I personally put an incredibly high premium on my free time. Much of the films I watch are those in long-running franchises that I’ve already enjoyed for many years or from writers and directors of movies I already love. My tastes in music are, sometimes embarrassingly, narrow, as I only listen to the same few dozen artists in the same 2-3 genres. I rarely watch TV as the dozens of hours spent on one story can come off as a waste of time, and I’ll often only watch shows that have a finite ending insight. Games I’m especially stingy with when it comes to time commitments. When trying new games, I heavily favor narrative experiences that can be wrapped up in under 10, or better yet, 5 hours. If I’m playing an open-world title that demands 2-5 times more time, then I better be getting consistent story revelations throughout, or else I’ll lose engagement. And if it’s a multiplayer title, there better be a series of unlocks I’m amassing that not only varies up future gameplay sessions but also gives me tangible rewards for my hours, sometimes days, of commitment.

So enter Risk of Rain 2: the third person, fully 3D sequel to Hopoo Games’ 2D, side-scrolling original. It’s an unforgiving game, not because it’s necessarily too difficult, but because it initially gives so few rewards for the time you spend in it. As a rogue-like title, that’s an expected hallmark of the genre, but even other rogue-likes like Rogue Legacy and Slay the Spire give the player persistent rewards that accumulate over hundreds of runs and dozens of hours of play. But Risk of Rain 2‘s rewards feels much less prominent, as they just add new random items to come across during future runs.

This should infuriate me. The lack of any direct story outside of item descriptions and hidden logs makes narrative an ineffective carrot on the stick for gameplay. And the lack of any persistent rewards, outside of new items and characters, means there are few tangible rewards for long term play.

Well, if that’s the case, why have I put nearly 70 hours into the game on PC, roughly ten hours into it on Switch and somewhere between both hour counts on PS4? That’s because Risk of Rain 2 is more engaging, accessible, and addictive than any other rouge-like I’ve played.

Besides the perspective shift, there isn’t too much different in Risk of Rain 2 from the original. You’re still doing your best to explore an arena while different aliens and monsters continuously spawn You still attempt to vanquish them all before the ever-increasing difficulty becomes too much to manage. You still choose between a number of characters to start every run, each with different weaponry and movement abilities to learn. You still get the leg up on enemies by using the gold earned by killing them on a variety of chests that give a variety of abilities that modify your core attributes in fundamental ways. You still travel from arena to arena by opening a teleporter and defeating a giant boss monster to grant your exit. You can still fill arenas with hundreds of elite-level enemies by dragging runs on for hours over dozens of different arenas. And you can end every run by finally falling to the overwhelming difficulty curve, or by beating the final boss that you can confront every 5 stages or so. However, there are some great enhancements to that core gameplay loop that make the sequel a bit more engaging.

With the change in perspective, combat feels quite a bit more visceral; less like you’re controlling an avatar who’s doing these actions and more like you’re doing these actions yourself. Even movement and platforming feel a lot more satisfying and precise due to this change. Thanks to the enhanced graphical fidelity, Hopoo has added nice details like how every single random item you collect in a run is modeled, and they are placed on your character’s body as you collect them. Plus, the 2 player co-op of the last game has been bumped up to 4, which makes the increased difficulty of longer runs easier to manage. But the biggest change for me is that the chaos of Risk of Rain 2 is portrayed in a much more direct way.

Upon my first run in Risk of Rain 2, I was pretty quickly overwhelmed. Even after playing hours of the first game on Vita, the new perspective and gameplay forced me to adapt. And due to that unfamiliarity with not only the game but the default character I played as, I died a lot. It took over an hour for me to make it through a teleporter boss, a few more hours to finally unlock a second character, and nearly a dozen hours to feel comfortable for more than an hour-long run. The ever increasing difficulty quickly overwhelms you with more enemies than you can ever hope to take out. So, you soon realize that it’s not about killing them all, it’s about surviving for as long as you can, and the lack of a proper ending to the game before leaving early access made this endless struggle easier to succumb to.

But after enough runs, you realize that this game is not about just surviving the chaos, it’s about using it for your own gain. Play long enough and that massive elite enemy no longer strikes you with fear but instead lights up your eyes with potential. Yes, it could kill you in just a hit or two, but killing it could earn you so much money that you could open up even more chests on the map. Or you could gamble a bunch of money away to shrines without going broke. Or you could use that money to feed The Croudfunder, one of many pieces of equipment,  to convert your money into projectiles. All of these actions make you more powerful, but also have a tangible change in gameplay feel.

