By: Mike Chen
If you’ve ever thought, “Boy, The Legend of Zelda really needs some sarcasm and aliens in it,” then you’ve found the right fit in Rack n Ruin, at least conceptually. When it comes to execution, however, Rack is a far cry from Zelda.
Rack n Ruin’s controls are a mix of Legend of Zelda classics and The Binding of Isaac. Unlike Isaac, however, this is not necessarily a twin-stick shooter. It feels that way, though, as the primary attack mechanism is button mashing. Rack’s aim is either in his general direction or locked onto a target, with a trigger button used to cycle through additional ones.
This can lead to a feel of simply hammering the attack button ad nauseum, and perhaps a more effective control scheme would have been to separate range and melee instead of mapping them to a general attack button.
The other primary control innovation behind Rack is the interact/shield button. In most cases, this either activates a force field for defense or talks with an on-screen character. However, certain objects can be levitated when pressed in proximity, and when this occurs, Rack is frozen and the left analog moves the object around. If this sounds like it puts you in a vulnerable position, that’s because it does, so you’ll want to use that smartly.
The first thing you’ll notice about Rack n Ruin is that it’s a gorgeous game. All of the graphics have a lush painted-on feel, and the environments change their palettes from section to section. The general layout of both the overland and various dungeons feel very much like A Link to the Past, but characters are much more detailed and larger in size than the sprite-based SNES classic.
The game lacks voiceovers, but the narrative is heavy on characterization. Because of that, you’ll be reading a lot of text. This in itself can get tiresome, but the bright blue bold text makes it all hard to digest after a while. Cleaner font selection certainly would have helped make it an easier experience.
As the tone of the game is somewhat absurd, the soundtrack fits. In most cases, the score is playful, though it sometimes ventures into the absurd with modern instruments breaking into the otherwise whimsical fantasy score.
If The Legend of Zelda is the Star Wars of fantasy gaming, then Rack n Ruin is shooting to be the Spaceballs equivalent. Sent by his evil overlord father to take over planets, Rack is a snarky jerk whose sarcasm makes him likable enough to go through with his evil deeds.
That’s the motivation behind the overland exploring and dungeon crawling, all done with clear Zelda influences from map layout to puzzles. Combat is probably the biggest difference from the game’s inspiration, as ranged fighting is used much more often.
Like in Zelda, Rack gets secondary objects to battle enemies, and some of these come with passive powers too. And you’ll need them, because the difficulty curve is high.
Within the game’s first hour, I’d found myself trapped in a dungeon room with six different enemies, two of whom had Contra-like spread projectiles while the others multiplied in quantity upon killing them. These are old-school levels of punishing difficulty, and your enjoyment of the game will almost solely be based on that.
Put it this way — take a funny story, a funny character, strong game roots, and colorful graphics, and it should make for a winning formula. However, during my initial hours, I found myself constantly cursing at the screen as I was overwhelmed by mismatched enemy quantity and power, along with long stretches in between checkpoints.
So while the core gameplay itself works well, the implementation and design is biased towards high difficulties, and regardless of whether or not you enjoy the story or art or combat, this difficulty is what will define Rack n Ruin for you.
POST-PATCH UPDATE: The game now has a 1.01 patch available, one that adjusts difficulty on a number of levels. A full list is available, but the general idea is that the game is now more accessible. The most significant benefit is the implementation of checkpoints in dungeons — re-spawns are now much more logical. General enemy and item allocation has been tweaked to ease up on the player.
The game’s core twitch gameplay still requires precision and skill to handle, and its appeal is still dependent on how much you relish that experience. However, it’s a much more accessible experience and a good example of how developers can immediately respond to early feedback.
A pure Zelda clone, Rack n Ruin is fundamentally solid, and the updated version brings an accessibility to the game without changing its core gameplay. It’s still challenging, but the edge has been taken off, allowing you to focus more on its pure twitch combat, silly story and gorgeous art.