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Double Fine's Take on Roguelikes, 'RAD,' Is Charming, But That's Not Enough

Key to any roguelike is nailing the loop, but in 'RAD,' that loop gets frustrating and boring quickly.

by Patrick Klepek
Aug 15 2019, 2:34pm

Image courtesy of Double Fine Productions

On paper, the pitch for RAD is awfully compelling. Double Fine, one of the few studios with a knack for successfully injecting humor into games, working on a stylish, accessible roguelike from the mind of Lee Petty, director of the studio’s excellent Metroid-style game, Headlander. But in practice, RAD brings some promising ideas to the table that quickly falter under the grind demanded by roguelikes, and all the chuckles in the world can’t do much to keep that at bay.

RAD takes place in what it calls a “post-post-apocalypse,” where humans were wiped out, another race emerged from the ashes, and they, too, were also wiped out. It’s a good bit. Energy to survive is running low, and so one person from the village you’re from must venture into the wastes to find resources. And if those wastes consume you, well, it’s time to find another chosen one whose unique slate of abilities will be enough to survive the wild.

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Roguelikes are tricky because, unlike most games, they’re hostile. While it’s true lots of games feature death, they’re generally more interested in seeing players make progress. But roguelikes are a genre built on repetition, with players expected to die frequently, using past knowledge to get a tiny bit further on the next attempt. This hostility is worn like a badge of honor by players, a punch in the nose that’s frustrating and enticing, a dare to come back.

But it’s a fine line between frustrating and enticing, and in the handful of hours I spent with RAD, it’s one Double Fine’s latest doesn’t successfully walk, as charming as it may be.

Because the land is gnarly, you are granted the ability to absorb the world, blessing players with wild and unexpected powers every so often. (You get the first one in a few minutes.) In practical terms, as you level up by killing enemies, you get a random upgrade, which could be anything from the ability to shoot fireballs from your hand, drop trails of poisonous sludge from your legs, watch as a third hand emerges from your chest, crawl underground and burst on top of an enemy, slow down time, temporarily turn an enemy into an ally with mind bullets, toss your skull and use it as a bomb, or transform your face into a snake and poison enemies. And these are just the abilities I can remember running into while playing around a few hours this week—the game says there are tons more.

This is RAD’s big promise: Every time you die—which, despite the goofy 80s aesthetic suggesting it’s a friendlier place than other roguelikes, happens a lot—you’ll get interested in grinding through the game’s levels all over again because the abilities will radically change every time. And it is true that the abilities you get radically change from run to run. I often started each of my runs with such a wildly different set of powers that my strategy and approach would reset. Where the promise begins to falter is that a lot of the early powers aren’t as effective as their funny descriptor promised, and which drove me to a conservative style of play. My best runs always involved a distanced-based ability that let me mix up my close and long-range attacks, and any run without one quickly ended in disaster.

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This central tension between experimentation and playing-it-safe is common in the early hours of most roguelikes. You find a build that works, and get frustrated when you can’t spec in that direction. (See: Every time I couldn’t find ice grenades in Dead Cells.) Over time, as the pool of possibilities widens alongside your knowledge of the game, you find weird and surprising combinations that prove effective. Key to that, however, hooking the player through those hours, which is often accomplished by mechanics—combat, platforming, something else, or a combination—feeling really good. RAD, like a lot of Double Fine games, feels… what’s the word? Squishy? It feels fine to jump, attack, and roll here, but it doesn’t feel good, and RAD is a game that definitely needs good to start picking up the slack.

This problem is exasperated by how boring and grind-y the first few areas feel, areas you need to fully explore in order to get a base set of powers and upgrades to be successful later. The first two areas are easy enough to blow through without breaking a sweat, but the third area? The third area is a massive, unexpected difficulty spike, swapping basic enemies for hordes of mini-bosses, and transformative mechanics equal parts cool and infuriating. (I pulled a lever that changed the weather, prompting a lightning bolt to chase me every few seconds. It was interesting until it knocked my health while trying to buy from a vendor.) I can see the loop RAD is going for, and maybe it's one that clicks some hours beyond the ones I've invested. That's part of the dance with these games.

I haven’t made it past the third area, and every time I fail, knowing I’m headed back to the first two areas, my heart sinks. (My colleague Matthew Gault, who also enjoyed the game at first, is in the same boat.) That’s a bad sign for a roguelike. Some other roguelikes, like Dead Cells or Rogue Legacy, alleviate this stress by rewarding players with permanent upgrades or unlockables that persist over runs, making seemingly “failed” runs still feel like a measure of progress. RAD doesn’t seem to have anything like this. While not every roguelike needs such a concession—plenty of great ones, like Spelunky, don’t—its absence is felt all the more acute specifically because those initial areas so quickly lose their charms.

It’s fitting I wrote this on the same day Spelunky 2, the sequel to my personal favorite roguelike, was delayed. Spelunky is brutal, cruel, and darkly funny. It also happily ate up more than a hundred hours of my life, most of which included me dying. I clicked restart because my failures were a moment to reflect, and I was ready to head back into the fire. "Maybe this time." If nothing else, at least the way I died was probably hilarious? In RAD, dying prompts a sigh, a sign I should probably just move on.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've seen any interesting roguelikes, drop an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com. He's also available privately on Signal.