Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the closed beta for RAD by Double Fine Productions. The first time I heard about this game was when it was teased for the Nintendo Switch in the Nindies Showcase back in March. But this closed beta was actually for PC. I wanted to give my thoughts on this current build of the game for those thinking about buying it.
The first thing I’ll say about RAD is that if I was going to buy it I would certainly choose the Nintendo Switch version, assuming they don’t add an online multiplayer component, which I actually really think they should for this particular game. The game is much more suited to a controller and mobile play than desktop gaming. It’s a roguelike dungeon crawler with perma-death mechanics. It actually reminded me a lot of Let it Die. I tried it with both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro controller. I have to say that I liked the Wii U Pro a lot better than the Dualshock 4 for this game, but a big part of that was because I couldn’t remap the buttons. The game says you can remap the buttons but the feature wouldn’t work for me with either of the two controllers I tried. While this didn’t make the game unplayable, it certainly was inconvenient. The default button map isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just not ideal for me. Being able to remap the buttons on my controller would improve my gameplay performance considerably, in my opinion. To clarify, I was able to remap my primary mutations between three specified buttons in game, but not remap the entire control scheme like I wanted to.
The main selling point of RAD’s gameplay is the mutation, or “RAD”, system. Each time you play the game you start as a normal kid with limited abilities. All you can do is walk around, swing a weapon, the default being a baseball bat, jump, ground pound from the air, and dodge roll. That’s the basic essence of the game. You move through procedurally generated areas that work just like floors in any roguelike swinging a bat until you die. I say procedurally generated because that’s what’s being reported, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see a lot of repeated areas. Not entire floor layout, but specific sections of maps seemed to be repeats. Maybe it’s procedurally generating a set of fixed islands, as all the levels are made up of disconnected island structures that are reached via bridges and warp points.
Your goal is to survive as long as you can and get past as many floors as possible, with each floor ending with a boss fight of some sort. There is an endpoint that you can reach, but I’m not sure if it’s a fixed or random number of stages that have to be beaten to reach it. I only reached the end once during the beta. It showed me one of multiple endings. You can also find and consume items to refill health or boost performance. Pretty standard roguelike fare. What makes the gameplay interesting is the leveling system. You do not level up in the traditional way where you get more HP and stronger attacks. Instead you gain mutations that grant you special abilities. These can be anything. I don’t for sure know the total number of possible mutations but according to the compendium in the game’s pause screen there are a total of 87.
Primary mutations are active abilities that you use. Secondary mutations are passive buffs. Both are key to surviving. Your XP bar fills as you kill enemies. Every time it fills, you get another primary mutation. You can have a maximum of three primary mutations at one time. Each primary mutation is linked to a single button press. Once you’ve acquired three primary mutations filling up the XP bar causes them to develop further. The gain additional characteristics that enhance their usefulness. For instance, there’s a mutation that gives you ranged physical attack. When you level it up again the range increases by a considerable amount. Each time you level up after acquiring three primary mutations, a single mutation develops at a time going in order from left to right. Meaning that if your first mutation is at+1 and your second and third are at +0 then your second mutation will develop to +1 the next time you fill the XP bar again.
These mutations can be anything. I was very surprised at the variety of different capabilities players can get, and according to the compendium I’ve barely scratched the surface. Some of the things I gained the ability to do were short term flight, spawn mutant clone babies to fight enemies for me, throw my arm like a boomerang, enslave enemies for short periods of time, and protrude spikes from my body causing a lot of damage. The mutations were interesting, highly different from one another, and for the most part, easy to use. According to the compendium, there appears to be 56 total primary mutations. Though there are quite a few mutations available, I’ve already seen mutations repeated multiple times, having not yet gotten them all. In fact, there was one time where I got two of the same three mutations that I had gotten the round right before. There are also special landmarks in the game that replace one of your primary mutations with a random new one. You do not have to interact with these if you don’t want to and you can’t choose which of your mutations is changed.
