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RAD Review - The Nuking of Isaac

Gaming article by Ron Welch on Thursday, August 15, 2019 - 11:00
Review
Developer
Onyx Lute
Publisher
Onyx Lute
Release Date
November 18, 2016
Genre
Puzzle
Platforms
PC
Purchase (Some links may be affiliated)
Steam

Let’s face it, a lot of post-apocalyptic games look alike. Lots of murderous, leather-clad bandits driving around the desert in armored cars, trying to be Mad Max, but lacking the panache. It’s the post-apocalyptic equivalent of the generic Tolkien fantasy. Then something like RAD comes along, mutating our concepts of the apocalypse with uniquely satisfying visuals and lore.

You play a teenager living in a bombed-out mall. When a failing generator threatens your village, the elder asks you to go into the wasteland to retrieve a fuel cell. A soft-spoken narrator explains how the Ancients purged the world in nuclear fire, cracking the earth into fissured islands and leaving the survivors perpetually stuck in an 80s synthwave nightmare. Sometime after, the Menders came along. They built fantastic devices that would literally breathe new life into the world but failed to deploy their greatest inventions.

 

After all this exposition, your elder pulls out a keytar, has a little jam sesh, and tells you that radiation will no longer give you cancer. Rather, bathing in the glow will now gift you with cool mutations. He also gives you a baseball bat with a teleporter built into it, so all the rougelite elements make sense. If you couldn’t tell, RAD is a little high concept.

Exploring RAD’s Breathtaking Wasteland

rad fallow land
The TV Cult must be a reference to She-Wolves of the Wasteland.

Your goal in each level is to explore the wasteland, activate Mender air-filters, and triangulate their purple lasers to the boss room door. If you want to reach distant islands, you’ll need to explore a network of bunkers or use a flying mutation. Navigation is surprisingly accessible as you can jump up mountains and glide across chasms. If the bunkers prove too dangerous, you might buy double jump shoes and leap to the nearest island.

 

Mutant animals infest every square inch of the wasteland. Enemies are everywhere, usually hiding underground until you pass over them. While it's satisfying on its own to explore your surroundings, the combat feels underdeveloped. Without upgrades, you can swing your bat, jump kick, ground pound, or roll.

Mutants armed with an area of effect (or AOE) slam are especially difficult to kill in melee, partially because your melee attacks incur a brief movement lock and don't stun lock the enemy. There are a few little touches, like how a killstreak of five or more temporarily increases movement speed so you can better chain massive combos. However, this is like a delicious cherry on top of an average sundae.

 

Growing RAD’s Radical Radioactive Mutations

rad mutation station
Let the giant metal skull fill you with radiation. It's good for you!

If you want to survive the journey, you’ll need mutations. Killing enemies or eating a special item grants you XP, which gives you an incentive to kill as many enemies as possible. When the bar is full (or if you find a mutation upgrade station), you gain a new ability. There are three types of mutations: Endo, Exo, and Debuff. Endo mutations are passive buffs, like the ability to see all loot (even on hidden enemies). Exo mutations are active abilities, usually ranged attacks, like a mind bullet. You can even earn stacks of the same mutation, increasing their power. Debuffs come from bad rolls on the mutation station. They weaken your whole character, but not necessarily a specific mutation. One debuff reduced my projectile range by half.

Ranged attacks flip the combat formula on its head. Paradoxically, they both give you a fighting chance and completely unbalance gameplay. The first time I went into the boss room, three melee mutants slaughtered me in seconds. The enemies darted around while firing off AOE attacks that proved difficult to dodge at close range. I tried a hit and run strategy, chipping away at their health, but that was ineffective.

On my second run, my mutations could spawn infinite spider minions. Instead of using my bat, I just ran in circles, spawning minions until the fight ended. Sadly, it didn’t have the same satisfaction as steamrolling bosses with a broken combination of loot in The Binding of Isaac. The bat feels underpowered on its own, especially against badass mutants, but powerful mutations removed my agency. Kiting a cyber minotaur with auto-aim magic missiles isn’t fun when the boss has no way to fight back. With the wrong mutations, bosses are a chore. With the right mutations, bosses pose no threat. I only died to the growing hordes of AOE-spamming mutants.

Discovering RAD’s Best Features

rad mender tech
Just activate the Easter Island head so it vomits purple light at the boss door.

