It’s always fascinating when a 2D game series makes the jump to the third dimension, as the developers are given the impossible task of keeping the gameplay more or less the same while also instituting huge change. Many franchises—such as the Sonic the Hedgehog and Castlevania series’—arguably fail to make the leap gracefully, stumbling to nail down what it is that made the originals special. Even the series’ that most consider a success—such as the Super Mario games—can struggle with it; Super Mario 64 was a fantastic entry, but it could be argued that the true gameplay of the 2D games didn’t show up in 3D form until 2011’s Super Mario 3D Land. After Risk of Rain—a 2D action roguelike—saw a successful release in 2013, it would’ve been easy for Hopoo Games to have gone the ‘safe’ route with the sequel and simply offered fans more of the same when Risk of Rain 2 came about. Fortunately, the team opted instead to push itself, producing a sequel that manages to make the jump from 2D to 3D flawlessly, while also adding in some cool new features in the transition.
The story of Risk of Rain 2 is about as basic as it gets, simply following the exploits of a ragtag group of misfits as they attempt to escape from an alien planet. Any semblance of a narrative won’t be found in the main game mode, however, as there your first and only concern is shooting everything that moves and madly collecting as many power up chests as you can find. The logbooks are where most of this story comes in, dripping you tidbits of info and hints of greater lore in item and enemy descriptions. Though these are mostly well-written from the start, this is also where the ‘early access’ nature of Risk of Rain 2 is seen most clearly. Many of the logbook entries are missing and instead contain a boilerplate in-universe ‘coming soon’ message to lampshade the fact that the developers haven’t yet gotten around to those details. Luckily, it’s a minor and mostly inconsequential omission, but for those of you that pay plenty of attention to detail and appreciate this kind of storytelling in a game, be aware that it’s still being made.
As for the core gameplay, Risk of Rain 2 does a remarkable job of feeling almost exactly like its predecessor, right down to many of the same upgrades, characters, and enemies making a return appearance. You start out each level by crashing down onto the map in an escape pod, and your goal is to find the next teleporter as quickly as possible so you can progress to the next level. Along the way, myriad enemies will spawn at random and attack you with everything they’ve got, but if you can overcome them, you’ll be rewarded with XP to raise your character’s level and Gold to buy upgrades from various chests scattered at random across the map. The game’s title, however, comes from a fascinating flexible difficulty system that encourages you to push the limits of each level, while punishing you for doing so too much.
See, every fifteen minutes, the overall difficulty will ratchet up another notch, but every passing minute sees minuscule adjustments to enemy health and damage output. On one hand, it’s in your best interest to get to the later levels—which are inherently more difficult—before you let the timer run on too long and see the difficulty level inflated to ridiculous heights. On the other hand, staying longer in a level gives you more time to grind out extra character levels and scour the map for every upgrade, buffing your character substantially so you’re ready to face the hefty challenges to come. Finding the balance between these two options is something that’s difficult to nail down perfectly, which makes the moment-to-moment action a constantly stressful, yet enjoyable, experience. Even when you feel overpowered, there’s an ever-ascending chance that an especially difficult ‘Elite’ enemy may spawn to ruin your day, or that you might overestimate your effectiveness and find yourself horded by an impossible wave of enemies.
Unlike its predecessor, maps here aren’t randomly generated from the off; it seems that there are a couple different potential maps for each level, and Risk of Rain 2 picks one at random when you spawn into a new level. The distribution of upgrades is random, however, so your experience from one run to the next will never be the same. If anything, the repeated map design comes as something of a welcome addition, as you become ever more familiar with layouts and hiding spots through subsequent attempts. It’s a good thing, too, because one of the more frustrating things about Risk of Rain 2 is how easily one can get lost in the beginning hours. Every level has a different monochromatic design and though maps aren’t huge, the lack of memorable landmarks can make it easy to run in circles when on a new map because everything looks the same to untrained eyes. Given that the teleporter occasionally spawns in ridiculously obscure corners of the map and that there’s no mini-map to use for reference, this can lead to you spending a painful amount of time spinning your tires as you repeatedly retrace your steps and try to work out where you have yet to explore. This navigational problem becomes less and less of an issue as you familiarize yourself with layouts and learn various shortcuts, but it’s nonetheless something that we hope will be addressed in future updates as the developers near ‘completion’.
As far as combat goes, Risk of Rain 2 controls like a typical third person shooter, with each character having a basic attack, a secondary, an escape, and an ultimate skill. Those latter three are each governed by cooldowns of varying lengths, and survival in combat becomes a matter of understanding the unique strengths and weaknesses of your character and what situations are right for dropping certain skills. The final skill on the Huntress, for example, is used to deal huge damage and helpful debuffs to enemies in a small area, but it can also be used as a quick escape tactic if you’re being overwhelmed by enemies. Each character has a distinct playstyle that legitimately forces you to change the way you approach combat, and we rather appreciated the flavor this lent to repeated runs. There’s a ton of gameplay diversity in Risk of Rain 2 for those that are willing to put in the time, and this diversity is sure to keep the experience fun for dozens of hours.
