Reviewed on PCAlso available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One and Nintendo Switch
The world has fallen to disaster. Generations have passed and the truth of what happened has been lost under the rubble and remnants of a forgotten civilization. Somehow though, humanity struggles on in the mutated wasteland, sheltered by a mysterious gas mask clad figure known as The Elder. His work alone has kept small spaces habitable and free from the dangerous beasts and corruption of the wastes, but his power is fading. Now, a plucky cast of kids stand as the last hope of undoing whatever is causing the endless turmoil - this is RAD.
Developed by Double Fine Productions and published by Namco Bandai, RAD is a 3d rogue-like with a lot of affection for video game history fueling it's attitude. After a brief jaunt in a hub area full of reference spouting NPCs, players are dropped into a cracked and broken land armed with nothing but a baseball bat, replete with a thoroughly standard three hit combo and spinning charge attack. From a birds eye perspective, you run, jump, dodge roll and bat your way through the wastes, beating down the enemies who lurk underground or in pools of neon toxic waste. Trigger the ancient technology you find to open the way forward, fight a boss battle or horde of strong enemies and you're on to the next stage.
As you wander the land, leaving a trail of freshly sprung greenery in your wake, you'll be attacking the enemies and scenery in the hopes of finding audio cassette tapes to spend as currency and ancient floppy discs to use as keys to locked treasure and blocked routes. Vendors offer boosts and health items while locked rooms and chests might even reward you with new abilities. There's a distinct advantage to destroying everything you possibly can to hunt down health restoring items and currency to purchase upgrades, though this can take some time and isn't all that much fun when the focus ought to be more squarely on combat.
Time in the wastes and contact with the fauna comes with a mixed result in the form of mutation. Filling your mutation bar by either killing enemies or using rare consumable items provokes a randomized transformation and a change to your abilities, be they new attacks, means of getting around or passive buffs. Your arm can become a sentient creature, capable of unleashing a flurry of powerful swings or your torso can twist and change to have four legs, allowing you to charge at enemies like a raging bull. You might gain a ranged attack that allows you to mind control a weak enemy or perhaps you'll end up with the ability to chuck your head at enemies, seemingly in reference to an increasingly forgotten Mega Drive game, Decap Attack.
After almost ten hours of play and eight runs through the game, this initially appealing idea waned and fell a little flat for me, mostly due to a limited set of moves, with some being exponentially more useful than others. A majority of enemies rely on close range attacks and, as you might imagine, if you've got a ranged attack then they'll never touch you provided you're patient and keep your distance. Even the enemies who can shoot back pose little problem when you've ranged attacks of your own, as their projectiles coast through the air with the urgency of a sloth and can even be shot down with your own bullets.
The mix of abilities is hindered further by how middling or unhelpful some of the mutations can be. The aforementioned charge attack is risky because it's not so much more powerful than your bat, but will take you into close range and might even send you flying off the side of the stage if you've mis-aimed, losing life in the process. You can get wings that allow you to reach new heights, but there's rarely anything of note in the otherwise hard to reach hilltops that scatter the land. The Toxic Dump mutation allows you to leave a trail of acid while you hold the button, but enemies are often slow to chase and in some cases are immune to acid damage, rendering the mutation useless in a lot of fights. Passive buffs are useful across the board, ranging from damage resistances to movement and critical hit boosts, but don't do anything visual and certainly don't excite with their pure utility.
You can have up to three active mutations, but in the ten hours I spent playing the game, the only time I made solid, enjoyable progress was when I had at least one ranged attack. Often, without one, combat revolved around luring single enemies from packs and dodge rolling away from their one, heavily telegraphed attack after making a single blow and then repeating the process. Losing life often resulted in time spent beating up car wreckages and bushes in the hopes of finding health ahead of boss fights and time lost to wandering the sometimes maze like, randomly generated maps while limited to a tiny mini-map for guidance didn't do much to keep me hooked in the long term.
Beyond the gameplay and punctuating the whole experience, the music, sounds and voice work in RAD is a solid mix of pseudo-nostalgic synth and gravitas instilling, but equally silly voice overs. The Elder, played by veteran video game voice over artist Jarion Monroe, is the main voice you'll hear throughout and he's a font of references to the past. You'll occasionally find monuments in the game's levels to interact with and each gives a snippet of silly lore to enjoy, though it must be said that there's little beyond the pastiche to tie everything together. For those that know their gaming history, there are a lot of sniggers and smirk provoking lines to enjoy, but those out of the loop might find themselves longing for a more cohesive backstory.
RAD is a great starting point for those unfamiliar with the often punishing rogue-like genre, with it's relatively small range of moves and enemies to master, but it's offering feels a little lacking when put next to other games in the genre. Readers who have mastered the likes of The Binding of Isaac, Ziggurat or Enter the Gungeon aren't likely to find a huge challenge, but if video game nostalgia and the retro aesthetics appeal then you're likely to find some relatively short lived fun in RAD.