Inside those aforementioned chests and within these shrines are items that fundamentally change gameplay in wildly different ways. Yes, some are as simple as the Repulsion Armor Plate, which just reduces damage taken by 5%, but most others have a much bigger impact. Fresh Meat increases health regeneration briefly after getting a kill, so if you have this item, you might prioritize smaller, weaker enemies to regain health. Along similar lines, the Leeching Seed, which heals you when you damage an enemy, might make you prioritize stronger boss monsters as they’d absorb damage for longer, and therefore would be a more reliable source of health. Or, you can get the Cautious Slug, which increases health regeneration when out of combat, and decide to sprint away from combat to regenerate health quickly. This not only meshes well with more mobile characters but also greatly complements other items that increase sprint speed and movement speed.

And those are just the items that modify health! Combat items could make your attacks explode, make enemies burn, chain electricity to other enemies, cause bleeding effects, and even slow or freeze enemies. Movement items could give you extra jumps, multiply your movement speed, or make your jumps higher. As mentioned before (with the exception of equipment items that act as an ultimate ability with a much longer cooldown) all of these are passive abilities, so instead of having to learn how to use new weapons like in other loot-based games like Borderlands, base gameplay remains the same at all times. And the best part, the only limitations to how many of these items you can obtain are if you have the money to afford them, if you have the time to buy them before enemies overwhelm you, and if your fellow players haven’t already collected them (as items are not shared between players, only money earned). That means you can not only equip items that modify every aspect of gameplay, but also duplicates of every item to increase specific abilities to the point of nearly breaking the game.

My favorite runs of Risk of Rain 2 are ones in which I’ve played for well over an hour. The ones where I have a quadruple jump and I’m getting back 50% of my health every second by doing damage. Where my movement speed is tripled, and all of my attacks do fire, ice, and electric damage to enemies nearby. It is during times like these where the chaos of Risk of Rain 2 no longer intimidates but excites. You get so powerful late into runs that you no longer feel like a victim of the chaos, scrambling to keep it at bay. You are effectively controlling the chaos yourself, exploiting it for your own gains. These enemies are tools that unlock more powerful abilities as the difficulty increases to match your growing power. Once you gain such power, and especially once you can recognize items and their effects by just their silhouettes on the battlefield, you’ll begin to feel like a God among men. 

Now, in the game’s current 1.0 state after leaving early access, that sense of agency in the midst of chaos is even stronger. There are now scrappers in every stage that let you exchange unwanted items for scrap, which can be used at a 3D Printer in-game to claim an item of your choice. This makes it easier to build out a specific set of skills that suit your specific character better. Also, runs no longer go on forever until you die, because they’ve added a final boss and an actual win condition. But even that boss will gladly wait in its own stage for you to confront it when you please, as the portal to visit it reappears every 5 stages. The boss fight itself is engaging, especially with a final twist that gets you reminiscing over all of the power you gained in the run. But no matter how you end the run, whether you choose to or were forced to by death, it always feels satisfying.

That’s what makes Risk or Rain 2 worth so much of my time. Yes, when I fail a run it feels pretty crushing, even when I check off a challenge or two. But getting to wield such immense power for even those few minutes, and the feel of keeping at bay the overwhelming force of chaos is unmatched by any other game. I mean, yes, there are loads of games out there that will give you supernatural abilities and asks you to defeat evil, but many of them, like inFAMOUS, Prototype, and Saints Row IV, are so rigidly structured that it feels more like you’re coloring within the lines and just getting to choose the colors. But every session of Risk of Rain 2 is a completely blank page where I don’t get to draw the lines or choose the colors until I’m already in the middle of drawing somehow. Every run is a new narrative of overcoming overwhelming odds through a mix of skill, luck, and improvisation, and that uncertain excitement of every run is what makes it feel so unique.

As you can see, I adore Risk of Rain 2. It has more than sufficiently justified my time with it by giving me countless stories of success and defeat while also making every new run more gratifying than the last.  I’ve loved it since it’s original release last year, but in 2020 I’ve found even more comfort with the game. This year has clearly been nothing less than a frustrating, debilitating, and painful tour of emotional traumas and physical stresses that seemed once impossible. Add on top of all of the COVID-19 and racial injustice related stresses and the pressure of trying to figure out my next move after college and you have a cocktail for one of the hardest years I’ve ever lived through. But Risk of Rain 2 has helped with those concerns, not just by being a needed distraction at times, but by acting as a microcosm of the chaos in the world right now. Much like the game, there are many overwhelming forces out there fighting against me, from law enforcement to a government so indifferent to the well being of its citizens that it’ll gladly leave thousands to die. But these evils can be kept at bay. There are tools out there that I can acquire to aid in that struggle, and thanks to my friends and family, both online and off, I’ve been able to accumulate some of those. And with enough attempts, I can eventually not only keep that chaos at bay but maybe be able to use it to propel me forward in life. And yea, odds this overwhelming are scary, but once I start feeling like I have some agency, I might be able to squeeze out some fun.

Final Score:

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