Secondary mutations may actually be more important than primary ones. These are not acquired through filling the XP bar. You get these by finding special mutation landmarks that automatically grant you an additional secondary mutation. The most I got at one time was eight, with all being constantly active for the duration of the round. I don’t know what the maximum number of active secondary mutations is or if there even is one. These buffs are just as varied as the primary mutations. Some of the ones I got were immunity to fire, longer range projectile attacks, an extra shield against toxic attacks, and increased movement speed. If you can find enough secondary mutations and manage to get the right primary mutations, all of which appear to be random, you can get some really strong builds. There appears to be 31 secondary mutations. These I did see repeat between playthroughs and they weren’t always useful or at least not at the time they were acquired. For instance, there’s a secondary mutation for improved range attacks. But often I’d get this when I didn’t have any ranged attack mutations active so it was a useless buff.
What’s very interesting is the fact that some secondary mutations are negative. I got one that made it so you couldn’t see where you’ve already been on the map. While this was annoying in practical terms, I like the fact that you can get negative mutations. Plot wise that makes perfect sense because it’s ridiculous to think that all mutations would be beneficial. While mutations of both types are meant to be considered and used individually, it’s the art of using them together that makes for truly effective play. Without a doubt the best run I’ve had was only possible because I was able to use my mutations as a collective. This includes both primary and secondary mutations. I had one primary mutation that gave me drastically higher and longer jumps, one that gave me a charge attack, and one that extended spike out of my body in mulitple directions for massive damage. By using the charge attack while jumping I was able to jump over groups of enemies. While directly above enemies I would use the spike mutation and damage them as I sailed right past them, inflicting damage and quickly escaping the line of fire. I was able to use this on pretty much ever type of enemy including bosses. When coupled with the various secondary mutations I had such as ground fire immunity, toxic pool immunity, and faster movement, I was able to inflict continuous combos and avoid pretty much all damage in most cases.
The gameplay is very smooth. While I wanted to remap the controls, they were fairly accessible and easy to understand. It’s really just learning to use the mutations effectively that has any sort of learning curve, and it’s not a big one. While RAD is perma-death for mutations, it does have a few long term unlockable upgrades. Your main weapon can be changed every time you go back to the base, which you can do between levels and at the beginning of every new round. New weapons can be unlocked as a reward for certain achievements. I was only able to unlock two additional weapons so far but both were noticeably stronger than the previous one I was using. You can also unlock quirks. These are permanent buffs that you equip from the character selection screen at the beginning of each round. You can only equip one at a time. The only one I’ve unlocked so far grants a fire shield for one of your hearts. Another important long term mechanic is money. Money can be used to purchase a variety of things each round such as health restoring items, keys, and access to special mutations. These items disappear when you die. But you can bank money between levels so that if you don’t want to spend it at that moment you can bank it and then access it again later at the base. Vendors appear all over the levels but they all sell different things from round to round and don’t appear in the same locations.
There are quite a few items in this game with many different uses. This is where the luck component of the game comes in. In my best round I just happened to find multiple instant mutation items in the first level. This allowed me to develop a full set of attacks much earlier than you normally can. This increased combat ability so early in the round allowed me to accomplish so much more than I had in previous rounds. Up until that round I’d never beaten one of the main bosses. In that round I easily brought down two before getting tired and saving the game to continue later.
I’d say the gameplay works rather well overall, but I did encounter a number of bugs. While it’s not a genre I tend to favor, I did find RAD enjoyable in small doses. Thankfully you can save and continue games later. Rounds can be long if you can survive, but they can also be short. My longest round so far lasted more than two hours and was the only one where I reached an ending. I encountered two serious bugs that affected gameplay. The first was that I wasn’t able to claim the heart extension reward after the second major boss I defeated. While this wasn’t game breaking, it was very annoying and got me really angry. Like with Zelda games, defeating a boss fight nets you a heart extension. The place where it dropped when I beat the second boss was under his corpse, which never disappeared unlike with previous enemies, including the first boss I defeated. The game would not let me pick it up no matter how hard I tried. The second was that the game completely crashed on me once. I don’t know what caused it, but thankfully the game let me continue on the stage where the game crashed. I assume it’s an autosave feature.
