The world is an unrecognizable place after it's ravaged by the apocalypse. Now imagine how it looks after two apocalypses. It's downright uninhabitable. Mankind has been left to the confines of a single camp, with only the youth of the world left to venture into the dangerous, radioactive remains of the wasteland. As you step out into the ash-covered landscape, it starts to sink in that the apocalypse has never felt so tubular. That's the idea behind RAD, from publisher Bandai Namco and the folks at Double Fine.
But RAD isn't all 80s references and neon colors. This roguelike is tougher than a lead-laced nuclear bunker. In fact, you're going to die quite frequently over the course of your many playthroughs. That's part of the joy, as RAD proves to be one of the most accessible and enjoyable top-down roguelikes to come along in some time.
Those 80s kids
There are two narrative framing devices for RAD. There's a young girl, who provides valuable backstory. She details how the wasteland known as the Fallow got to be what it is today, not just through the intro cinematics, but also throughout the game itself. If you hit a point of interest, the narrator will provide helpful exposition on what players found and what it means to the overarching story.
The other framing device comes from a mysterious master called the Elder. He speaks to the kids and informs them that the machines that have kept their camp, known as the Now, flourishing and free of the world's toxins are failing. In order to ensure their survival, it's up to one kid known as the Rad to venture out into the Fallow and find the tools to help them survive. And by one kid, he means however many kids it takes. Because the first Rad certainly won't be the last Rad.
The Rad has his DNA adjusted to absorb the nuclear fallout of the Fallow, rather than be devoured by it, which leads to the game's defining feature: mutations. Players will randomly mutate over the course of the game, leading to a different playthrough and a different experience.
RAD's early minutes can arguably be its toughest, since you won't have any exomutations to help you out. You're basically left to your melee devices, which are a baseball bat, a flying kick, and a ground pound. Fortunately, it won't take long to grow an arsenal beyond that.
Exomutations are simple enough to come by and largely determine how successful your run will turn out. Taking cues from other roguelikes like Rogue Legacy, your mutations will be completely random. All will be useful in their own ways. There are ranged attacks like one that uses a severed arm like a boomerang, traversal moves like mutant wings for flight, and miscellaneous maneuvers like a miniature mutant companion that can fire off at enemies and be used as a decoy. There's an entire library of different exomutations and you could go well over a dozen hours of playtime like I have and not see them all, particularly since you'll likely roll the same exomutations more than once.
Endomutations are found over the course of the game, mainly inside underground labyrinths and attached to Respirators, which are giant mechanical skull stations. Endomutations are passive abilities that can either support different exomutations or help your overall build in other ways. Sometimes, you'll get a low roll and get something like increased range to go along with three non-ranged exomutation attacks. Frequently, you'll get something helpful, like quicker foot speed or resistance to certain hazards.
As you get farther into your run, you'll notice unfinished Respirator machines, which can lead to negative Endomutations. This can be something that offers a benefit with a severe drawback or something that's just all drawback, like one instance where my entire screen was run through a red filter, severely inhibiting my vision. Deciding whether to take chances on Endomutations becomes a major roll of the dice and adds an interesting element to what's already a varied roguelike experience.
The world keeps changing
Something else that keeps RAD feeling fresh is its commitment to procedurally-generating each stage. Map patterns and enemy placement become recognizable after extended playthroughs, but you'll never run into the same pattern twice in a row. The goal will always remain the same, which is to find Respirator Machines placed in random places around the map and activate them. Once activated, they'll open the way forward, where players will either encounter Alpha Mutant battles or a random boss character. You'll sometimes hit some bad RNG where you'll have the exomutation build to take on one boss, but wind up hitting a different one where your equipment doesn't work so well, which is just the breaks when it comes to this kind of game.
As you die more and more, you'll start to piece together the keys to a better run. You'll start to memorize enemy patterns, what each mutation can do, and how to uncover secret walls and the like. RAD isn't a game where you're the same player after 10 hours that you are when you start out. There is room to learn and progress as a player, even if you aren't necessarily progressing through the story. It's at such a point that you feel accomplished once you get through a particularly difficult level, while later feeling crushed that your character with a perfect build died to a gang of Alpha Mutants. RAD nails the emotional highs and lows of the roguelike genre.
Talking about the lows, you can be on the wrong end of some cheap deaths due to some cheap enemy placement. Many enemies will pop up from the ground out of the blue, dinging you for a full heart, and no matter how much you prepare for them, they can still take you by surprise. The most aggravating cases are the enemies or other stage hazards that blend seamlessly into the level art to the point that you don't see them until it's too late.
RAD has a lot to offer, even to those who don't necessarily dig the roguelike genre. The 80s references are going to appeal to every adult of that generation, the world is a beautifully-imagined hellscape, and the controls are refreshingly easy to grasp. The latter certainly isn't perfect, as it'd be nice to be able to switch between items instead of having to drop one before picking something else up and using it. But for beginners, RAD is refreshingly simple to pick up and play.
However, RAD also brings an intense, yet fair, challenge to the table. The ante gets upped frequently with more enemies and stage hazards, like lightning storms. However, players are also given plenty of tools to succeed, such as shops and items that never despawn. If you don't have room for that life-refreshing steak, it'll still be there 20 minutes later after you take a hit.
There's also so much to explore, in terms of the sheer number of mutations and hundreds of mutation combinations out there. I do wish there was a way to fudge the odds towards certain builds, but then that would defeat some of the game's appeal. Besides that, the exomutations are all wildly fun in their own way and some challenge players to approach the game in different ways.
Roguelikes don't get much more bodacious than RAD. If you take a trip into the Fallow, good luck making it out. You're going to need it.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 code provided by the publisher. RAD will be available on August 22 on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch for $19.99. The game is rated T.
- Procedurally-generated stages offer a fresh experience
- Mutations are largely entertaining and offer different ways to play
- Genuinely challenging
- Mutation controls can be remapped to your convenience
- Cool 80s aesthetic with a hilarious Elder character
- Easy to learn, but difficult to master
- Plenty of secret rooms to uncover
- Frame rate issues when many enemies on-screen
- Obstacles can blend into the art, making them hard to see
- Low enemy variety
- Can take time to see real progress
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, RAD review: How do you do, Fallow kids?