Risk of Rain has the most exhilarating learning curve I’ve experienced in a game since I started learning NetHack in 2006.
I don’t mean to say it’s the most fun, mind you. It hasn’t always been fun. I’ve said a lot of bad words at my computer this past week. But it’s been worth the work, and it’s been quite a rush.
And yes, I realize that praising the learning curve is a pretty weird way to start a gaming blog, so let’s explore it a little bit.
People are touting Risk as a sidescrolling shoot-em-up roguelike, but it’s only a roguelike in the same sense that BioShock is an RPG. It has some superficial similarities to roguelikes — random item drops, random spawn points, and the like — but the level layouts and character classes are always fixed. One of the defining elements of a roguelike, to me, knowing how to use what you find, where the defining element in Risk is knowing how to play your class. The items you find certainly help, and the random spawns force you to mix up your tactics, but the best way to advance in the game is to just practice and get better. This is not a game you will pause every few minutes so you can check a wiki. That’s where the learning curve comes in.
The first time you boot up Risk of Rain you will probably kill some monsters, get a couple items, kill some more monsters, start feeling pretty good about your ability to kill monsters, then get overwhelmed by like ten monsters at once. And you’ll go, “Okay, well, next time I know to be a little quicker, and not let so many monsters spawn. Let’s try again.”
The second time you will maybe escape the group of ten monsters, maybe apply some hit-and-run tactics and kill them all, maybe feel like a badass for a minute. Maybe you’ll say, “I know how to kill big groups now! Yay!” And maybe you’ll get to level two before learning that in Risk of Rain ten monsters isn’t a big group. Not even a small group. Hardly a group at all, really.
And you’ll say, “Wait, does this game just spawn hundreds and hundreds of monsters on top of me constantly? How the hell am I supposed to ever deal with that!?”
But you can deal with it, and that’s what’s so exhilarating. The game starts hard and only gets harder. The key to surviving, at first, is to pay close attention to what your class skills actually do. You start the game with only one class unlocked, and he has three different gunshots. You need to know the difference between those three gunshots. You need to understand that you can’t just smack the ability the moment it cools down. You need to know when to use them and when not to — and you need to know a few different ways to use them, too.
You figure all that out, though, and now you’re killing more efficiently. You start learning the layout of the first few levels. You wonder how you ever got killed by a measley group of ten monsters. You fill up an entire row of items, giving you so many passive buffs that you can’t imagine ever losing. You feel like you’ve got the hang of it. And then a boss you’ve never seen kills you with one shot.
Somewhere in there, though, you unlocked some new classes! You try them, thinking maybe they’re stronger than your starting guy, but they’re not. They’re just different. And you die in the first few minutes, to the first ten mobs, all over again, like you’re some kind of noob. It feels like starting over.
In a sense, it is. Every time you you carve some small victory out of Risk, it throws something new at you. It empties a bucket on you, then a bathtub, and before you even finish drying off from that you look off in the distance and see a tanker headed your way. You have to keep honing your skills and developing new strategies. When those don’t work, you start developing contingency plans. Then with all that — and maybe a little luck — you finally get to the last boss.
Who then one-shots you, because of course he does.
Even that challenge is not insurmountable, though. After the second or third victory over him, you’ll have reached a new level of mastery. And you’ll have nine more classes to go.
There’s a lot more to say about the game — the graphics are gorgeous, the soundtrack is sublime, the multiplayer is fun (but unweildly and buggy) — but the learning is really the best part. Not many modern games try to sell you on a sense of accomplishment, but gosh, it feels real nice. Each time you clear a new hurdle in Risk of Rain you’ll know you’ve earned it, because you’ve worked for it. And maybe said a few bad words along the way.
I recommend it, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Grab it on Steam and try not to pull all your hair out.