Visually, RAD is about what I’d expect from a top down roguelike. The camera is above and at a slight angle from the player. It’s about the same view as that in Bastion or Hyper Light Drifter. While it’s certainly not AAA quality graphics, it’s fairly decent looking for a roguelike game. It’s not trying to look realistic and thus uses a very animated style but with a large amount of detail. Lots of little things come together to make something fun and child friendly, but certainly not childish. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia filled with debris from multiple past civilizations, a number of highly differentiated enemies, and lots of plant fauna. But the real depth is in the small details. The rust on burned out cars. Tufts of grass scattered throughout a sandy wasteland or cracked roads and abandoned construction zones. Wooden planks placed over gaps as makeshift bridges. It’s these little things that set the tone of the world and they do an excellent job.
What I really appreciated most about the graphics was the mutations. As your character mutates, his/her physical form can change drastically in a plethora of ways. This is important for the tone and gameplay. Your physical appearance changes based on the mutations you unlock, ultimately connecting the player with each specific round on a more personal level than in many other roguelikes I’ve played. Enemies too come in mutated forms. You can find more than one version of an enemy as you progress forward. Obvious details like size and color differ between different versions of enemies. But also finer details like spikes can differ between different versions of the same creature. I also think it’s important to note that I never made it past the third level so I actually expect a great deal more in variation between enemies and types of enemies than I was able to access during the beta. But to be fair, the compendium only lists a total of 38 enemies, of which I’ve already found 17, and seven bosses, of which I’ve only faced one so far. So maybe there’s not as much variation as I hope as far as enemies are concerned.
The HUD is simple, intuitive, and spacious. Across the top of the screen you will find the XP bar with HP, in the form of sectioned hearts, directly under it on the left side of the screen. On the right side of the screen under the XP bar, you will find the current level map and your counts for money and keys. I’m really happy with the map. It’s simple yet effective. It shows the nearby surrounding area and moves around the map as you do. But what works best with this map is how it tracks your past movements. The map is dark gray by default. As you walk in any direction, light gray is added to the map, exemplifying your specific movements. This makes keeping track of how much of the current level, or even just current room, you’ve already explored so much easier to manage and cuts the time to find the next place to go down considerably. The map also shows any items currently waiting to be picked up, since they never disappear, which is a good thing. You can only carry one item at a time as a default and then at least one more as a benefit from a secondary mutation. Currently carried items are shown below the HP meter. The bottom of the screen shows your mutations with primary mutations being in the bottom left and secondary mutations being in the bottom middle. I also really like that the HUD shows you which button to push for each mutation and items at all times without looking cluttered or ugly.
While I’d never say that RAD is worth buying just because of the graphics, they are absolutely not a hindrance. Double Fine has certainly made better looking games in the past, but this project looks exactly the way it should for what it is.
The audio is solid in this game. It’s clear and quite detailed. Steps make a sound that changes based on the material you’re walking on for example. All effects are laid onto the gameplay perfectly. There’s no lag between the audio and the action. And each action has a matching effect. That includes the abilities gained from mutations. The overall mix of sound is great at default with everything set to 100. But you can control master volume, music volume, sound effects volume, voice volume, and ambient volume all separately and customize their mix levels from 1 to 100. I don’t know if I’ve played another game with five separate audio channels available to the player for mix customization. The one thing I did notice was that sometimes the music stops playing during normal activity. I don’t know if this was a bug or intentional, but I’ve seen it in numerous other games so I don’t assume it wasn’t supposed to happen.
RAD actually does have quite a bit of writing, both plot and dialog wise, as well as a ton of narrative commentary. The beta gives a lot of plot information right from the start. In my experience, roguelikes can go one of two ways when it comes to writing. Sometimes the plot is super important but delivered subtly once you’ve seen the opening sequence. Other times there’s a really flashy opening that makes you think the game is plot heavy but really it’s just for foundational reasons and then basically disappears once the game actually starts. I want to say this is the former, but really it’s a combination of both. This is kind of the issue with roguelikes though. When you can’t continue from where you died but the plot is contingent on getting farther into the game, there’s a good chance the player may never reach the end of the plot. Thankfully I was able to see one of the nine endings, but honestly the only plot given is the opening and the post final boss closing. Everything in between is just lore and world building, which is fine but it’s not necessarily accurate to call this a plot focused game.
