We’ve seen a fair few post-apocalyptic games over the years, a great deal of them going down as some of the finest this weird and wonderful medium has to offer; Fallout: New Vegas and The Last of Us to name just two. But what about a post-post-apocalyptic game in which the world has ended twice and you can poop eggs down on mutated animals? That’s the premise of RAD from Double Fine, an immensely fun rogue-lite that proves there’s still plenty of innovation in the genre.
In a world where radiation has shaped everything beyond recognition, the fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of 80s-inspired children who can be “re-made” after they die, which is a more dystopian version of what was seen in Rogue Legacy, though without the same level of depth. You are given a whole host of different personalities to play as, but there’s no gameplay differences between them — they’re all just here to kick butt with a baseball bat.
Gameplay is, at first, very basic, almost a little too basic. Most enemies take four swipes of the bat to be dispatched with you having to constantly rely on your dodge roll to get out of the way of toxic farts and elemental attacks. You can also utilise a jump kick and a charge attack, though these aren’t skills you can always the depend on, the charge attack taking too long and the jump kick feeling finicky to execute. As a straight brawler, RAD is nothing special, but it does become so when the crazy array of mutations come into play.
You earn rads for every enemy you kill, as well as the amount of irradiated areas you help to blossom once again. Once your rad bar is full, you are randomly assigned a mutation, which range from you being able to throw your own skull to devastating effect to birthing mini versions of yourself that look like Toy Story’s Babyface, and so much more. I’ve played countless hours of RAD, yet I still feel like there’s more bonkers mutations to uncover. Even though I have had a boomerang arm, spikes coming out of my torso, and wings all at once, there’s doubtlessly wackier combinations out there.
Not all mutations are created equally, however. There’s a definite split between those that are suited for combat and those for exploration, which can be quite the bother when it comes to the game’s later levels and boss fights, the latter in particular. Mutations like Suck Face and Wind Bag are great in the overworld at helping you to reach new areas and repel enemies, but can be less than helpful in a jam-packed boss room where you would ideally have a ranged attack to pepper bosses and their minions with. Some are just generally not as helpful or damaging as others, so there’s definite frustration to be had with the mutations’ random nature sometimes. That said, on a couple of my most devastating deaths made me take a break from the game — RAD’s an irresistible experience, one which I can see perfectionists and completionists pouring hundreds of hours into.
Alongside the main mutations, players can also unlock endo mutations by either venturing to underground facilities to mesh with strange sculptures, from the environment, or by purchasing them from vendors. These are not quite as game-changing as the exo mutations, but can be a huge help when it comes to collecting items and even buffing your exo mutations with extra firepower, range, and so on. However, they can also debuff you, the likes of Heinous and Carnivore making your job far harder. It’s always a bit of a gamble when harnessing sculptures, though the debuffs I’ve endured haven’t been the end of me.
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Levels in RAD boast the now far too common “post-apocalyptic pink” aesthetic, though it suits the demented Saturday morning cartoon appeal of RAD excellently. In fact, this is one of the most charismatic games I’ve played in a long time, it positively popping with character and a goofy charm, exemplified perfectly by a disembodied voice’s random quips as you make your way through levels. Levels are procedurally generated from one to the next, which gives the game its variety. There are those who won’t jive with this on top of the RNG, but as someone who has cursed and sweated through many rogue-lites in the past, I was in my element.
It helps that the levels are always rather inviting to explore — you never know what you might uncover. The underground areas are daunting as they possess a lot of enemies in close quarters, but it’s usually where you will find the best loot and exposition in the form of markers. RAD isn’t terribly fussed about foisting its narrative on you, so those who just want to bash some mutie heads on won’t feel too distracted. I personally would have preferred some more overt storytelling, but each piece of the puzzle I discovered was intriguing, and even often quite funny; the narrator recalling how the ancients (read: us) would inexplicably wear sunglasses in the dark.
Progress through each level is determined by the unlocking of special gates, which can done by interacting with a set amount of statues with the stipulations becoming more complex the deeper you venture. Each new area yields a significant increase in difficulty with there being bigger, badder enemies and seemingly far fewer resources to lean on. Persevere, though, and you will eventually encounter either a boss or mini-boss. These are some of the toughest challenges you will face in RAD with the bosses being varied and able to call on their minions to not give you a moment’s peace. Here is where death feels the cheapest in RAD, compounded by the RNG mutations making you ill-equipped for some of the biggest bads.
Dying in RAD is a far less lenient experience than many of its peers, you being unable to carry over any of your mutations, progress or tapes (the game’s currency) into a new run. The progression comes from depositing tapes between levels, which can be spent to purchase special items from vendors that can give you an edge during the present run. The more tapes you deposit, the better the benefits with you eventually being able to pay without taking money out of your account and even getting some free bonuses for your patronage. You can accumulate a fat bank balance before too long, but no amount of tapes will stop the heartbreak of a silly or unfair death. It must be said that your end can come about very cheaply sometimes thanks to multiple successive hits or cliff falls, so that’s something you might have to just come to terms with.
As already mentioned, though, even the most heartbreaking of failures didn’t put me off of RAD for too long. The game has too much character to ignore, the simple yet gorgeous visuals backed by a killer synth soundtrack drenched in 80s nostalgia. It’s also always a mystery what kind of run you will have: I have moodily started a new run a few times only to get a killer first mutation and then be drawn in to the freakish fun all over again. With daily challenges and a tonne of modifiers to offer additional longevity, RAD might leave you mad, but it certainly isn’t bad. For my money, it could — and should — become one of 2019’s greatest sleeper hits.
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