Though combat is stellar from a game design standpoint, the aiming controls are unfortunately less than ideal on the Switch. The lack of gyro controls leaves you with no out-of-the-box solution for dealing with the limited travel of the Joy-Con sticks, and this issue with control is made even worse if your sticks are prone to the infamous 'Joy-Con drift'. Risk of Rain 2 requires very specific aiming in many cases as you snipe at far away targets before they become a problem for you up close, but the fine adjustments you need to make when aiming like this just aren’t very simple to pull off with Joy-Con. If you have a Pro Controller, aiming feels substantially better due to the improved sticks, but this then limits your options for when you’re playing in portable mode while out and about. Ideally, the developers will include a gyro option in the future and this issue will be wiped away, but just be aware that, as things stand, Risk of Rain 2 all but requires a Pro Controller if you want to get the most enjoyment out of it.
A big part of the overarching structure of Risk of Rain 2 is how the in-game achievements are directly integrated with the gameplay, with new items and characters being regularly unlocked as you hit new milestones. Some of these are as simple as reaching a certain level in a run and others are as difficult as completing a hitless run up to a point or finding an obscure secret on a map, but they all provide meaningful goals to attempt each run and increase replayability substantially. Right at the start, there’s an impressive array of offensive and defensive tools to make each run feel fresh and interesting, but this is increased by several orders of magnitude as you start adding more to your potential arsenal. Those of you that enjoy more ‘persistent’ roguelikes will find plenty to love here, as there’s a persistent and tangible sense of your progress from run to run. The developers have pledged to expand this area considerably via the introduction of several new characters and items, too, so we expect that it’s only going to keep getting better.
From a presentation standpoint, Risk of Rain 2 manages to impress, especially when playing in handheld mode. A cel-shaded art style is used to great effect here, characterized by plenty of sharp lines and bright, bold colors that make each of the more hectic battles a veritable fireworks show. Each level is given its own color scheme and feels truly distinct in design from the one before it, and all of them absolutely nail the effect that was achieved in the last game in which it feels like your character is simply an ant on the surface of a much larger world. The action is consistently backed by a relatively chill electronic soundtrack, but it feels oddly fitting for the stop-and-go nature of the action. There aren’t a ton of tracks included here, but a couple of them are quite memorable and notably improve the already deeply enjoyable gameplay.
Whether you’re playing in docked or handheld, the framerate holds relatively firmly to 30 frames per second in most encounters, which particularly impressed us in handheld given the occasional intensity of the action. All the same, when dozens of enemies of all shapes and sizes are crammed onto the screen, Risk of Rain 2 is likely to drop down to about 25fps. The dropped frames are fortunately never enough to majorly impede on one’s enjoyment of the gameplay and we’re still impressed by the kind of performance Hopoo Games managed to squeeze out of the Switch hardware, but those of you that are particularly sensitive to such performance drops may be disappointed.
One major area that could use a rework, however, is the overall PC-centric design of Risk of Rain 2’s UI. Things like how menus can’t be scrolled using the D-pad—forcing you to use the stick to move a slow-moving cursor around the screen—or how all the text is written in laughably tiny font makes this feel like a somewhat rushed port, as the current UI is clearly not designed with the Switch in mind. You can use the touchscreen when in portable mode, which helps to make navigation a little snappier, but we hope that the developers will make menu design more Switch-friendly in coming updates.
As far as multiplayer is concerned, you can only play with up to three other players online; there’s no same console co-op, nor is there an option to play locally with multiple Switches. This lack of local multiplayer features will no doubt come as a disappointment to some, but it’s understandable given that—at least for same console multiplayer—there are performance issues regarding the hardware. When playing online, we found that performance went off without a hitch; quickplay matchups were snappy and there were no dropped or lagging connection issues to be found. Voice chat isn’t supported, but it’s simple enough for you to signal to the others where objectives are via the placement of temporary waypoints. Only time will tell how ‘live’ the multiplayer lobbies stay, but for those of you that prefer to play these sorts of games with others, you can rest assured that Hopoo Games has got you covered here. All things considered, we were quite impressed with how smoothly and painlessly online multiplayer works in Risk of Rain 2; in an age where certain *cough* high profile first party releases have hilariously bad online performance, it’s rather amusing that a relatively low-budget indie release can pull it off without issue.
As you may have gathered from a lot of the language of this review, Risk of Rain 2 is very much what one would call a ‘work in progress’; development is ongoing and it’s even still labeled as Early Access over on Steam. Now, we feel that the version of Risk of Rain 2 that you can currently buy off the eShop at time of writing does certainly justify the asking price on its own, but the official ‘launch’ is set to come sometime in Spring 2020 after four major content updates in the months to come. Some of you may wish to wait until Hopoo Games completes development next year, but we’d encourage you to take the plunge and buy into it now. There are some notably rough edges to the current build, but it feels more complete than some other ‘finished’ games we’ve played from the eShop, and the developer’s track record gives us full confidence that Risk of Rain 2 will be going nowhere but up from here.
Even in its relatively unfinished state, Risk of Rain 2 proves to be an exceptionally well-designed take on the gameplay that made its predecessor popular. The transition to 3D gameplay has been pulled off flawlessly, and the sheer diversity of gameplay options combined with the strong online multiplayer ensure that this is one you'll keep coming back to for quite some time. Even so, there are some issues that the developers will hopefully address in the lead up to the official launch, such as the frustrating navigational issues and the poorly optimized UI. Those matters aside, if you're in the market for a quality 3D roguelike action title for your Switch, Risk of Rain 2 is one of the finest purchases you can make; we'd give this one a high recommendation.