The game starts off by establishing that the world has suffered not one but two apocalypses and that you’re one of the few remaining survivors. As with most post-apocalyptic dungeon crawlers, you’re tasked with journeying into the wastelands for resources to aid your community. That’s the general plot, but it’s not lazily done. The game starts off with an opening cutscene to establish the setting, as well as an additional cutscene to specifically explain how you were chosen and how things work/will work in the game, as well as why. As you make your way through levels, you find artifacts that are accompanied by narrators, both a male and female used randomly, giving more details about the history of the world. In this way you get a lot of story, but not much development of the current plot. The game doesn’t do much in the way of discussing the future other than the initial establishing cutscene and the ending(s). The game’s compendium says eight possible endings are available but when I got one it said 1/9. At this point I can’t say for sure one way or the other. I don’t know how each of the endings compare, but the ending I got was kind of inconclusive. I was able to reach the ending after defeating three major bosses.
RAD has a lot of lore and written info in the compendium. This guidebook expands as you find and unlock more things. It gives you the ability to read about pretty much everything in the game including mutations, enemies, weapons, artifacts, and the endings you’ve seen. It will even replay narrations for you. It’s nice to see this level of documentation provided for interested players in a roguelike of this kind.
There are also NPCs that talk to you. Many can be found in the base. Some of them say things that actually affect the game, but mostly it’s just décor. Most of them are scattered throughout the levels though. Some of these won’t talk to you, but many will. There are shop keepers, treasure hunters looking after chests, and random communities just hanging out. I found a hidden community of mutants just trying to avoid being ridiculed by normal looking people. I also found a cult waiting for their god to send them message through a projector screen hooked to an antenna. Some of the NPCs will even ask you to do small tasks that net money.
Some of the best writing in the game is the narrative commentary. The male narrator comments on what’s happening in the game sparingly. When you get a new mutation, he says it in a celebratory Halo style “Double Kill” voice. But that’s just one of the moments when commentary occurs. My favorite piece of commentary was when I switched to the stronger weapon I unlocked. The narrator screamed out “Chicken shit!” and it was subtitled on screen. This made me laugh really hard. Overall, the writing I witnessed was fairly good for a roguelike. But I’d have to reach later levels before I can accurately quantify its value and impact on the gameplay experience as a whole.
As this is a roguelike, it’s inherently built for replay. But there are also a number of features that add legitimate replay value. As mentioned, there are several mutations, all of which have been quite interesting to try out so far. There’s also the fact that the mix of mutations you get is always different from previous plays. There are also a lot of things to unlock. Additional mutations, additional playable characters, and additional weapons are all available to unlock. There seems to be a total of eight playable characters. In the beta I’ve only managed to unlock four so far. I have yet to notice any performance based differences between them. There appears to be six unlockable weapons but I’ve only gotten one of them at this point. There are also 37 achievements for RAD on Steam and eight possible endings. The game also has daily challenges with special completion conditions tied to an online leaderboard. There’s a fair amount of stuff to do and reasons to keep playing the game. And with the procedurally generated levels, it will take quite a while before you get bored with the levels. I don’t know what the release price will be yet but if they manage to keep it to no more than $15 then I think RAD could absolutely be considered worth buying.
As this is a beta review, feedback to the developer is just as important as presenting the project to gamers considering buying the final release version. So let me clearly define what I’d like to see changed/added in the final version of RAD.
1. Continue by Stage
As this is a procedurally generated roguelike dungeon crawler, perma-death is kind of a given for the genre. Personally I’ve never liked that. I understand it, but I think it’s unnecessary. The important difference here though is that when you play a game like Overture, there’s no story. So it doesn’t really matter if you have to start over every time because you’re not really building towards anything. But when a game has a plot, which RAD does, albeit a small one, then being able to finish that story needs to be at least in the realm of possibility for a majority of normal players. Now I only had to clear like six levels to reach an ending. But that’s still six levels that not everyone will be able to beat consecutively. My point is that there needs to be an efficient way for bottom to mid-tier players to reach all the endings without having to take the time to get Dark Souls good. For me, the simplest solution is that you should be able to continue a new round at the farthest stage you’ve reached or at least at milestone stages such as after main bosses.
2. Button Mapping for Controllers
As with all games in 2019, you should be able to customize the button map to suit your needs on any controller you choose to play with. This should be the standard for any game released today. As I said, RAD appears to have this function, but it wasn’t working properly for me in the beta on either a DualShock 4 or a Wii U Pro Controller.
