Risk of Rain was originally released in November 2013, and for several years after that, it held the coveted position of being one of the few roguelikes that I always kept installed on Steam – my personal best roguelikes shortlist. Even after rolling credits dozens of times, I'd still semi-regularly jump back in for a quick run, either solo or with a few friends, despite the god-awful co-op hangups. Then we got Risk of Rain 2 in 2019, which masterfully transformed the gameplay loop of the original into a 3D shooter and completely took over the co-op space for a little bit. Now the recent release of Risk of Rain Returns has brought us back to the origins of this tiny roguelike juggernaut, and it really is Risk of Rain 1.5 – more stuff, better art, and no god-awful co-op hangups.
Better than you remember
It's often said that the best thing a remake can do is make an old game look and feel as good as your memories of it, which will inevitably oversell how good that old game actually was. Risk of Rain Returns clears that bar with a jetpack, double-jump feather, and an added retrofitted afterburner. It's the definitive version of the iconic roguelike. The art is lightyears ahead of the original, and an injection of new items and playable characters has brought gameplay variety up to the high standards of Risk of Rain 2.
Watching this series jump from 2D to 3D and now back to 2D without a single stumble feels like witnessing a dinosaur become a bird and then go back to being an even cooler dinosaur. It really is a feat of design. Despite a whole dimension of discrepancies, the core game somehow feels the same. It's that hectic balance of looting and shooting, kiting and fighting, constantly weighing the value of more gear against more time on the difficulty-ratcheting clock – and inevitably dying when you make the wrong, greedy choice.
I do miss the visual spectacle from Risk of Rain 2 of seeing your character become visibly overloaded with absurd items stuck to them like feathers on tar, but no other roguelike does item-stacking like Risk of Rain. With Returns, the 2D incarnation has gotten access to a veritable Fort Knox of busted items, many of them taken from Risk of Rain 2, but finding new use cases in side-scrolling combat. As ever, unlocking a few items after every run is one of the most exciting parts of the game loop, now with the added zing of some truly lovely UI. Actively trying to unlock specific items by looking them up in the in-game log and then pulling off absurd stunts like standing in lava for a minute straight also lends a bit of wild flair to runs.
Get the band back together
The same is true of the now-15 playable Survivors in Returns. My old favorites, Huntress and Sniper, still kick more ass than Doom Guy and Kratos' boots combined, and now I've got fascinating newcomers like the Pilot to master too. That said, Risk of Rain 2's back-ported cast is a little hit and miss. The elemental wizard Artificer feels great, for example, while Loader – my Risk of Rain 2 main – is a shadow of her former self. Loader is basically Sigourney Weaver as she appears in the climactic Aliens scene where she robot-fights the Xenomorph queen, except with a slick-ass grappling hook added onto the mech exosuit. Standing in place punching dudes just doesn't convey that anywhere near as well as swinging around in 3D environments like mecha-Spider-Man, but I guess that's a limitation of the dimensions.
I'm still missing four Survivors at the time of writing, and the quest to obtain them remains the ultimate carrot to chase. I've got to beat the game a few more times, for starters, and also cobble together some truly ridiculous item collections. This underscores the fascinating progression curve to Risk of Rain that's even better in Returns. You don't make permanent progress the way you do in roguelikes such as Hades or Vampire Survivors or Dead Cells, just to name three of my favorites. The power floor stays the same, but the ceiling gets higher as you gain new items and Survivors. But it's always just more things you might find. You always start as the same character with the same stats and no items, staring down the same clock as it inches intimidatingly toward difficulty tiers with names like "I'm coming for you."
Well, I say they're the same, but Survivors have actually gotten a big change in Returns. Risk of Rain 2 added alternate skills which let you tailor your play style a little more finely, and Returns has given the whole cast the same treatment. This adds yet more unlocks to chase – behind hefty challenges like "collect 300 items" and "defeat 3,000 enemies" – and another layer of replay value that wasn't present in the original game. It's a really nice addition to the cadence of progression; even one new skill can dramatically change the way a character feels, especially if it's their mobility tech.
Risk of Rain Returns is the same 2013 release under the hood, but the fact that I'm not just willing but embarrassingly eager to beat it a zillion more times speaks to how timeless that underlying game is. It feels like the kind of remake that could only be made after 10 years, leveraging all the updates and learnings and the rank-52-for-all-time-Steam-reviews sequel. The muscle and money from the series' runaway success has been thoughtfully applied here, and it's great to see a whole new audience get to experience a better version of that same 2013 release.