Wow, I haven't seen graphics this small since Oids on the Atari ST. Still, lurking behind these diminutive pixels is a fiendish, deep and fun challenge. Risk of Rain sees the player surviving a cargo ship space crash, starting off on a random level, exploring the area and meeting the locals.
A variety of crates survived the crash and provide extra health, money or equipment. Bigger crates require money to open, while stores offer a limited or random choice of upgrade. To get to any of these you'll need to whack the native life with a wide range of weapons. The ultimate aim is to find the crashed main part of the ship and figure out a way home, but its mostly about the exploration!
Shotguns take a few seconds to reload, SMGs deal light but persistent damage, and with 12 characters (eventually) to choose from, you can be tossing bombs or delivering head shots with the best of them as you find a favourite combination. Other characters have various skills like electric fields, grappling hooks to shoot them across the screen and so on.
The clever trick that makes Risk of Rain a must-play is the ever increasing difficulty level, the longer you hang around exploring a level, the harder it gets. Yet, the more you explore the better equipment you can discover to fight off the increasingly tough aliens that range from blobs of jam to giant colossus and raging imps. Judging the balance makes for a fine and highly randomised line between reaching new heights or yet another death.
To exit each level you need to find a portal, activate that and you have to defeat the boss character while surviving for 90 seconds. You can survive first and then defeat the boss, but you still have to tidy up any other stragglers before you can leave, the game's only rather redundant feature.
Killing gains experience which boosts your health, but there are lots of other ways to stay fighting fit and dealing out death, finding the right combination, and getting them on a run, is the key way to progress. Sometimes you can't quite jump high enough to explore everywhere so a new route or a handy jet-pack may be needed.
You should definitely start playing on the Drizzle difficulty setting to get the hang of the mechanics and to get an idea of what some of the weapons and bonuses do. After that, Rainstorm provides it's true challenge and will wipe that smug grim off most gamer's faces. The less said about Monsoon mode, the better.
With a range of characters to pick from and a huge arsenal of bonuses, buffs, weapons and extras to pick up, there is a fair chunk of flexibility in how you approach the game, but each play-through is largely down to luck. If you pick up a couple of drones and the right gear, you can happily march through until the game gets to the higher difficulty levels, without worrying too much about strategy.
There's also multiplayer, with up to four of you scampering around the level, which can be fun, unless you die, in which case you become a spectator until the next level. At the higher levels, you really need to choose your equipment wisely, a drone repair unit can be priceless, but how about faster health regeneration or a sackful of mines? Really kicking ass can depend on luck and keeping moving, but Risk of Rain is one of those games that makes you feel alive.
Fortunately, even on the Vita the tiny graphics are pin sharp, and the small text is perfectly readable, other games could learn from this approach. While the screen can get cluttered with your buffs, there doesn't seem to be any slow down.
Aside from the Monster Logs, a slightly sad omission is that exploring is just about escaping, there's few real secrets to discover, except for some artifacts tucked away. Look for a curved artifact gate on a level and then figure out what the secret is to get it to spawn. There's also not much attempt to populate the world with "wow" bits of landscape or hints as to what the hell is behind this planet's mysteries. But that's more an observation, not a criticism, and probably down to the procedural landscapes that present a slightly varied map each time.
While its perhaps not as more-more-more as Spelunky thanks to the longer play times, Risk of Rain is definitely a game I'll be coming back to a couple of times a day to see what new toys I can discover. A final word goes to the soundtrack, which is superb, like having Jean Michel Jarre and Mike Oldfield doing mashups - awesome stuff and perfect for the game.
Price: £7.39 on PSN
Progress: Escaped, but only 36% complete