Roguelikes, on average, tend to be super-serious. You have exceptions, of course. Same thing with post-apocalyptic games: they are normally super-serious, with the color palettes usually consisting of earth tones—with exceptions. Rad is the exception. It is both a roguelike with humor, and boasts a color palette that invokes a retro-80’s feel, which is one of the main themes of Rad. ”Rad” of course, also being short for mutations—something the kids going out into the world of Rad have to contend with while trying to fix the world that the ancients left behind.
Developed by Doublefine Entertainment, Rad is a post-apocalyptic roguelike hack and slash action game played from an isometric, top-down perspective. You play as a kid who must fight monsters, find power-ups, and otherwise try to fend off permadeath long enough to save the world—or bank enough currency to make the job easier for the next kid who gives it a try. And, taking place in a toxically irradiated wasteland, you’ll likely die a few times along the way.
So it’s two apocalypses in, and the world is pretty messed up. People live in small communities in the ruins of the old world, shadowed by the monolithic structures of the ‘ancient ones’—the ones who caused the whole mess in the first place. You take the role of a kid trying to brave the wastes—and the monsters therein—to turn back on the machines of the ancients, and bring some life back into the dying world. Armed with your trusty baseball bat (the first of a few unlockable starting weapons) you head off into the wasteland, picking up mutations along the way to bolster your chances of survival.
Rad leans heavily into the neon aesthetic of the late 80s and early 90s. The colors, music, and little nuances in the presentation give it a “you’re watching an old VHS” feel—with the telltale audio sign of worn-out VHS tapes and all. The character models are strange, almost chibi versions of 80’s kids, and exist in a style that I can only describe as solidly Doublefine. Rad, however, isn’t quite satisfied with the 80’s synth music (something ubiquitous with products depicting the 80’s/90s contemporarily) and instead peppered the soundtrack with metal riffs—something else I can only describe as solidly Doublefine.
Like any roguelike, each time you head out will be different—but the basic pattern will be the same. Activating machinery that looks like giant statues is the way forward—but turning these things on requires a little bit of exploration, and luck. The land of Rad might be dabbed in neon pastels, but death can come quickly to the careless.
Combat in Rad is just okay. Before power-ups, you’re stuck with a close-range melee weapon, and the ability to dodge. The enemies you encounter range from normal, to mini-boss-like elites. There are actual bosses, but you only run into them before moving onto the next area.
Dying on a run means you lose all of your progress, including accumulated power-ups and currency/keys. The only way to keep any of it is if you have the foresight to bank the currency in-between levels. The only way to make sure you can survive in the wasteland is by accumulating power-ups in the form of mutations.
Rad stands for radical AND radiation, and you’ll running into so much radiation your DNA will be twisted in crazy ways. It’s not the bad, real-life kind of radiation that makes you taste metal and dooms you to a slow death. Instead, it’s the fun type of radiation that makes you sprout mutations that you can use to burn, chop, melt or otherwise kill the mutants that roam the wasteland.
There are two types of mutations—endo and exo. Endo mutations give you passive buffs—like faster movement speed, higher crit chance, etc. Exo mutations act more like weaponry than buffs. Most will result in your kid sprouting a grotesque growth—but this growth will allow them to, say, throw their arm like a boomerang, charge like a bull, or throw fireballs from their fingertips. Mutations are acquired through maxing out your mutation level—a bar that works much like an experience bar. You can also get them from defeating powerful enemies—like mini-bosses and bosses. Sometimes you’ll also find them by opening chests found throughout the world.
Mutations aren’t the only pick-ups. There is one type of currency in Rad, and that is the mighty physical media format—specifically the audio cassette tape. There are CDs in the game—but each CD seems to be worth 10 or so cassettes. Chests, for the most part, require keys to open—and keys in Rad take the form of a 5 inch floppy disk. More rarely, you’ll find an artifact laying around. These artifacts of the world before bestow upon your kid great power. Artifacts can range from tennis shoes that give you the ability to double jump, to electronic dongles that remove some of the floppy disk requirements when opening chests.
The best part of Rad is perhaps its presentation. There is a narrator—nay, an announcer—that constantly interjects with some sort of relevant ejaculation. You pick up money, he’ll shout, “Currency!” or “simoleons” or “COLD HARD CASH” or the like. Pause the game, and he’ll yell “paused!”The announcer is amusing, though I can see how he can be annoying to some people.
The graphics look pleasant, and I really dig the 80’s outrun look. The gameplay is smooth, and the animations are fluid. I like the way the character models look, and generally enjoy the overall aesthetic. Often, I find that Doublefine games excel in a lot of areas, but end up feeling a little skimpy on the bells and whistles that come with games with a higher budget. Don’t get me wrong, Rad isn’t AAA, it just feels pretty solidly built.
Unfortunately, for me, the “just one more run” factor is missing. Great roguelikes beckon you to keep attempting them. The trick is to make it feel like you’re running into something new, or making some sort of progress—whether that’s in your raw ability to play, or in some power-up or levelling scheme the game as implemented. Rad, for me, lacked that forward momentum. That desire to keep playing never manifested itself. I didn’t want to see what mutations I was missing, nor was I particularly invested in the fate of the world that these strangely short, chubby kids inhabit.
Despite it never quite clicking with me, Rad is pretty rad. It’s a competent roguelike with a few unique elements, combat that is dynamic and fun and that is supplemented by interesting power-ups.
Rad is available now on Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR