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Risk of Rain hands-on: Retro agoraphobia

Every level in Risk of Rain feels enormous.

Hopoo Games' roguelike shooter/platformer drops players into a gigantic and hostile world. There's a screen hundreds — maybe even thousands — of pixels tall and wide, and then there's you, almost a speck of a character, beset on all sides by enemies small and large.

At least you're armed to the teeth.

Polygon played an early version of Risk of Rain and spoke via email to the game's two developers, Duncan Drummond and Paul Morse, about the game, their influences and why they named it like they did.

Risk of Rain is presented in a retro style, reminiscent of Commodore 64-era graphics and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. You choose your hero from among several classes — some are light and nimble and carry light weapons, while others are bulky and armed like tanks — and enter a randomly generated level, where (aside from staying alive) the object is to make your way through. On the first level, you do this by finding a portal, which only activates after defeating the gigantic boss it produces to murder you.

As you make your way across the terrain, you fight, explore and collect items. Your character becomes stronger the more you fight, and you can purchase various upgrades to boost your arsenal and your stats. It's to your benefit to fight and level up before taking on the boss, but there's a caveat, too: The longer you stick around, the tougher it gets.

Also, if you die, you're starting over from the beginning.

The idea behind Risk of Rain, the developers told Polygon, comes from several of their favorite games.

"We wanted to combine a couple different genres together to create a game that we felt had all of our favorite gameplay elements in one package," the developers co-wrote. "We started with what we knew; platforming games were what we had grown up with and always enjoyed. Then we took the replayability, permadeath and a constantly randomized experience offered in recent roguelike games. We took these core gameplay ideas and added our own to give Risk of Rain its unique sense of urgency; as time increases, so does the difficulty. This adds a whole new element that puts the player in a sense of urgency and makes them make tough choices often."

"What we lack in resolution we make up in special effects."

There's something inherently inviting about Risk of Rain's sparse graphical style, which feels welcoming amid the chaos. It feels familiar because of its pedigree, but it's obvious that the developers can achieve much more on 2013 hardware than the games it emulates ever could have. Hopoo Games also layers many graphical flourishes on top of Risk of Rain's blocky foundation, which makes it feel like a descendant of the games that came before it, not a copy.

According to the developers, there are a handful of reasons for the highly stylized setting, not least is practicality.

"What we lack in resolution we make [for] up in special effects," they wrote. "The game can be intensive because all the fire, explosion, money and bodies strewn about. The aesthetic choice we chose has two very powerful benefits: one, it allows us to create sprites fast, which is important in a game that requires a lot of monster diversity. Secondly, we knew in development that the monsters had to be huge. This means that by making the player smaller, monsters that are massive and fit the screen were possible."

"We grew up playing games that mostly ignored the use of the mouse during gameplay."

Like its PC game forefathers, Risk of Rain was designed to be played with a keyboard. Players' movement is mapped to the arrow keys and you can jump with the spacebar, while weapons are mapped to the Z, X, C and V keys. Each represents a different style of weapon or attack. With one character, holding down Z a pistol at a steady pace. X shoots what I thought of as my shotgun. C offers a roll move that can get you out of tight spaces and V fires a rapid-fire burst. The more powerful a weapon, the longer the cool down between uses, and that limitation makes combat more cerebral than just unloading unlimited clips. The same weapon concepts flow throughout the selection of characters, so that playing with the character equipped with a bow and arrow, for example, doesn't require a vast relearning.

Those who aren't comfortable with keyboard controls needn't worry: Risk of Rain includes controller support as well. Though the developers prefer the keyboard, their data indicates that most people gravitate toward a controller.

"We grew up playing games that mostly ignored the use of the mouse during gameplay," the developers told Polygon. "We took a similar approach when designing the key layout for Risk of Rain and decided to go with something that most people could relate to and [that] was simple enough to pick up and play. We added in controller support for those who preferred it and didn't like using the keyboard controls."

We were surprised by the amount of depth that each class of character offers, and how each feels familiar but unique — the gulf between a pistol and a bow isn't far — and the developers told us that character variety has been a crucial part of Risk of Rain's development. Each is built upon a concept, then fleshed out to become part of the world.

"For most of the characters, we designed them around a specific weapon and what we thought that specific character would excel at," they wrote. "For example, we wanted HAN-D to be a giant robot that would be able to take on large groups of enemies with just his fists and stay in the fight. We accomplished this by giving him his own personal healer drones that he could use to seek out and steal health from monsters while he kept fighting.

"Another important aspect is that a character has to be able to make plays; something that demonstrates the player's skill. Timing headshots on the Bandit to weave in and out of invincibility or timing the Miner's dashes to avoid all damage can be very satisfying."

Risk of Rain's name is not apparently decipherable from the gameplay. The developers told us that it's more about the feeling that it evokes, and it's hard to argue with the logic behind what they called "the most asked question" about the game.

As a metaphor, it's a perfect encapsulation of the odds that tiny players face in a gigantic, random world. It's also emblematic of the way Hopoo Games approached development, with feelings and influences in mind, and then iterating on those to make their own mark.

"Starting on, we wanted something that was easily 'google-able' so people could identify us," they told Polygon. "Eventually, we were set on the idea of idioms. After we looked through idioms meaning 'chance,' we both mutually agreed that Risk of Rain was the coolest sounding one. We felt this name fit the game; there is a risk of rain, a risk of failure or bad things happening."

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