3. Primary Mutations Replay
The game appears to have 56 primary mutations. I’ve unlocked just a small sample of those so far. Some of them I really liked and others not so much. I found all of them to be quite creative though. At some point, the player should be able to gain some control over the mutations they’re getting in a round. Like once you’ve unlocked so many mutations it should give you the ability to start with a certain mutation of your choice or at least prioritize which ones you get. The randomness is part of the game’s shtick and that’s fine but once the player has put in enough hours to unlock all the mutations, they’ll then have a number of them they’ll want to avoid and others they prefer. And since the game requires you to start from scratch every time, getting to the ending will require you to get the right set of mutations to suit your style of play. But at random that won’t happen very often. Granting some level of control to the player would make a huge difference both for progress and enjoyment. This should not be made available to the player early on in the game though.
4. Cooperative Play
It’s very rare that I ask for multiplayer in a game. But RAD just makes sense to have a coop mode. Whether it’s local or online, I think this game would be so much fun to play with other people. In a way it kind of works like ToeJam & Earl, which absolutely doesn’t require other players to enjoy, but is enhanced by the ability to do so. As I was playing it, I was reminded a lot of games like Gauntlet and Metal Slug. The ability to play this cooperatively with friends could be really fun.
5. Lock-On Feature
This is your standard roguelike design where you’re looking at the game from a top down third person view. Enemies can come at you from any direction and you often face many at once. Currently you just attack in a direction by either looking in that direction for close range attacks and/or using the right stick to aim in that direction for ranged attacks. As with any multiple enemy scenario, prioritizing enemies in a specific order is key. But all this has to be done manually in RAD because you can’t lock on to enemies. There should be some way to lock on to a specific enemy to help you keep track of them in group scenarios and make aiming ranged attacks more effective.
6. Full Store in Base
Within the levels there are stores scattered about that carry random items. This system works fine. But the store in the base, which you can potentially visit every time you complete a level, is trash. When you first start the game, it only sells one lousy key which you don’t even really need because you can find them or buy them from most vendors in the levels. The base store should carry all available items in the game. Or at least the ones you’ve already found during play. There are key items that can totally change the outcome, such as an extra life item that I’ve only seen in one store and couldn’t afford at the time. The base store should carry everything, or at least more than just a single, fairly useless key. The game does imply that the store will grow as certain conditions are met but how and to what extent I haven’t figured out yet. By the time I finished playing the beta, two additional items were added to the store. It seems to me that you expand the store by making purchases.
7. Dynamic Item Consumption
You can hold one item at a time as a default and gain the ability to hold an additional item with a secondary mutation. But you can’t control the order in which you use those items. You have to consume the first item you picked up before you can consume the second one. This is super inconvenient and comes up very often because the second item slot mutation comes up a decent amount of the time. Different items do different things, as per usual. The most common difference is the amount of health restored by healing items. Some items restore a full heart while others restore more than that. So if you have an item that restores one heart in your first slot, an item that restores two hearts in your second slot, and you’re missing two hearts from your HP you have to waste the first item to fully restore your health. Because you wouldn’t be able to use the item that restore two hearts until you’ve used the item that only restores one. Now yes you could just wait until you’ve lost that heart again, but there’s a delay to use items when not standing still so if you need to restore health during combat this could be the death of you. You should be able to use whichever item you’re carrying in whatever order you want. Even a rotate slots system would be better than the current system.
In general, I was very happy with this beta. I found RAD to be much more enjoyable than I thought I would after seeing the announcement trailer. It’s not the next big thing or Cuphead class indie, but it is a fun little roguelike that actually has some long term goals and reasons to keep playing. There seems to be an actual plot to discover, which matters to players like me. The gameplay is accessible but constantly changing based on the mutations you unlock in a particular round. While it wasn’t a perfect game, this beta build is pretty far along. While I did have a few issues it ran well for the most part. No lagging or other game breaking problems other than the one crash which cost me just a few minutes because I was able to continue the round from the main menu when I reloaded the game. The game has a few bugs, as I mentioned, and can still be improved but it already works quite well and it’s fun to play. I need to see a release price before I can make a final judgement but I could see RAD doing well for what it’s trying to be.