes it back to camp every time you die. You only have three different moves and while the visuals are nice and colourful it can get a bit difficult to keep track of where you are given how far the camera is pulled out. But then your first mutation kicks in.
What it’ll be we couldn’t tell you though, because it’s completely random. You could get a movement one to start with, like the wings or a double jump, or you could end up with a super useful fireball which can be augmented by secondary mutations that can also do things like make you immune to toxic goo or give you a flesh pocket (eww!) to store additional items.
The sense of never knowing what’s coming next, and constantly anticipating a new mutation that you’ve never seen before, is fantastic and rarely disappointing. When you get to the really weird ones, that give you spider legs or let you grow a lobster claw that you can throw like a boomerang, it almost seems like you’re playing a different game every time and that’s great.
You can never just reuse the same tactics every time because you never know exactly what abilities you’ll have, especially as many of the mutations affect each other – making them more powerful or altering their effects. This greatly diminishes the frustration of having to start again and ensures that you’re not just running through the same sections again and again, especially as the maps are randomised each time.
Rad is more structured than the average roguelike and split up into chapters with boss fights at the end of them. Before you get to them though your general goal is to open up a temple-like building by activating a number of special towers dotted around the map. That side of the game isn’t quite as inspired as the rest of it but there are side missions to pick up and while you lose everything you’re holding, and your mutations, when you die you can bank audio tapes, which are used as in-game currency, which give you an advantage when you restart.
The more you play, and die, the more you get access to shortcuts and extra items and player characters when you come back. But, like most roguelikes, we still question whether starting again from nothing is really necessarily. It’s the randomisation of the mutations that’s the most interesting aspect in Rad and that would’ve been the same with or without all the other trappings of a standard roguelike.
In Rad though none of that is anywhere near as frustrating as usual, not only because of the mutations and enjoyable combat but because, unlike most roguelikes, it’s not perversely difficult. By default it’s definitely above average, but as long as you keep your head (or heads, depending on your mutations) about you it’s something well within the capabilities of most ordinary players. And if it’s not there are lots of options and modifiers to make it as easy as you feel comfortable with.
Given the price and the huge amount of variety we’d recommend Rad to just about anyone. It’s not the most exciting game to look at – with an unnecessarily ugly art style – but the sense of never knowing what’s going to happen next, despite constantly starting from scratch, is something few other games can match. For roguelikes it’s a pretty radical departure from the norm, and we mean that in both senses of the word.
In Short: One of the best roguelikes for a long time, whose randomised abilities work perfectly to add variety and unpredictability to its tale of an 80s style post-apocalypse.
Pros: The mutations are great, with a huge amount of variety that makes every run unpredictable and fun. Level randomisation works well and difficultly level is accessible for all. Great music.
Cons: Good use of colour, but the ugly art style and zoomed out camera can obscure the action at times. Some roguelike elements seem unnecessary given how much fun the rest of the game is.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Double Fine
Release Date: 20th August 2019
Age Rating: 12
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