In recent years, I’ve found myself growing an affinity to Nippon-Ichi Software. Although I always knew them for their work on titles such as the Disgaea series, ironically enough its been their most recent focus on smaller, more personal titles – games like Yomawari, The Firefly Diary, Labyrinth of Refrain, and more that have grabbed my attention. Although NIS doesn’t always stick the landing with their games, it definitely feels like in recent years that almost everything they put out comes from a sincere desire to make something inherently unique. You can count Mad Rat Dead among them.
Players take control of “Mad Rat”, a lab rat that found himself at death’s door, thanks to being experimented on by a scientist. He’s given the opportunity to go back in time and relive his last day thanks to the help of the “Rat Goddess”, who – along with the power of Mad Rat’s heart – allows him to control time (at least, to a certain degree). Thus, he resolves himself to find a way to reach the very scientist that wronged him, and (somehow) put an end to their life. It’s a bit of a grim tale, to be sure, but in context it carries much of the usual NIS edgy charm.
Mad Rat Dead is a rhythm game, but it’s also an action platformer. Now, this isn’t the first time that these two genres have been meshed together – Game Freak took a shot at it with HarmoKnight back on the Nintendo 3DS – but Mat Rat Dead’s implementation is wholly unique, and considering the much larger focus on action, aerial antics, and even tying together input combo strings, I was initially skeptical about how well a game focusing on these seemingly dysphoric aspects would turn out.
Platforming is handled in a similar way to movement works in another rhythm game crossover that you may well be familiar with on Nintendo Switch – Crypt of the Necrodancer. You want to time your inputs so to match the beat of a song. It’s contextualized that Mad Rat has to focus on the rhythm of his heart-beat in order to keep moving, and if you go off rhythm, you’ll quickly find that your character’s movements will fail to match your intentions.
It’s a system that requires some effort to get used to, that’s for sure. Players that aren’t used to either rhythm games or platformers might have some trouble here, as even on the Normal difficulty you’re liable to have some issues at the end of the day. It’s tough work keeping track of both the layout of a stage, what buttons you’ll want to press and in which order, while also keeping track of the rhythm of the song. This is simple enough on the Normal difficulty – where the largest deviations come down to the tempo of the beats – but things quickly spiral into madness once you set the difficulty to Hard.
Mad Rat Dead might lend players plenty of lenience for actually clearing stages, but it’ll come back to reclaim that debt if you ever intend to try the game’s Hard mode. Here you’ll have to contend with not only a wildly differing tempo, but also many more cases of “double-notes”, where you’ll have to time both halves of an input correctly for it to come out the right way. As far as I can tell, the only difference that Hard mode affords is the rhythm game aspect of the game – and for good reason. I don’t think it would be very fun if you’d have to re-learn the layout of a stage, too.
Don’t get me wrong, even if you leave the game on its default difficulty, you’re liable to have a tough time when it comes to Mad Rat Dead’s numerous boss fights – particularly near the end of the game. When the complexity of the movements ramp up, you’ll really be tasked to juggle both aspects of the game at once. It’s an exhilarating, if at times frustrating, challenge. Though I figure now would be the best time to examine the elephant in the room.
I think Mad Rat Dead is a great and charming game that, if you’re at all a fan of unique platformers, you’d owe it to yourself to play. I can’t, however, really recommend the Nintendo Switch version. Although I finished the Switch version of the game, I have played a portion of the (lengthy) demo on PlayStation 4, and the performance differential between the two versions is nothing if not notable. Mad Rat Dead’s frame-pacing is abysmal on Switch, and while you can still enjoy the game, it absolutely gets in the way of the experience. Those stages that I played on both Switch and PS4 are enough to tell the difference – if you’re going to play Mad Rat Dead, I would strongly advise that you pick it up on PS4 if the option is available to you.
There’s more to say about the game, of course – it has a fantastic aesthetic, and much as you would hope from a rhythm game, the soundtrack is full of absolute bangers that work in tandem to really help sell the momentum of the game’s story. It’s by no means very deep, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do – with a few fun little twists along the way, and while managing to come together with a satisfying conclusion. While it’s by no means the best game that I played in 2020, it certainly made the list, and if you’re as much a fan of these same type of unique experiences as I am – I’m willing to bet you’ll find a lot to love about Mad Rat Dead, too.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by NIS America