HIGH Lighting-fast runs. Innovative design.
LOW It’s hard as hell. Luck plays too big a role.
WTF Why are there so many explodey monsters?
It’s almost a joke among people that know my tastes that I play nearly every roguelike that comes out. I enjoy the shorter time commitments needed for the average run, I like improvising and using moment-to-moment strategy, and there’s a lot of variety to be found – from art style to mechanics to genre, there’s a lot out there that can be called a roguelike. The latest to cross my path is Ring of Pain from developer Twice Different, and it’s a doozy.
While there is a story of sorts here, it’s given out in dribs and drabs and remains cryptic overall. A creepy bird creature named Owl seems to want help, while a mysterious spirit in a pocket dimension casts doubts on Owl’s motivations. It’s unclear where the player is, who they are, and who they can trust.
When a run begins, the player is faced with a ring of cards on the screen before them, but they’re only able to see complete details of the two cards directly in front. The semi-obscured cards forming the rest of the ring stretch into the background.
From this point, the player usually has a few choices – they can interact with the left card, they can interact with the right card, or they can try to ‘move’ past either one by rotating the ring. Imagine this ring being a physical thing suspended in space and then spinning it to view cards further down the line on either side, and that’s how the player navigates.
Once they reach an ‘exit’ card, they can go to the next ring or keep spinning to interact with more cards. The goal is to successfully navigate sixteen rings and win the game, but that sounds a lot easier than it is.
Like many traditional roguelikes, the player starts each run with nothing except for piss-poor attack, defense and speed stats. If they’re lucky, they’ll find a weapon or some armor right off the bat. If not, well… things might be a bit rough.
If faced with a monster card, the player can choose to attack or to try and slip past in search of resources. Ring of Pain clearly shows the player what the result of combat will be before committing to an attack, so it’s easy to see if it’s smart to strike, or whether they’d be better off trying to avoid. If the player tries to ‘sneak’ past, the AI rolls for success. If favorable, they get away scot free. If not, the monster dings them for minimal damage.
While this ring-and-card structure is innovative and fresh, like any great roguelike, Ring of Pain lives and dies in the details. In this case, the equipment and spells a player will pick up as they play.
Some of the cards are straightforward, like a sword that adds a few points to the attack stat, or a shield that does the same for defense. Other items have more exotic effects, like guaranteeing a successful ‘sneak’ X number of times, freezing enemies, shuffling the order of the cards in the ring, and more. If the player is able to nab enough of these, their odds of making it through the rings go way up. However, as I’ve hinted at, this is easier said than done…
The player carries nothing forward after a run in Ring of Pain except for unlocking a slowly-expanding variety of items that show up randomly, so there’s no reliable progression in player options, attributes or abilities. As such, a lot depends on pure luck-of-the-draw. I’ve had some runs that awarded me a weapon and armor almost immediately, and I’ve had runs where it was monster after monster, killing me in the first ring. Of course, repeated plays help a player make better choices over time, but the fact is that a lot is… just luck.
While this luck aspect isn’t innately bad, it’s frustrating to get off to a good start and then descend into a ring that is effectively unwinnable. A shocking number of monsters in Ring of Pain explode, and lower rings bring enemies that have absurdly high stats. I was consistently underpowered for going toe-to-toe with them, nor did I ever have many tricks for slipping past or somehow getting one over.
Death comes quickly and often in Ring of Pain, but I can accept it when I’ve made a mistake and I can learn from it. When a loss is the result of something I couldn’t have done anything about, it’s a bit tougher to swallow.
Ring of Pain is noteworthy in that it brings a genuinely new flavor to the roguelike genre – I’ve played almost all of them, and this one stands out. That in itself is worthy of praise, and genre devotees will want to give it a try. On the other hand, it’s a brutal ride that seems in need of a rebalance. With no reliable permanence to boost a player’s odds of success over time, winning a run seems like one big dice roll that will remind players that it this clever indie is an aptly-named experience.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Twice Different and published by Humble Games. It is currently available on Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ and contains Fantasy Violence. Although the vibe is super creepy and bordering on nightmarish, there’s nothing graphic here — there’s barely even any animation. No salty language and no sexual content.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled (see examples above) and there are no audio cues needed for play. I spent my entire time with the game muted and had no issues at all. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. Selections are made with the left stick or d-pad, confirm is A, cancel is B. Spells are used with X. The ring can be moved with L or R shoulder buttons.