It's a tale as old as time: The maniacs have blown it all up, and the few unlucky survivors are forced to pick up the pieces and begin civilization anew. Double Fine's Rad, however, takes it one step further. A second apocalypse has happened, and according to the omnipresent narrator, the survivors' one-word reaction is actually the correct and logical one: “Seriously?”
From the second pile of ashes, however, a new hero arises. You, the Remade, a blunt weapon-wielding child of the endtimes who has been tasked by the Menders--the new architects of the age--with going forth into the treacherous radioactive hellscape armed with nothing more than a baseball bat and a host of ungodly but powerful bodily mutations to find a new source of power for humankind.
On paper, that sounds dreadfully serious. In practice, however, it's Double Fine, a developer that seems physically incapable of making a game that's a downer. The Menders give the Remade their powers using a magical keytar, for crying out loud. Indeed, right off the bat, the most striking and engaging thing about Rad is the look of the apocalypse. Earth is most certainly ruined, nuclear-blasted several times over, but it's reached a point of being overgrown with luminescent plants, snaking, sentient vines, and neon shocks of pinks, greens, and purples. This is less the dead worlds of Fallout or Rage and more like a bizarre Saturday morning cartoon of Alex Garland's Annihilation.
Rad, however, is a double entendre of a title for the game referring not just to the irradiated nuclear landscape, but to the overwhelming 1980s nostalgia. The booming narrator could be ripped out of any number of classic action movies. The hub world where the last humans make their home is an oddball microcosm of early '80s bric-a-brac, right down to the humorous, smart-alecky characters all bearing the names of famous characters from '80s movies (Biff, Lorraine, Sloan, etc.). The soundtrack is full of incredibly catchy off-brand riffs on famous tunes like Van Halen's Jump, Michael Jackson's Beat It, and Stan Bush's The Touch. You can push the '80s vibe even further with some of the CRT filters in options, but It makes an already busy aesthetic look nearly indiscernible.
And best you believe, you need all the advantages and awareness you can get. As cool and fun and inviting as Rad appears on the surface, it becomes clear very early on that Rad is, above all else, aggravatingly hard. It's a roguelike, so the levels are all randomly laid out, but it's otherwise a deceptively simple old-school, top-down action game. When you first make your way into the wasteland, you can jump, hit stuff with a bat, and dodge. There are some unique tricks you can employ that can help, like a jump kick, an aerial smash attack, and a distance-closing lunge, but the game doesn't tell you about any of this at the outset. There's no real tutorial or in-game hint system. Instead it just drops occasional new tips during its extensive loading screens. It was hours into my playthrough before the tip came up informing me about the lunge attack, and it felt like hours prior had been wasted not knowing it was there.
A mild learning curve would be fine if the wastelands weren't so unforgiving, but despite a wide variety of enemies, with fairly predictable attack patterns, you're just far too fragile for far too long in this game. When things kick off, you get three hearts. Enemy hits strip away half a heart generally, and once they're gone, you're starting over. There are power-ups you get after every boss that grant extra hearts and/or split one of your hearts into thirds instead of a half, but you'll be surprised how little a difference that makes. If there's more than one enemy onscreen at any given moment, cheap hits are a constant danger, and no matter how well you're doing on your run, walking into the wrong area and into the wrong group of enemies all striking at the wrong time means it could be game over in seconds. In the instances where it's not, health is such a frustratingly rare commodity that even taking extra care from then on means possibly going for quite some time with only half a heart, bleeding to death all over the cracked pavement. Yes, that's a staple of the genre at this point, but in the best examples of it there's a level of preparation you're able to have where you at least feel like you have a fighting chance. That doesn't happen often in Rad.
What you do get is this: Every enemy you kill generates a certain amount of radiation that you can soak up, essentially acting as XP. Once you've leveled up, your body gains a random new freaky mutant power. This is Rad's biggest hook. The powers themselves are wildly imaginative and wonderfully animated. You could wind up with something as simple as a set of bat wings, allowing you to essentially gain a double jump and glide ability, or being able to throw your arm like a boomerang. Or you could end up with something just bonkers, like having a deformed twin grow out of your weapon arm to extend your range and attack power or the ability to give birth to two spider-baby versions of you who'll run into combat and attack enemies. When you go back to the hub world with them, the NPCs' reactions are some of the most hilarious dialogue in the game. As conceptually imaginative as those powers are, some are vastly more useful than others, and given how swift death comes for you in this game, getting a lame one at the outset basically means your entire run is doomed.
That's generally the case for just about everything meant to help you in Rad: A bit too much of your success is dependent on sheer luck more than skill. You can collect cassette tapes--the game's currency--and either deposit them at the bank between stages or spend them on items with some of the scattered merchants around, but not knowing what new creatures to expect in an area or what attacks the boss will throw at you means running the risk of spending money on a powerup that's essentially worthless during your current run. There are on-the-fly powerups called exo-mutations you can find in some of the underground areas of the game, and while they're generally helpful at first, you can wind up drawing a handicap like extra vulnerability to attacks or a distorted screen, and that, too, can spell the end of a good run faster than it should.
The good news is that the longer you play, the better your chances of finally earning permanent upgrades that make the early stages more of a breeze. There's a completely separate pool of permanent XP that you earn after you die that unlocks new characters, game variants, and upgrades. You earn the ability to buy items on credit after you've deposited enough tapes into the bank, and the local shopkeep gets better and better stuff the more you buy. There are just so many blind, stupid, aggravating deaths to be had to get to that point, though, and it's not hard to imagine throwing in the towel long before then.
There are certainly things that make fighting the good fight worth it. The story does take some subtle twists and turns as the largely teenage population of the hub world starts wondering about the point of all these legends. The boss fights get increasingly audacious in design as you go along. I'm still discovering new mutations even on the first upgrade after playing for hours. And despite an element of visual clutter, this is a compellingly colorful world to hang out in for a while. It's just that the joys of Rad require more work than necessary to obtain, and that work can feel awfully thankless at times. Double Fine's hyper-colorful take on an '80s synthpop apocalypse makes for some gratifying nostalgia at the best of times, but there's a reason why, eventually, we all moved on to grunge.