At first glance, Ra Ra Boom looks like an energetic brawler with a badass cast of women unleashing fists, kicks, and bullets on waves of robot baddies, each hit punctuated with rainbow-colored explosions as metal body parts sail across the screen. It is absolutely what it looks like: vibrant, energetic, and full of character. But look a little closer, and right alongside the Lisa Frank color palette and the Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic, you'll find a story about a group of young women not just battling robots, but overcoming their own grief and internal struggles in the process.
During my hands-off preview, I got a little insight into this part beat-'em-up, part run-and-gun game, and the tricky balance studio Gylee Games has had to strike in telling an intimate story of loss and personal growth within a genre that rarely leaves room for emotional resonance. "It's a constant balancing act," CEO and writer Chris Bergman told me. During one of the opening levels I had seen, the charismatic characters would banter back and forth in the midst of battling robots that were exploding into nuts and bolts. "We probably cut 40 minutes of cutscenes and dialogue from the first level so we could keep the pacing up, but [kept] just enough to give the player an idea of who these girls are."
In Ra Ra Boom, the people of Earth have solved climate change with the aid of artificial intelligence. So how did AI solve global warming? Well, by eliminating its most predominant cause: mankind. In an attempt to save the world, humans created an AI that, in turn, created an army of robots that began to wipe out the human race. So in an attempt to survive, humans fled the planet and began to colonize on spaceships. Despite the growing trend of AI tools making constant headlines in our reality of 2023, Bergman assured me that it was purely coincidental, as production began years prior, in 2020. But not all themes were unintentional, specifically grief and personal growth.
Bergman suffered the loss of a vital figure in his life in 2018, so he began to find healing in telling this story. It centers around four girls who were born and raised in a post-Earth setting, never once stepping foot on the planet. To them, it is but a dream--a mythical place now overrun by a sentient race of robots. That is, until one day, things go awry, and the AI species finds its way to space to hunt down the remaining humans. In the process, the four girls suffer a devastating loss that hurls them into a state of mourning, while having to face the looming army of robots ahead.
But for all its story chops, the gameplay appears as frenetic and action-packed as you'd expect from a modern beat-'em-up. I watched as Vee, the shield-wielding heavy-hitter, juggled robots in the air, beating them into a pile of mangled metal pulp; and I saw Saida, the silver armor-adorned fighter, shooting off missiles from her rocket launcher while wielding two daggers. Saida filled a special meter that would unleash a wall of rainbow fire, and Vee would shoot off her machine gun from a distance. While the game supports four players, I only got the chance to see two characters in action at once.
Ra Ra Boom also adds in run-and-gun mechanics, with Bergman noting Contra and Metal Slug as inspirations. In combining the two genres, Gylee gave the levels a lane-based layout. Across the ground of each level, I saw lines designating the space in which a player is standing, making it easier to identify where you're shooting, which helps keep the pace up (and although I was not actually playing, the lanes seem to quickly blend into the environment and fit naturally into the action).
Contra and Metal Slug aside, Bergman was not shy of listing off its other beat-'em-up influences. Castle Crashers, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and Streets of Rage 4 were all games Gylee Games staff were playing during Ra Ra Boom's development. While beat-'em-ups of the past decade have served as a guiding path in the genre's modern era, Bergman also noted that a childhood of hanging out in arcades in the '90s played a major role, especially with the deliberate Lisa-Frank-esque color palette. Instead of going full-retro-pixel art, the team favored an illustrative, cartoon-like look, with an emphasis on '90s aesthetics. Menu screens look like Trapper Keepers, and the upgrade screen features crude hand-drawn images right out of a teen's notebook--even the UI has that black-and-white speckled pattern.
Gylee Games had noticed a gap in the gaming market for "non-sexualized badass women" and had help from writer Ak Fedeau to flesh out that side of the story. But despite the emphasis on a female cast of characters, Bergman emphasized that "this game is for everyone, whether you're a 12-year-old girl, a mother, or a veteran beat-'em-up fan like me." Ra Ra Boom is shaping up to be a game about grief and femininity, wrapped up in an action-packed brawler about mankind fighting for its existence against its very own creation. But we'll have to wait and see how it manages to balance its hefty themes in a modern-day beat-'em-up in Fall 2023 for PC.
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