Some of the best and worst games are unique experiences. There is just something to be said about a game that manages to stand out and redefine how exactly we view a genre. In a lot of ways, this is how I see Mad Rat Dead. It’s a rhythm game, crossed with a platformer, that attempts to blend the best and worst elements into a truly special experience. With lovely art, a killer soundtrack, and big ideas, is this a rats dream come true, or did it die before things started.
From the beginning, it’s clear there is a lot going on in Mad Rat Dead. Following your untimely death as a laboratory rat, you meet the rat god who offers you a chance to relive the last day of your life and make your dream come true. Filled with anger towards the way he was treated, the rat decides he wants to return and kill the human that ultimately ended his life. You’re allowed to return but quickly learn, regardless of what you do, your life will end at the end of the day.
As players progress there is clearly more going on and the story starts to evolve as you get closer to having the ability to actually kill the human. It makes interesting twists and turns, though a lot of it is happening in the background. Either through delusions or thoughts that will ultimately lead to that climatic choice, assuming you can make it to the end.
In all my time at Just Push Start, I don’t think there was any experience I found more polarizing than Mad Rat Dead. Right off the bat, I found the music amazing. Seriously, there is such a diverse range of songs and tones that just stand out. It actually made such an impression I started using it to help test headphones for our tech reviews and it will likely remain in the rotation for a while. It’s also a wildly imaginative experience.
At first, it’s a rather sterile world. You’re in a building trying to escape your cage or the building, invoking a feeling similar to the start of any given Pinky and the Brain episode, before leading to a more colorful and diverse world. I won’t reveal all the radically different bosses and locations and bring up one of the most interesting stages, which involved a cat.
Instead of using the creature’s size and power to create fear, something Moss did a fantastic job of, Mad Rat Dead opts for a very cartoony depiction of a cat. For the level I am talking about, only its eyes, teeth, and a couple of whiskers are initially visible through a crack in the wall. Throughout this level you’ll see the cat attempt to kill you through a wide variety of cracks, making a rather lasting impression. This stage does a lot to create dread and excitement through largely the fear of the unknown. It’s just shame gameplay itself is rather rough.
There really isn’t much to the core concept of Mad Rat Dead. Every song has some kind of beat, which you need to maintain by inputting commands. One key difference between this and, say, Hatsune Miku, is you can input any command. You can charge, jump, dash or drop, it doesn’t matter, as long as you can finish the level. This makes it super easy to focus on what matters, keeping the beat, it’s largely the esoteric elements that hurt the experience.
Generally speaking, if I died, something that quite honestly happened a lot, it was due to either not immediately understanding what I need to do or something unexpected happening. One of the most common mistakes I made was how I approached enemies. Certain jumps would have enemies spaced out in a way where I couldn’t just jump and hit that enough time to hit every enemy, nor could you jump, dash and then jump to defeat the enemy. No, I was only successful if I first dashed and then jumped, leading to a number of unexpected failures or repeated mistakes over something relatively simple. Other times I’d jump on a platform and a book would randomly fall from the sky, or there would be a flame trap or something equally random.
All of these mistakes can be overcome without too much time. Dying just lets you rewind the clock a bit, allowing players to ultimately change their death. Going back to my dash and jump example, I could keep attempting that jump until I realized that was the correct combo or getting the return timing right. This prevents it from being too tedious, though it takes some practice to know when to restart or what to do.
Revisiting levels you have a good understanding of what needs to be done is also substantially easier. This is why it feels esoteric over hard, something that leaves a bitter aftertaste. There aren’t many positive things I can say about fighting a boss and not knowing the attack will move to the left instead of the right, getting hit, going back and not having enough time to avoid it, repeat it like 10 times and then get to the next move where I repeat the cycle isn’t exactly fun.
Even if the levels themselves are hit and miss, revisiting them can be a lot of fun. On the level selection screen, you can pick a different stage and background music, giving it a different feel. Sometimes quicker beats work better than slow ones and vice versa. It also allows you to possibly better handle the countdown timer, though that largely hinges on mistakes, something you may or may not make.
Mad Rat Dead Review – Verdict
In so many ways I want to like Mad Rat Dead. It has an art style I love and the music is so good I legitimately want the OST, it just isn’t fun. Most stages come down to trial and error, to the point where you basically need a practice run before doing a real one. People more in-tune with the concept will do better but for most, it can be frustrating. I still think there is a good enough game to warrant visiting and enough side content to get past those hurdles, there is just no denying these shortcomings prevent Mad Rat Dead from being as enjoyable as it could be.
[Editor’s Note: Mad Rat Dead was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and a review copy was provided to us by the publisher.]