Even if you aren’t a child of the 1950’s or 60’s, games like Fallout or Metro have probably taught you that being a survivor of a nuclear holocaust is kind of a bummer, what with all the radiation, mutants and dwindling resources. Those games have also taught us that when the atomic bombs start a-fallin’, the culture freezes in whatever year the apocalypse happens. In the case of Double Fine’s Rad, that just happens to be the 1980’s, the age of floppy disks, cassette decks and Michael Jackson (or at least MJ soundalike riffs).
Nuclear holocaust is generally not a laughing matter but as is typical of Double Fine, Rad takes a far less serious approach to the subject. Exposure to radiation is not only the method of leveling up a character but the mechanic behind a dizzying array of odd and often grotesque mutant powers, like a boomerang arm, spider babies or an exploding head awarded at random. There are many, many more and because Rad is a roguelike, maps, enemy placement and mutant powers are unique to each run. The random mutant powers are definitely Rad’s biggest hook and novelty. Its other core mechanics - character and equipment leveling and combat, for example — all stick pretty close to tradition action RPG templates.
Right from the get-go, Rad offers a visually appealing, colorful, super-saturated and playful version of a post-nuclear America parked in the 1980’s, with references to popular music, technology and culture crammed into every corner and conversation. It’s an inviting and gently, wryly humorous aesthetic with good voice acting and writing that only occasionally whiffs on the joke by swinging too hard. Of course, humor is highly subjective so your mileage may vary but I found Rad’s tone to be amusing, if not laugh-out-loud funny.
Given the promise of the premise, it’s a shame that Rad took the roguelike approach for a couple of reasons. First, a more carefully crafted world and story could have taken full advantage of the setting’s deliciously cheesy era. Sure, the quests and storyline are still there but progress is often wildly uneven and frustrated by the unforgiving nature of randomized environments, mutant powers and enemies. While XP carries over after death, it takes a great deal of time to level a character even remotely up to the challenge of surviving a run through the candy-colored wasteland. Even then the luck of the draw might drop a figurative, game-ending wall in the middle of an otherwise good pass through the irradiated landscape. Although there are options for adjusting the difficulty of combat, only the most masochistic player would pile on even more challenge to what is already at core a surprisingly brutal game. A very weak starting character and ruthless, multiple enemies mean that combat requires intense situational awareness, thoughtful use of resources and — once again — a lot of luck.
There is a disconnect between Rad’s appealing world and character design, art direction and writing, and its frustratingly difficult gameplay. The world is fun to be in, with no lack of clever, imaginative touches but its combat can turn the experience sour. Gamers with grit and patience will discover a lot of layers, secrets and maybe even a little unexpected pathos but many will be turned away by the early game’s barriers.