From the first time you lay eyes on Rack N Ruin and take control of the main character, it’s pretty easy to see where its influences come from. It definitely feels like something you would’ve played on a Nintendo console about two decade ago, yet Lifespark Entertainment have added a few quirks to try and turn it into something capable of standing on its own two feet. Unfortunately, while the nod to the Zelda franchise and Binding of Isaac are certainly apparent, it doesn’t always succeed at standing out on its own, even though it does channel the past in some of the right ways.
In Rack N Ruin you play as a demonic character named Rack, who is in a bit of trouble with his superior for destroying every planet and galactic system he comes across. His boss would rather he enslave the people he conquers, and he’s willing to give him one last chance to do so on a remote astroid belt where a perfectly peaceful civilization resides. That’s right, Rack N Ruin isn’t about conquering an evil force to save the galaxy, it’s about taking control of the evil force whose goal is to decimate whatever he desires.
Rack gets souls for every innocent being he slaughters, which are then used to activate shrines. These shrines serve as a fast travel point to move quickly around the world, but they’ll also refill your health if you’re in need of first aid. The shrines also serve as a kind of corruption, and change in appearance after you activate them. As you navigate the world, you’ll come across a variety of dungeons packed with enemies and puzzles that have to be solved. Just don’t die, because it means going back to the beginning of the dungeon and starting all over again, regardless of your progress before death.
Rack starts out with a very basic fireball ability to combat his enemies, but up to four primary abilities are unlocked as you progress through the story and defeat bosses. You can lock on to enemies with a shoulder button, which makes it easier to target them from greater distances while on the move, but many areas ended up feeling like it was just a matter of spamming the attack button after locking on. And the lock-on function itself doesn’t work very well, often failing to move on to a new foe after you’ve defeated what you were originally targeting, and it sometimes locks on to interactive objects in the world rather than the giant enemy trying to do you harm.
Along with the primary abilities, Rack also gains a smattering of passive abilities that can be activated for assistance. There are things such as bombs, a floating eyeball that fires lasers (it’s not as cool as it sounds), or even objects that fire in several directions when Rack shoots them himself. Unfortunately, although some of these abilities are diverse and somewhat fun to use, they never felt very effective, and most of them just ended up being a hassle to use, especially the ones that distracted me from using my primary abilities on enemies. When really in a pinch, outside of the bombs, I always resorted to my primary actions to defeat an onslaught.
Many of Rack’s aggressors have their own abilities to fight back with beyond simply melee or contact damage. Some of them fire a plethora of damaging orbs and lasers that Rack must bob and weave in and out of while fighting back. While this was fun to do at first, it gets really intense as the game progresses and I ended up feeling like Rack just wasn’t fast or agile enough to do what the game asked of me. The kind of projectile that particularly made it difficult were the orbs that bounce off walls and hard surfaces. There were times when there were dozens of things on the screen to dodge, and Rack just didn’t feel swift enough to do it consistently without a lot of luck being involved.
Speaking of Rack’s enemies, most of them weren’t very much fun to fight. Some of the walking sentry bots were cool to take on in numbers, and the very large enemies were almost always fun to destroy, but the design of Rack’s opponents didn’t feel very inspired. I was particularly annoyed with the small blobs of liquid that bounce around the world, because after you destroy one of them, it just multiplies into two other blobs and keeps going. They eventually get to a point where they stop multiplying but I always felt like I was just wasting my time even trying to fight them because of how long it took, and they were rarely a threat out in the open world.
The puzzles felt equally uninspired. Most of them revolve around placing stone cubes on levers coming out of the ground, or blasting cubes with elemental abilities after placing them in a specific spot, but none of it was very memorable. The way some puzzles were designed to move these cubes back and forth across big areas felt like it just took too long and involved no real challenge to solve.
It’s not all bad in Rack N Ruin, however. The game is a joy to look at it and I really loved the artistic design that Lifespark opted for. Almost everything in the game felt hand-drawn, and although the world itself isn’t huge, each area is distinct and really stands out from the other sections of the map. The music is also a high point. Each main area has its own theme and most of them were very enjoyable to listen to as I plundered small villages and dungeons of their innocents and treasures.
The writing, on the other hand, was a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the story and attitude of Rack is delivered via text dialogue, but it often felt like it was trying a little too hard to be snarky and funny. There were several chuckle-worthy conversations but the more I played, the less interested I was in Rack’s verbal tomfoolery, and he might have the most annoying laugh I’ve ever heard in a video game. Thankfully that didn’t pop up in every conversation.
I don’t want to make it sound like Rack N Ruin is a complete waste of your time because that’s not the case, particularly if you’re into this genre. There just wasn’t much that made me consistently want to come back and keep playing outside of the visuals and music. The gameplay really turns into a grind after a while, especially when you have to restart a sizeable dungeon for the tenth time after spending 10-15 minutes on each attempt.
For this type of game, I feel like the combat and puzzle solving should be the strongest aspect on offer, but they ended up being the worst part of the experience. Outside of the lousy checkpoint system, there really isn’t anything too terrible about Rack N Ruin, it just doesn’t have enough going for it for me to unequivocally recommend it. If you don’t mind repeating areas and using the same few abilities over and over again, Rack N Ruin isn’t a total loss, just weather your expectations before you enter.
Version tested: PlayStation 4