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Risk of Rain 2’s jump from 2D to 3D is graceful chaos

It’s not easy adding a dimension

Risk of Rain 2 Hopoo Games / Gearbox Publishing
Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

The early internet had a riot when word first got out that Metroid was going 3D with Metroid Prime. Metroid, the beloved 2D franchise, could never make that transition, people said.

But the early internet was wrong.

The first Risk of Rain may not have the broad swath of popularity that Metroid does, but its fans are just as diehard. The original title is a brutally difficult side-scrolling action game with a focus on multiplayer. Its popularity brought the game to five platforms, with some Steam players racking up hundreds of hours of playtime.

That is why the transition to 3D seems like such a bold move. With that dedicated audience, the developers at Hopoo Games could have added a few new levels, characters, and items and called it a sequel. It’s happened before. Instead they’ve added a dimension.

What I find most stunning is how well Risk of Rain gameplay translates to 3D in Risk of Rain 2. The core mechanics of the franchise remain untouched. It’s still a brutally difficult multiplayer action game where dozens of enemies fill the screen with a mash of laser blasts and fireballs. I’m still playing to my class strengths, balancing cooldowns, and screaming for help from friends. It’s all just happening with a lot more depth now.

I dial down the difficulty to the easiest setting to get the hang of it for my first session. All players start with one class, the Commando, who comes packing dual automatic pistols and a handy roll maneuver.

While our main abilities are the same, my group quickly diverges in abilities as we pick up random equipment found throughout the map. I find a handful of feathers, granting me a quadruple jump, while my buddy finds dragonfly wings, letting him float around the map. One of the slicker additions is the fact the equipment I pick up shows up visually on my character, whether it’s a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher or a batch of healing fungus growing on my arm.

Risk of Rain 2’s art style enhances these visual details. It’s crisp and retro, like the cover of a sci-fi novella from the 1950s. This makes the game pleasant to look at, while also being easier to parse. That cohesion becomes valuable in later levels, as the difficulty ramps up and the screen is filled edge-to-edge with horror. But it’s always easy to pick out potential threats and pick-ups thanks to the clean visual design, despite the chaos.

The developers do seem to acknowledge some difficulties that can arise out of the conversion to 3D, though. Coordinating a group of four players is tough and call-outs are super important. Risk of Rain 2 features an Apex Legends-style ping system, letting players tag objects, enemies and pick-ups with a single button. Playing over voice chat is encouraged, but thanks to this functionality it’s far less mandatory.

It’s not all upside. Risk of Rain 2’s 3D levels are large, and the game doesn’t currently have a map to show where you’ve explored. Finding the mandatory teleporter to complete each level can be frustrating and feels contrary to the spirit of the design. My team often found itself wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where we needed to go next.

Minor drawbacks aside, Risk of Rain 2’s early access launch is strong. The developers seem poised to add gobs of items and characters over time, but the starting slate is already robust. It’s great to see a small developer take a chance with their biggest franchise and stick the landing.

(Note: There’s presently a Steam offer that grants purchasers a free copy to gift to a friend if they buy before Saturday, March 30, at noon PDT. Given the multiplayer-centric nature of Risk of Rain 2, it’s a pretty solid deal.)