Post-apocalyptic games are so old hat. But what about post-double-apocalyptic? That’s the (slightly) novel setting that Double Fine (wonder where they got the idea?) have come up with for their new rogue-like, Rad. Rad sees players assuming the role of a teen member of a community clinging to survival in a blasted landscape, as you do. The first apocalypse “wasn’t much of a surprise” the game tells us, being of the nuclear annihilation variety, but a second rather abruptly shut down a technologically advanced culture known as the “Menders” in the middle of their recovery operation, and their mysterious machinery also litters the mutant-infested landscape. The teen protagonist must adventure beyond the safety of their village into this dangerous land, as they’re tasked with restoring essential resources for the community. (Aren’t you always?) But before they go, they get a bit of a Mender upgrade (via mystical keytar) that will allow them to turn the inevitable radioactive mutations, which come with wandering the (randomly generated) landscape to their advantage.
That last sentence gives you the two hooks of Rad - the keytar is symptomatic of the game embracing that sweet 80s nostalgia vibe, with a synth-heavy soundtrack, cassette tapes used as currency and floppy disks as keys, and a bright neon colour palette on everything that’s a joy to look at. But there’s another meaning to Rad in this post-nuclear world, of course. Kill enough mutants out in the landscape, and you’ll absorb enough radiation to mutate, gaining an active ability. These are drawn from a vast, wild range of imaginative powers based on some rather serious body modifications, with visual changes in your character to match. You may end up with giant spikes protruding from your body you can extend damagingly into anything that gets too close. Or with the ability to leave a trail of acid behind you. Or able to biff your own exploding flaming skull head at enemies. And these are some of the less weird ones.
As well as these active “exomutations” – up to three can be earned, and upgraded to more powerful versions – you also have the chance to pick up passive “endomutations” from Mender machinery, such as fireproofing or extra speed. In each run, your Rad warrior, therefore, ends up with a set of random offensive and defensive capabilities to supplement their basic melee attack. This makes for a different playstyle and varied two-stick combat each time. You might rely on a ranged-type attack to get past a boss fight first time through but arrive next run completely without one. This means a lot of relearning and trying new tactics. It’s to the game’s credit that there are few totally hopeless powers, although being lucky enough to get certain individual powers – like the ability to give birth to your own attack babies – and combinations tend to make for deeper runs.
There’s a colourful range of mutant creatures trying to end your journey as soon as they can, from exploding ambulatory fungi to hermit-crab-style beasties living in old oil drums. Though you’re often called upon to run up and mash the melee button at them, each has distinct behaviours and attack styles, so this isn’t the lottery that it might otherwise be – you can plan your attacks accordingly. This is important, as Rad joins other rogue-likes by making every hit you take feel like a mini-defeat. Though you can upgrade your life force as you venture further, health is relatively scarce, and clumsy play can end a promising run very quickly. But aside from surprises that come with encountering a new enemy type or environmental hazard as you get further, taking hits rarely feels cheap or unfair.
What *is* a bit frustrating though is that the game doles out info about your basic abilities very slowly and randomly – I played for hours before learning via a random loading screen tip that there was a very handy lunge attack (if I can save anyone else the same pain: it’s pressing the jump and attack buttons simultaneously). Double Fine seemingly wants you to discover things as you go along, but this shouldn’t extend to basic controls.
I also experienced a few performance issues on my (bog-standard) PS4 – musical hiccups and screen hitches were frequent when the action picked up, or on occasion when jumping from one level to another. It’s annoying, but not game-breaking (and may not be universal).
Although you can make some permanent improvements to your home base (visitable between stages) that also serve to make the opening few stages a little bit easier each time, these do become a bit of a slog as you head back to for each new run. Fortunately the random powers – new ones of which you’re still discovering several hours into the game – at least help to freshen things up a bit.
As you progress deeper into runs, you’ll discover more about the world and its lore as you go along, and some old-school wall-smash secret areas and unlocks reward the patient explorer. You can also avail yourself of banking facilities, putting some currency aside for future runs, which is spendable at shops both at the base and out in the world. Menus also suggest a wide range of different endings are possible, which will help to keep you coming back for more if you find it’s your jam. And Double Fine’s trademark humour is on display too, both in flavour text throughout the world and in the dramatic announcements of the village Elder as you play (“Get bent, mutie!” is a personal favourite.) Overall it all adds up to a pretty neat wee package. Take your bat and get to smashing – and piercing and melting and sawing and exploding and hypnotising...
Tubular presentation and tone hits that sweet 80s nostalgia spot.
Secrets, lore, and discoveries aplenty to hunt out.
Some performance issues with screen hitching and music.