Mad Rat Dead sounds amazing. If I could judge the game based on its soundtrack alone, it would easily be a 10/10 experience. It looks distinctive too. It is memorable. Someone could come to it and think, “This is something special.” And for some people, it will be. But there are so many other elements that don’t seem to fit or make it a chore to play, keeping it from really making a mark.
Mad Rat died. He was a lab rat cut up and experimented on by a doctor. But, death isn’t the end. The Rat God appeared to provide a second chance. Mad Rat can relive the last day of his life. But, he’s decided the only way he can die happily is to kill the human who wronged him. It is up to players to keep time with the beat to help him achieve his goal, all while dealing with occasional appearances by the Rat God and Mad Rat’s own, now anthropomorphic heart.
Mad Rat Dead plays a bit like Crypt of the Necrodancer, in that there’s a constant beat set to incredibly catchy and wonderful songs. You have to move—which involves dashing, jumping, and dropping—in time with the beat. Missing the beat causes you to flub the moves and wastes your time. Having Mad Rat walk instead of using a more efficient move saves you from the constant button presses, but it also squanders the 500-to-700-odd seconds you likely have to get through an area. A goal “map” at the bottom always lets you know how far away you are from being done, taunting you and letting you worry about whether or not you can make it.
The thing about Mad Rat Dead is that for the most part its levels can sometimes feel more frustrating than challenging. The platforming segments are never terribly unreasonable. Enemy placement is fine, and their colorful and psychedelic designs are paired with targets that let you know exactly which ones Mad Rat can damage or must avoid.
It’s just the way things are arranged, the constant need to always be tapping, the pressure that comes from knowing your timed, and having a few inconsistent moves mess everything up can make later stages feel like a chore. Some enemies might not be in the right place, you might be an area where water is rising, or Mad Rat might not be in the exact position you expect after an attack. Or perhaps you have played through 3-4 levels in a row and your fingers aren’t working right anymore from constantly pressing buttons.
The exception to this is the occasional “boss” stages, because every once in a while a Mad Rat Dead will mess you up and will not play fair. Then, it goes from frustrating to… well, maddening. Again, especially if you have played multiple stages in a row and your fingers are getting exhausted by the repetitive motions when you get to one of these challenges. I don’t want to spoil it, so let’s use the first “boss” fight and challenge as an example. (After all, it is also in the demo.)
Wave after wave of transformed rats drop into a small, enclosed space. You have to kill them before time expires. Some run, stop, then run again, before stopping and finally opening themselves up to being attacked. Others leap, stop, leap, and then run before you can hit them. Yet another pattern has the head explode, return to normal, explode, return to normal, then explode and be prone. When they drop in, there’s no set area where they are guaranteed to spawn.
You have to wait until they’re prone to attack, time it so you hit them one after another, and then manage to both get out of the way of new hostile mice dropped in while avoiding the toxic blood pools left behind by deceased mice. It’s not like you have a reliable pattern to follow. It is all trial and error. It leads to a lot of rewinding as you figure out, “Okay, this is the pattern for this wave.” And, honestly, I found it would stop being fun.
Which is a shame, because Mad Rat Dead is so stylish. The soundtrack is incredible. There are these amazing, jazzy, upbeat songs from composers like a_hisa, Camellia, Dyes Iwasaki, Kazuya Takasu, xaki, and Yo Oyama. I especially loved “Rat’s Dream” and “electroQtie.” You have a Sound Check area where you can listen to everything you’ve unlocked. It also has this unique look where it feels very edgy and poppy.
And it feels like it is testing you, morally. Before Mad Rat’s journey and throughout it, it asks your opinions on certain ethical questions. It challenges you to think about the choices Mad Rat has and will make. Like you can see the character has been wronged, but it makes you wonder if his journey is a just one.
I love parts of Mad Rat Dead. The music is incredible. It looks fresh. Even the concept and the questions it asks get you thinking in a good way. But it can really be frustrating. I think perhaps if the time limits weren’t in place, it might have felt more manageable? Maybe if I could have chosen my inputs, to create something more comfortable for extended gameplay sessions? There are lovely elements to it, but sometimes its gameplay gets in the way of really enjoying the ambiance.
Mad Rat Dead will come to the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 on October 29, 2020 in Japan, October 30, 2020 in North America and Europe, and November 6, 2020 in Australia.