Platforms: PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
RAD is a new rogue-lite that fits Double Fine’s mold perfectly. It’s a quirky game with a lot of good ideas that puts a new spin on a familiar genre but has a couple flaws that stick out like a sore thumb. In this case, it’s a sore mutated thumb. As is the case with many Double Fine games, you kind of have to look past the flaws to get to the fun underneath.
The big question with RAD is: can you?
True to RAD’s 80s aesthetic, everything about it is extreme, including its merits and flaws. It has some of the best ideas I’ve seen brought to the rogue-lite genre in ages, and yet the flaws are so central I found myself putting the game down over and over again despite its quality otherwise.
Fixing the planet
In RAD you take control of a youth in the post-post-apocalypse-apocalypse. Yep, we stupid humans screwed up the world by blighting the planet and unleashing hordes of toxic monsters on an unsuspecting populace. After living in the wastes for a while, a mysterious group called the Menders attempted to fix the planet with incredibly advanced technology. They failed and all their machines suddenly disappeared, leaving the world in a strange mish mash of ultra-tech, toxic waste, and 80s suburb.
It’s up to you to fix the Menders’ mistake. With a technologically enhanced intelligent baseball bat, you need to head out into the irradiated wastes of the Fallow to find new power sources and resurrect ancient Mender technology. In doing so, you’ll cleanse the land and bring verdant green back to the grey brown wastes. However, you’ll also be exposed to the toxins and likely mutate into something far beyond recognition. It’s all worth it for the future of the human race…. Dude.
Thus we have the core gameplay loop. You start out as a normal kid with your cool tech bat and you head into the randomly generated wastes to uncover some ancient tech and mutate in the hopes of pushing a little bit further and uncovering the lost history of the apocalypse. It’s your pretty standard rogue-lite formula. Each run earns you XP which gives you more gameplay options in your next run. Beating a boss lets you deposit items and cash you found back at your base to make later runs slightly easier. Lather, rinse, repeat, always making a tiny bit more progress with each run.
Let’s start by talking about the good things RAD brings to the rogue-lite formula. First of all, your shoes are empowered with the Mender’s ancient restorative technology. What that means is that you leave behind a trail of green growth wherever you go. This accomplishes two things. First, it always lets you know where you have been and where you haven’t been, which is a great feature in a game with randomized dungeons. Second, you actually move faster in any restored area. This means you can actually spend the first few moments of any encounter running around and memorizing enemy patterns, and by the time you are ready to attack, you’ll be quicker and nimbler, more able to dodge their attacks.
RAD’s mutation system is neat, but not quite as neat as first advertised. It seemed as if you would naturally absorb toxins in the environment and mutate as a result in the trailers. In reality, your mutation bar is really just an XP bar. The bar fills when you defeat enemies or find special caches of RADs in the wild, and when it fills all the way you’ll get a random mutation. However, as much as I wish this mechanic was more integrated into the toxic environment plot, there’s something reassuring about seeing a meter that tracks your next bonus. You can, essentially, grind out mutations if you feel you are too weak to progress, which is kind of a self-balancing mechanic.
The mutations themselves are fun to play around with. None of them are particularly unique, they are just packaged in a way that makes them feel unique. For example, the standard boomerang is reskinned as the ability to tear your own arm off and hurl at enemies. Turrets are symbiotic slime creatures that grow out of your back and can be detached at will. Every mutation has that quirky Double Fine feel to it, even if it’s just doing the same things you’ve seen in other rogue-lites mechanically.
The randomized environments are pretty amazing. Frankly, if you didn’t know what was going on under the hood you wouldn’t know that they were randomized. They all fit together naturally, and they don’t have any of that stilted “room by room” design most other rogue-lites have. In fact there are barely rooms at all. Instead RAD randomly generates large expanses of wasteland, from treacherous cliffs to the hollowed out ruins of Mender technology. It’s very hard to see the seams here, and that is something RAD should be commended for.
Finally, there is one option that RAD includes that might seem small, but should honestly be standard in every game release. It allows you to change the size of text on screen as well as U.I. elements like the mini-map. I don’t know why there is some strange obsession with making everything as small as possible in new game releases, but as someone with less than perfect vision I can say that squinting to read ultra-small text is not fun. RAD simply lets you size these elements to your liking, and that is an incredible little bit of usability that will likely be overlooked by many, but should definitely be noted and emulated by game developers everywhere.
Where’s the growth?
You might be thinking “what’s not to like?” The gameplay is fun, the aesthetic is fun, the story is neat, and even the options are a cut above the rest. What is this mysterious flaw that can hamper your enjoyment of the game so much?
Simply put, the progression curve is all wrong. When I first picked up RAD I played for three hours straight, and when I took my first break, I realized I hadn’t actually progressed at all. I had killed some bosses and pushed through a few stages, but I had no permanent power increases to speak of. Each new run just started me as square run, right at the beginning of the game.
It’s not that they weren’t there. It’s just that I hadn’t earned any of them. All of the perks I unlocked between runs were either aesthetic or needed to be purchased with money. Some of these artifacts take hundreds of tapes (RAD’s currency) to buy, and I only would bring home a few tapes at a time per run, and that’s only provided that I managed to get past a boss so I could visit the base again.
I continued playing but found that the gameplay started to get stale. It’s not that it wasn’t fun. It’s that the mutations were very fun! Yet I kept having to reduce myself to nothing but a swinging bat every time I died. This turned every run into a grind to get a mutation as fast as possible from enemies that posed no real threat. This is the sort of thing you want to bypass with permanent progression upgrades.
If you give in to the grind you won’t fare much better. Your first mutation comes fast but your second mutation takes forever to earn and this is how it feels with every next level you earn. There’s just something off about the XP curve here and it doesn’t feel good.
This is a point that many will find contentious. The rogue-lite genre has been split between people who want to see games have a smooth progression curve and purists who want every run to return you to square one. However, I think the issue with RAD is a bit deeper than that. There’s just not enough variety to play is at a purist.
For example, every run you’ll end up in the same area with the same enemies right at the beginning. You don’t really feel like you are encountering new random challenges every time you restart a run. Instead you feel like you are treading the same ground you have treaded over and over again. It takes quite a bit of leveling for the game to feel truly “random.” You essentially have to grind to get to the actual rogue-like parts.
This is another one of those games that I hesitate to call bad because it really isn’t. The core gameplay loop is enjoyable. The graphics and aesthetics are nice and quirky. It even includes a bunch of innovations that really help push the genre forward. The pacing, though, is just off in a way that is hard to ignore. This is the flaw you’ll have to get past if you want to enjoy RAD and it’s a big one. If you are the type of person who really enjoys starting from the beginning and grinding your way through randomly generated dungeons, you’ll have a lot of fun with this game. Otherwise, all I can say is buyer beware.