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The Commando in Risk of Rain 2 plays a ukulele

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Hear me out: Risk of Rain 2 is the Mario 64 of roguelikes

Let’s hope it doesn’t age as poorly, though

Image: Hopoo Games/Gearbox Publishing
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

It’s impossible to talk about Risk of Rain 2 without first reflecting on Risk of Rain.

Few sequels have so successfully amplified the strengths of their predecessors, and in the case of developer Hopoo Games, few studios have so firmly grasped what made their earlier work great. Risk of Rain 2 is a raucous, clever, and exceedingly weird sequel. It is also thrilling and remarkable — not merely because it improves on what came before, but because it recontextualizes a formula that was already brilliant to begin with.

Risk of Rain was released in 2013, toward the beginning of a roguelike renaissance that would lead to the genre’s mainstream ubiquity today. Alongside games like The Binding of Isaac and the original Rogue Legacy, Risk of Rain’s core loop focused on the repetition of procedurally generated levels, while players could unlock permanent items and characters for future runs. But unlike its contemporaries — most of which were more concerned with the accrual of skill and power — Hopoo Games seemed fascinated by the accumulation of wisdom.

Risk of Rain’s signature mechanic, after all, is in the name itself. In this side-scrolling action-platformer, you battle your way across 2D levels in search of the Teleporter that will bring you to the next area. The catch? You need to defeat a boss before the Teleporter can function. The second catch? The difficulty gradually increases throughout the run. You can remain in each area as long as you want, scouring every platform and cranny for weapons and upgrades, all the while knowing that every second brings you closer to the next tier of enemies, with larger health bars and more varied attacks.

A boss fight in Risk of Rain
I died shortly after taking this screenshot
Image: Hopoo Games via Polygon

Risk of Rain 2 asks the same question as its predecessor: Are you really ready for the next encounter? Are you sure?

Because yes, you found a shoulder-mounted mortar, and yes, that teddy bear’s damage resistance will keep a few more bullets at bay. But in the meantime, giant flaming golems have started spawning, and those floating jellyfish have far more health than they did before you spent 25 seconds getting to the crate on that cliff. If you’ve ever played a sport or instrument, you’re probably familiar with the paradigm Hopoo’s games are built around: You may be practicing, but so is everyone else. And getting better means gaining the wisdom to know whether you’re fully prepared.

With Risk of Rain 2, Hopoo literally shifted perspective. It’s no longer a 2D side-scroller, but a third-person shooter set in 3D arenas. It was released in early access in 2019, before its full version was released in August 2020. I’ve been playing it on and off since then, dabbling each time Hopoo added a new character or biome. I always came away impressed, if not fully hooked, by everything I saw.

But recently, with the Survivors of the Void update, I truly dove in. And maybe it’s because I spent the interim wearing myself out with so much Spelunky 2 and Rogue Legacy 2 — games that all but perfected the art of 2D action-platforming — but suddenly, Risk of Rain 2’s addition of a z-axis clicked. It felt gimmicky three years ago, but now I’m enamored by how it simultaneously grants me more control, while also giving me so much more to worry about. What’s more, I’m playing enough to unlock more characters and marvel at how Hopoo has adapted their skills to work in so much more open space. The Loader is a singular joy — its Grapple Fist lets me soar through the air, marveling at the verticality and depth that Hopoo has squeezed out of the first game’s formula, right before I punch a Magma Worm in its stupid face.

An engineer surrounds itself with turrets and healing mushrooms
The Engineer is the best character in Risk of Rain 2, please don’t argue with me
Image: Hopoo Games/Gearbox Publishing via Polygon

Ensconcing myself in Risk of Rain 2 reminds me, of all things, of those early days with my family’s new Nintendo 64, when a simple shift in perspective was everything. I wasn’t looking down on Link through an invisible roof anymore — I was actually entering the Deku Tree’s wooden entryway and sensing the overstory high above me. I wasn’t just leaping a lava-filled gap in Bowser’s Castle — I was aiming for a platform and missing just to the left, before singeing my ass and rocketing back into the air with a chance to dictate where I landed. Clearly, my childish brain told me, there are entire butt-burning universes we have yet to explore.

I realize I’m waxing poetic here. But like Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 long before it, Risk of Rain 2 showed me just how much a simple, elegant idea can be exploded to form something even more elegant. Mario’s first Nintendo 64 outing, in particular, was proof that we never really know what’s coming next, and that the simple act of jumping might take on completely new meaning, if only designers can tilt their head to see it from a different angle.

Has Risk of Rain 2 had as much of an impact as Mario 64? Of course not. Its scope is decidedly narrow and its ambitions are confined to a small world focused on frantic combat in a straightforward, never-ending gameplay loop. But did Risk of Rain 2 reframe a game that I still consider close to perfection? Absolutely. Should Hopoo ever make a Risk of Rain 3, I’m hard-pressed to imagine what it will look like — my imagination swims at the thought of universes the studio hasn’t shown me yet.