We’re firmly in the age of the rogue-lite now, with various takes on the genre cropping up, each offering a new spin on the do or die and start trying again style of gaming. At the same time, we’ve long had a love affair with the gaudy nonsense and retro titles of the 80s and 90s. Enter RAD, a retro themed rogue-lite that’s all set to aggressively smack players in the face until they submit or succeed.
In RAD, you play as your choice from a bunch of stupidly-dressed misfits in a post-apocalyptic world. A not-at-all-suspicious fellow called the Elder “augments” your character then throws you into the wasteland in an attempt to save what remains of humanity from dying out. It’s what is known in the game narrative handbook as your average Tuesday.
Hidden in the world are hints to a greater narrative, of a world destroyed by those that inhabit it, and with the currency being cassette tapes and floppy disks you’d have to place the apocalypse around the 80s to early 90s. You can expect a lot of vague references to Ancients until you uncover more, which in itself is a very gratifying process, as it fills in your Tome of the Ancients.
The hook is simple but effective. You smack about mutants, gaining powers as you do so, and then use said powers to smack around more Muties. If you die, you return to the beginning of the game to start again, losing all your powers and any currency you had on your person. Your means of survival in the beginning is a mere baseball bat, with other weapons unlocking as you progress.
RAD’s main draw is the powers, which unlock at random by slaying a certain amount of Muties, gaining them via terminals, or through pick-ups. These can range from giving you a projectile attack to increased jump ability, to passive upgrades that give you fire or toxin resistance. With them unlocking at random, they can make you incredibly over-powered or leave you worse off than when you started – it’s all in the luck of the draw.
Really, the core gameplay of RAD can be wildly inconsistent. Unlike other rogue-lites where they place increasingly difficult enemies in your way as you progress, RAD is truly random and this means high-level enhanced Muties can appear in the very first level, even if the pool of possible Muties remains the same. This combined with the mutations you gain being random means that some runs can be almost doomed before they begin.
Enhanced Muties are easy to spot because they resemble the standard versions of themselves only with a sharp increase in power and ability, and a cheeky little life bar above their heads for good measure. They attack in a similar way to normal, but are decidedly harder to dispatch, making it all the sweeter that they drop an actual reward as well as building the mutation gauge.
The randomness extends to the world as well, with the levels being generated each time you enter the wastelands, only keeping their thematic consistency from one attempt to the next. There’s a decent variety of locations to explore though, with complex underground networks and caves to search, often with great threats guarding the treasures you can find.
Sadly, the areas themselves are rather bland, which is incredible considering how bright and colourful they are. Luckily, there’s a mini-map (which can be enlarged) or else it would be very difficult to navigate the levels. This is only a minor niggle, as you’re never in the levels particularly long, but it does hamper the players ability to find the next objective a little. Should you want to just rush through, all you need to do is to find the correct means to unlock the final room of each level, in which either a boss or a powerful iteration of an existing mutant lie in wait.
That said, RAD is undeniably a striking game that really leans into the 1980s feel that it was gunning for, with visuals that reminded me of the 90s classic Zombies Ate My Neighbors. All of the characters and their animations are over-exaggerated. The Muties are all colourful and distinctive in their design, which has the bonus of making it easier to notice the enhanced versions of them.
The music of RAD is divine, channelling the 80s to a degree that you could swear that some of the tracks are unreleased songs by Duran Duran. The sound effects are great too, complete with satisfying squelches when Muties are dispatched, and uncomfortable screams and groans from your character as they tear off their own limbs to throw or lay little mutant eggs.
I need to give a moment to talk about the narrator that boomingly calls out at set points, letting you know the game is ‘Loading’ or ‘Paused’, or telling the player that they’re ‘Rad’. This voice begins as a hilarious punchline to everything you do in the game, but quickly becomes a grating annoyance. I cannot discount the enthusiasm though, which is astounding.
Although you lose the majority of your progress upon death, there are fortunately some things that you keep. You can put cassettes into a bank of sorts back in the village and they will be kept regardless of how often you die. Then there’s the Tome of the Ancients which fills as you progress with information about all the Muties, mutations, items, and lore you find.
Your progress on each run will also count towards an overall progress bar, which fills along with a disparaging or congratulatory remark from the narrator. This unlocks new playable characters, gameplay modifiers, and items for use in your subsequent runs. It’s a little thing, but really helps to maintain a feeling of progress in a game that regularly shunts you back.