Ring of Pain is a superbly enthralling Aussie release

Posted on October 23, 2020

If you’re looking for something a little spooky this Halloween season, be sure not to overlook Ring of Pain. This Aussie made strategy roguelike has recently released onto both PC and Switch and offers a unique blend of tactical card game mechanics, roguelike elements, and a delightfully creepy aesthetic that’s sure to get under your skin.

Ring of Pain comes to us from Simon Boxer and his team at Twice Different. Made locally here in Melbourne, Aussie gamers may already be familiar with the title from its showcase back at PAX Australia 2019 or perhaps even from our interview with the creator himself as well as the game’s sound designer Belinda Coomes back in September of last year.

I’ve been spending a surprising amount of time with Ring of Pain since its release last week. I was always interested in the game ever since seeing it back at PAX Aus but I never expected it to have such staying power. At the time of writing, I’ve beaten the game 3 times including on its hard difficulty and spent over a dozen hours playing. The game excels when it comes to simplistic mechanics yet deep strategy.

You enter the ring which is presented as a set of cards that may contain enemies, loot, upgrades, potions and more. You play the game by making simple decisions. Do you interact with the card on the left, the right, or pass by the card on your left, or right? Outside of activating tomes or scrolls, these 4 options are the only choices you have to make within the game. On paper it doesn’t sound like there’s enough options here to create a deep strategy experience. Yet that’s kind of the brilliance of Ring of Pain. You’ll move through the ring, making basic decisions as to what you’d like to interact with, yet uncovering a rich and enthralling strategy game that’s so much deeper than you’d first expect.

“I was looking at roguelikes, dungeon crawlers and card games and trying to find a space where I can innovate.”

Ring of Pain finds a way to be both accessible for newcomers and engaging for strategic players alike. The layout of the game is easy to read and all the information you need is available and easily digestible. The challenge comes from reading the playing field around you and plotting out the most effective path to victory.

The game has elements of multiple genres and finds a really interesting way to combine them. In a recent interview with Checkpoint, lead developer Simon Boxer told us that “I was looking at roguelikes, dungeon crawlers and card games and trying to find a space where I can innovate.”

The game certainly feels unique. Part of that uniqueness would have to come from its visual and audio design as well as its unique narrative. Simon describes the visual style of Ring of Pain as inspired by a mental condition known as aphantasia that impacts the way those affected can visualise mental imagery. It’s actually a really affecting art style that’s capable of giving all the card designs and creature designs a unique and creepy look.

There’s also a narrative to uncover within the game, something that roguelikes have been moving towards more and more recently, such as the phenomenal Hades. Granted, the narrative here isn’t the main driving force behind the experience and you shouldn’t go in expecting as much dialogue as a game like Hades. What you will find however is two characters vying for your trust and warning you of the other. By the end of any given run you’ll realise that you can side with one or the other, which drastically alters the final moments of the game and delivers two different endings.

Simon commented on the narrative of the game, saying “I think it’s important that games have something underneath them, something conceptual like a cohesive narrative to tie it all together. And even as a roguelike I wanted to differentiate the product in that way and tell a story that will give players a new experience. Something they haven’t had before.”

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According to Simon, there’s about 3,000 – 4,000 words within the game, and they’re all presented as rhyming couplets. It’s an artistic choice that certainly adds to the mystery and creepiness of the game. You can’t help but feel there’s more going on to Ring of Pain than what’s presented on the surface. And I very much appreciated that level of obfuscation and mystery as a player trying to wrap my head around exactly what was happening before me.

Whilst the narrative, visuals and sound design is all fantastic in Ring of Pain, it’s ultimately the gameplay that kept me coming back. There’s a lot to see here and a surprising amount of depth to uncover. The loot that can be acquired within any given run can synergise in incredibly interesting ways with one another, making any given run feel quite unique and engaging. You can also feel quite powerful too once you get the right kind of gear, a feeling I love to chase in these kind of games. Deciding whether you spend your souls early or save them up for potentially better stuff later is always a challenging decision but one that adds a heap of strategic depth. There’s also a lot of different portals that will lead you to different encounters which once again adds to the strategy but also mixes up the gameplay by adding new elements. The game never feels stale or repetitive which is such a huge win, especially considering how binary a lot of the choices are.

Ring of Pain is a very polished and engaging experience, and one I genuinely can’t recommend enough to card game / roguelike fans. It’s yet another example of what an indie Australian studio can achieve with passion and talent.

Interestingly, Ring of Pain released just after the cutoff to the Australian Game Developer Awards this year. I can only speak for myself here, but I think the game could have given winner Moving Out (which is also phenomenal) a real run for its money had it released just a little earlier. Thankfully Simon confirmed that the game would be eligible for next year’s awards and so I think we have a very early contender on our hands.

Ring of Pain is available now on PC and Switch for anybody who wants to check it out. For those already playing, Simon has confirmed that the game will be seeing constant updates. He even teased the potential for some “Halloween goodies” coming real soon, although we’ll have to wait to see about that.