I thought that I was all but done with the whole 80s retro synthwave/sci-fi vibe that’s permeated media lately, and most definitely the endless post-apocalyptic fiction in gaming. Then along comes Double Fine and Lee Petty (the guy behind the supremely superb Stacking) with RAD, a game dripping in neon, totally tubular 80s fonts and CRT scanlines, set in a post-post-apocalypse. Crucially, it’s a game that pulls those elements together in a final product that’s reverent without feeling dated, challenging without feeling ‘retro-cheap’ and full of the kind of RAD-ical, gross attitude that made children the world over fall in love with the likes of Garbage Pail Kids back in the day. I’m kinda into it.
Like other games of its ilk, RAD doesn’t spill all of the tea at the beginning. That’s not to say there’s absolutely no setup. The deal is that humanity is on its second apocalypse, with the first one all but ending humanity and leaving it up to the mysterious ‘Menders’ to try to turn things around. Cue apocalypse dos and humans are trying to pick up the pieces that the Menders left behind and sort shit out. Enter The Elder, an equally mysterious being tasked with finding a brave kid to venture out into the dangerous outside world of ‘The Fallow’. RAD happens to be a ‘roguelike’ game though, so you’re lucky to get much more than a shove out the teleporter door and a ‘good luck!’ from The Elder and a ‘press this to attack and this to jump’ from the initial loading screen. Past that point the onus is on you to figure out the many mechanics, abilities, enemies, hazards and most of the game world’s lore.
Like any good roguelike, RAD is all about venturing out into the world as far as you can before you inevitably screw up and eat shit. Then it’s back to the beginning as a whole new kid (morbid, I know) to take another crack. It’s a top-down action game where the order of the day is beating up scores of mutants with your trusty bat and just a little bit of voluntary radioactive body mutation (double morbid). Yep, instead of avoiding the nasty mutagens that create all of the deadly creatures roaming the landscape your chosen kid willingly subjects themselves to the effects in order to gain new and frankly frightening powers. Powers like the ability to throw balls of fire, sprout spikes from their torso, control the minds of enemies or even swap their human head for a giant snake one.
Between collecting power from slain mutants and finding hidden Mender artifacts, you’ll slowly amass a menagerie of mutations resulting in both combat abilities and passive buffs. With those and the occasional extra piece of gear, RAD has a really great-feeling power climb in each new run. Some of the best moments in the game come from accidentally discovering secret underground lairs full of awesome mutations, only to return to the surface and absolutely whomp everything in your path as a flamethrowing snake god. Honestly, just jumping into each new run and enjoying that ascent to greatness while discovering new powers (and combinations of them) was my main motivator to putting hours into the game. While the intentionally-cheesy plot is cool and there’s enough hidden lore to be found, they take a bit of a backseat for the most part. That does leave a little less carrot on the stick in the early game, before the gameplay really takes off, but it doesn’t hurt things too much.
Once you’ve settled into the groove, RAD can be pretty hard to put down. That ‘one more go’ sensation is strong, especially once you start building up your standing with the human NPCs living at your home base as well as shopkeepers and the bank that keeps your video tapes (the game’s currency) safe when you croak. You’ll die a few times before you start to actually ‘win’ your runs, but eventually the goal becomes less about pure survival and more about discovering all of the game’s secrets. It’s far from the most challenging roguelike out there, but there are definitely times when your luck will burn hot for a while only to completely run out in the home stretch, like toilet paper at a chili festival. Plus, if you’re like me and a forgetful idiot you’ll probably find yourself cocking up fresh runs because you’re no longer immune to things you were last time.
Outside of the main mode, there’s not much else to RAD other than a Daily Challenge option that pits players against each other in single runs on a leaderboards. I almost wish there were an online co-op option because of how well it would work in standalone runs but it’s not the biggest dealbreaker. It’s a slightly anaemic package overall but it definitely looks and sounds the part. The aforementioned 80s-inspired visuals are slicker than the late great Prince and the sounds are just as smooth. Despite the various filters and garish palette, everything is communicated surprisingly well from a visual standpoint. When you find yourself in the inclement nuclear weather that sometimes obscures the colour palette it becomes clear how useful those colours were in signaling obstacles and enemy patterns. Some might find the over-the-top, in-game narrator grating but honestly I could listen to him exclaim “floppies!” all day.
Though it’s fairly basic at face value, RAD gives back just as much as it gets. With time and an appreciation for its aesthetic, fans of challenging retro action games and/or modern roguelikes are sure to have a good time exploring The Fallow, smashing mutant skulls, growing a mutant skull, dying and doing it all again.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher