Rack N Ruin attempts to pull at the nostalgia strings, getting inspiration from all sorts of old-school adventure games. Instead of giving you a hero, though, you get Rack, a little demon who is hell bent on destroying planets. This demon-driven adventure game attempts to blend some of the best classic titles into one cohesive and humorous adventure – but how close does it come to this nostalgic gold?
Despite being, for all terms and purposes, a bad guy – or, in this case, a bad demon – Rack is incredibly endearing, so much so that you find yourself rooting for him. He's the loveable goof who thinks that he's much larger than he truly is. As part of the demon underworld, Rack has been on a mission of conquest, so of course this overzealous little fella ends up destroying planets instead. As his punishment for crushing instead of conquering, he's sent to a planet that's quite beautiful, and left to rot with other demons who've failed in the past. Our energetic little friend will not go down without a fight, however, so naturally he sets out to take over the world that he's imprisoned upon.
For most of the game, you'll be either exploring the world, which is basically a bunch of different areas strung together, partaking in furious combat or trying to solve puzzles. In that respect, the game is very old-school in design, minus the 8-bit look. Where it attempts to stand out is in its tone, as it attempts to sprinkle hard rock into different aspects of the game, whether it's the attitude of characters or the kicking rock music that plays during huge boss fights.
Aesthetically, the game is gorgeous: colours are bright and in your face, character designs are intricate, and the whole setting looks like one giant cartoon. Traversing around the world is simple enough, and resembles the overhead camera angle from something like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It's also extremely humorous when you're allowed to corrupt a part of the map, unleashing demons, so you go from prancing around this happy looking place, to creating a dark, brooding, and scary location. The best way to describe this game is Invader Zim meets the aforementioned A Link to the Past, so much so that the first dungeon resembles some classic Legend of Zelda challenges of old. Everything sounds great, too, and in theory, everything should meld together perfectly, but there are certain gameplay aspects that don't quite work.
When beginning the game, Rack is incredibly weak, explained by his banishment at the hands of the evil overlord. So, it makes sense that you have very few powers. Gaining new powers is actually part of the progression system, but Rack never ceases to feel slow, stiff, and underpowered compared to his enemies. The combat system may be the culprit for this issue: you hold down the X button to use a certain power, like fireballs, and circle is used to activate items. This means that combat essentially consists of constantly circling foes and spamming the attack button.
Not a problem in itself, issues arise when enemies get tougher, do more damage, and consistently surround you. There are very few options outside of the use of items to make you quick enough to not get surrounded, or powerful enough to take out large numbers of enemies quickly, making a lot of deaths feel unfair. Having a high level of difficulty is not the issue, as, like titles such as Bloodborne have taught us, difficulty can be invigorating when used correctly, but more times than not, failure seems cheap in Rack N Ruin, and Rack's snail-like movement is at fault. Fortunately, things do get better as new powers unlock, but it just never feels well balanced, with combat that begins to seem like it isn't made for the types of encounters that the game throws at you.
To alleviate some of these issues with combat, the release provides items that increase Rack's ability for a limited amount of time. You can really pack a punch when you're fully stocked, but this should arguably be the case without the items. As such, regular battles can feel like an unnecessary chore, and are only truly fun when you're well equipped.
Boss fights, on the other hand, are spectacular. They're usually big, mean, and the previously mentioned rock music makes the battle that much more epic. This is where old game design works the best, as these fights are a fair challenge, and the only way to emerge victorious is through learning the pattern of their attacks, and countering them. Needless to say, it's extremely satisfying when taking a big baddie down.
For the reasons that we've already outlined, exploring the world is a hassle at times since combat is inevitable when enemies spread out through each area. But as if being overwhelmed wasn't punishing enough, the checkpoint system is harsher still. Checkpoints are far apart, and when exploring, it becomes annoying. Dying will eventually become a formality, and the level designs are not seamless enough to bounce around the areas without a good amount of travel time. If combat was much better with dodging and handling groups of aggressors, this would be more of a non-issue, but the fact is that cheap deaths can and will happen.
In stark contrast, moments where you aren't being bombarded with attacks and bombs are quite enjoyable. Simply roaming the world and finding all sorts of secrets is a reward in itself, and Rack N Ruin captures this sense of discovery perfectly.
However, Rack is the star of the show. He's funny, evil, and oblivious to the world around him. He likes to demand things of people, and because of his diminutive size, he's completely ignored. Thankfully, you'll want to keep on playing just to watch his story arc unfold.
Sadly, the title is brought down by another issue, in that getting lost is fairly easy. The environment changes depending on what area you're located in, but within that area, the locations look too similar. It also doesn't help that given directions to your next destination are extremely vague.
Elsewhere, puzzles vary from simply moving blocks onto a couple of switches to some real head scratchers. They add a nice break from the rage-inducing combat, though, even if they sometimes lead to yet more battles.
Even though the game is flawed, we can appreciate the old-school game design, and when it does click, and you have incredible powers and an abundance of items, it becomes a blast. This is a creation that makes you want to love it, but unfortunately, charm can only take you so far.
Rack N Ruin is a lot of fun when everything clicks, but these moments just don't happen often enough. If you're into top-down button mashers, then this may be worth a look. Roaming the world, while confusing at times, can feel rewarding when you make new discoveries, and Rack himself is an endearing character. Some poor design choices bog the experience down, however, and it's a real shame – especially when you consider the types of games that clearly inspired this title.