'Risk of Rain 2' Makes You a Force of Nature
"The sweet, pure joy of watching the numbers get bigger."
All screenshots courtesy Gearbox Publishing
Risk of Rain 2 always starts the same way: You are flung, via drop pod, into an alien wilderness with nothing but your chosen character’s core abilities and stats. With the third-person camera superglued to your character, you climb over ancient ruins, blast monstrous enemies, and find treasure chests.
But forty-five minutes into a run of Risk Of Rain 2, I’m loaded up with something like fifty of the game’s randomly-dropped equippable items, granting my Huntress character’s various attacks a myriad of even-more-dangerous bonuses: lightning strikes, explosions, area-of-effect immobilizations.
If I’m lucky, this is how all runs end up, a character built over time into a walking ball of damage through finding items and stat boosts littered over the game’s various environments. A chest on the top of an ancient ruin might hold a percentage boost to my attack speed, or if I’m lucky the drone buried under a lava spout might give me the edge necessary to take on the next horde. The only way to survive the game’s slowly-ascending difficulty levels is to keep moving, trust in the whims of randomization and item drops, constantly on the run and on the offensive against the throngs of alien threats.
I realized, then, as I carved through another wave of fireball-slinging lemurian lizards, that my crucial enjoyment of the game so far was intrinsically linked to its lack of conventional “balance” in design. Risk of Rain 2 is a game about the snowball effect, the gradual stacking-on of more and more artifacts and equipment to a character in a desperate arms race against the game itself. It’s fun because by that point, the challenge is less about dealing damage and more about managing the hordes of enemies eternally pursuing you throughout each level.
Risk of Rain 2 is still in early access, but the bones of its gameplay are very much in place. It’s a roguelike, in the sense that every run begins in the same way, with the exception of the chosen player character. You are dropped into one of two introductory areas, and enemies begin spawning almost immediately. The longer you play, more enemies spawn, both at higher frequencies and at higher levels of health and offensive capabilities.
Killing enemies gives you gold, which you can spend to unlock chests in the environment containing items to help against the hordes: a soldier’s syringe to boost attack speed, or a teddy bear to raise your percentage chance to block attacks. Found items are visually represented on your character model as well as in the game’s UI, leaving endgame characters looking like they’ve dunked themselves in glue and ran through the wreckage of a toy store. It’s a mess, but it’s a fun, ridiculous mess.
Every level ends with finding a teleport pad hidden somewhere in the level and activating it in order to summon a unique boss enemy and, after defeating said boss, teleport to the next area. The loop of gameplay is tight, and simple. The natural push-and-pull of wanting to get the next teleport pad as soon as possible in order to minimize time spent in a level, versus the possibility of exploring a level to find new chests and items keeps you constantly moving, constantly looking out for the next possible opportunities. Micro-decisions based around speed and maneuverability become constant—would it be better to make a run for that chest, or to activate the teleport pad before the game’s next difficulty spike?
But this relatively simple setup belies the game’s true strength, which is the sweet, pure joy of watching the numbers get bigger.
Last year’s Slay The Spire also had a gameplay style built around accumulation of items that would change your character’s abilities, both through its deckbuilding mechanics and through artifacts obtained from boss enemies or in chests. Like in Slay The Spire, continued play of Risk of Rain 2 opens up a style of play where the game’s first few levels are less gauntlets of proving yourself, and more a time to discover what build you’ll end up with. In each game, their respective first few levels’ relatively easier difficulty makes them ideal places to hunt for early items and shape your continued character development, without the time pressure of lategame difficulty.
But where Risk of Rain 2 diverges from Slay The Spire is the game’s full-throated embrace of “broken” mechanics. Risk of Rain 2, unlike Slay The Spire, allows for items to be found more than once. Maybe I end up with three Hopoo Feathers and gain the ability to quadruple jump, making engagement with aerial enemies considerably easier, but more importantly giving me the ability to traverse levels much faster than intended by puny single-jumping characters.
This sort of systemic freedom is what makes Risk of Rain 2 so fun. Playing around with different combinations of items and unlocks leads to absurd combinations, like one game where I barely shot my own gun and instead relied on the army of drones constantly following me to deal the bulk of damage to enemies. Shrines hidden throughout levels can toss in more elements of randomness, like the Shrine of Order that converts all items held of one rarity level into a stack of a single item of that same rarity level—a chance to slim down your inventory while rolling the dice on the effectiveness of the results.
The grab-bag randomness of each run makes character builds almost impossible to telegraph ahead of time. Early-game drops can change everything- if I find a high level item early in a run that means that I deal damage to any enemies close to me (Frost Relic), I’ll end up playing a more close quarters game. On the other hand, if I end up with homing daggers sprouting from every killed enemy (Ceremonial Dagger), chances are I’ll be playing to maximize final hits on enemies and thus maximize how many daggers I can have flying around at once.
Is it balanced? No, of course not. But is it fun? Absolutely.
Risk of Rain 2 is still in early access, so everything is still subject to change, but there’s something so alluring about how easy it is to turn a run from something normal into something absolutely off-the-walls unexpected. I can only hope that the game’s further development leans into this sense of design maximalism—more items, more equipment, more possible stat bonuses and effects—and doesn’t get too bogged down with “fixing” unfair combinations of abilities. Without them, it could be more “balanced,” maybe—but not nearly as entertaining.