RAD shines most in its passive, initially unnoticeable movement mechanics. As a result of the Elder’s keytar treatment, you leave a trail of grass and flowers in your wake. This is such a hugely important mechanic, I’d say it’s RAD’s main takeaway from a design point of view.

 

Every time I found myself on a new island, I’d eventually find my old trail and it would suddenly click how the pieces fit together. Walking over your trail doubles your movement speed, and all that feedback helps you internalize the map's layout. This makes backtracking easy and allows you to more effectively kite enemies by running in circles around them. Plus, as activating objects creates an oasis of greenery, it feels like you’re bringing permanent, positive change to this desert wasteland.

RAD puts a lot of emphasis on optimized movement. The bunker sections have more traditional dungeon-crawling elements, but each dead end has either a secret or a teleporter pad that takes you back to the nearest hub room. Likewise, cleared bunkers have teleporters connecting their front doors, eliminating backtracking through cleared hallways. All these elements make RAD a surprisingly fast-paced rougelite.

Meta-progression is a little awkward. You have two kinds of currency, floppy keys, and cassette tapes. Most enemies drop one or two cassettes and floppy keys usually serve as a reward for side quests, which you then use to open the locked chest right next to the quest giver. While keys disappear on death, you can store tapes at a bank in the village hub. This comes in especially handy when you find the potion merchant selling three bottled mutations and you want an early advantage. However, you must have at least 100 tapes in the bank to make a withdrawal during a level.

When you inevitably die, your XP goes toward global unlocks. You’ll find many features locked behind XP walls, forcing you to grind to unlock the best equipment, new avatars, and special rules. As you might expect, XP is highly dependent on your success. The first few unlocks come easy, but you have to progress to later levels to keep up with the curve. I defeated the first two named bosses on the same run, earned six unlocks, then struggled to unlock more as the mutation lottery ground my confidence to dust.

 

RAD Review: A World of Pure Imagination

rad village
Hilariously, the townspeople have quips for each exo mutation.

While gameplay has its ups and downs, I absolutely loved the world-building. Even with the obvious Turbo Kid influence, the world feels utterly unique. The mutants look like aliens. The cracked earth merges well with purple Mender structures rising from the deep. The ruined cars and rusted scenery fill out the obligatory post-apocalyptic motif. It’s a world I want to know more about and RAD obliges with randomly spawning lore towers. Activate one of these and you’ll receive wisdom such as, “The ancients wrote, “Just say no,” but to what end?”

On the other hand, the lore towers bring up an oddity I can’t quite explain. The story moments feature a young female narrator. However, you constantly have the village elder’s radio announcer voice in your ear yelling, “TRIPLE KILL! RADICAL. NICE COMBO. PSYCHE,” and other Unreal Tournament-style quips. Due to the sheer volume of enemies, quips feel old by the 10th run and stale by the 50th. Then, as you find other tribes and technologies in the world, the female narrator takes over to explain what these things are. It takes you out of the moment when the elder narrator yells, “CHICKEN SHIT MUTIE SCUM,” and then the soft female narrator says, “Back in those days, people had to barter everything they had just to survive.”

RAD is an odd one, no doubt about that. It takes Binding of Isaac-style gameplay but gives you a melee weapon to fend off the mutant hordes. Earning mutations is fun, but upgrades trivialize boss fights while normal enemies get stronger and stronger. RAD has a great world, but the tone wavers between wackiness and a somber quiet. RAD encompasses every Roger Corman post-apocalyptic B-movie movie rolled into one with a scoop of Turbo Kid, a sprinkling of Double Fine weirdness, and a drizzle of roguelite flavor. I can’t hope to understand it, but I will be back for seconds.


TechRaptor reviewed RAD on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Review Summary

7.0

RAD has that unique Double Fine touch. While combat wavers between difficult and unsatisfying, mutations and exploration create that "one more run" magic. It's a solid experience that will satisfy any post-apocalyptic enthusiast.

Pros

  • Great World-Building
  • Fun Mutations
  • Optimized Movement
  • Satisfying Exploration
  • Side Quests
  • Watching Children Transform Into Weird Mutants

Cons

  • Unsatisfying Melee Combat
  • Mutations Trivialize Boss Fights
  • Bank Arbitrarily Roped Off
  • Repetitive Combat Narrator

About the Author

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Ron Welch

I love dissecting game design, seeing what works and what could be improved. While RPGs, shooters, and strategy games are my favorites, I'll tackle just about anything. I also do voice overs, make an award winning wing sauce, and (formerly) write about post-apocalyptic goodness.