What would you do if you knew today was the day you died? How would you change your actions? See the world, reach out to a loved one, maybe try one last amazing thing? Quick, show of hands, who would commit murder? Hmmm…looks like almost no one. Alright, let’s change the scenario a bit. Instead of a human, you’re a lab rat who’s been tortured for your entire existence and now you’ve mercifully died. Is murder still off the table? Well, NIS America seems to think it isn’t, and that is the bizarre, macabre and utterly delightful setup for their newest rhythm game, Mad Rat Dead.
I’ve pretty much summed up the plot, but let’s add a few more details. You answer some questions at the very beginning while the scalpel is descending on your dissected body to decide your moral alignment and such. You also are given the option to NOT come back from the dead, but it’s a false choice: the game will badger you until you resurrect. At first, your rat is entreated to a visit by the Rat God, who is some cute anime chick that can fly and grants your wish to live your last day over again, regardless of what you do with it. Our Mad Rat is ready to go get revenge on the scientist that experimented on him, but it’s not an easy task to do. Besides the fact that he can’t get any other rats to join him in his crusade, he’s also badgered by his heart, which has a physical representation of being outside his damn body when speaking to him. The Heart naturally is against murder, and Mad Rat doesn’t like feeling guilty about this. In any case, he’s alive, he’s only got a day, and things actually get really confusing along the way, so buckle up because here we go.
Mad Rat Dead is a 2D platform rhythm game that involves a lot of exploration, patience and understanding. Mad Rat can move with the joystick at any pace, but actions like jumping, dashing and butt slamming need to be performed in time with the music. There are plenty of pitfalls and enemies between Mad Rat and the next scenario, so you need to get better at moving in order attack both enemies and to safely traverse some areas. There is also a countdown timer happening, and you need to get through that cheese barrier at the end of the level before time runs out, otherwise this whole thing will have been for naught. Along the way you can collect some shiny items to get your score up, because that’s what you do in a rhythm game. You can, theoretically, move through a lot of the levels without caring about moving to the beat, but that’s going to bite you in the ass. Poor or missing targets leave you immobile and waste precious seconds, and missing a jump at the right time usually means death.
However, death is not an obstacle in Mad Rat Dead (in case you haven’t noticed). If your rat should perish, which will happen, you have the ability to roll back the clock a certain amount of time to try again. Naturally, you can only do this so much: you don’t have a choice to go back to the beginning of the stage or something insane, and you wouldn’t want to because the timer for the level doesn’t roll back. Instead, it becomes important to do some fast decision making on how much rewind time you need in order to make this work. Perhaps just a couple of milliseconds? Or maybe back to when you weren’t over the pit of fire with no way to survive? The choice is up to you.
I’ve always really enjoyed alternative rhythm games. While Gamefreak might be best known for Pokemon, Harmoknight was easily one of my favourite titles on the 3DS and I would fund it myself to get a Switch port if I thought it was possible. Mad Rat Dead has some of that same charm and appeal because it goes beyond just mashing buttons in time to the music in order to score points. Instead, it’s a carefully calculated balance of gameplay ideas and also being able to keep a beat while you’re trying to do that. Some of the earlier songs, which move at a bit of a slower tempo, might cause players minor frustration as they long to move on the half beats or something like that, but that just creates the need to recalibrate how you approach the game. You find yourself hitting buttons in time, even when you’re not moving just to keep your combo meter up (oh yea, death screws up your combos, so don’t die). This gets you in better practice to always be ready for additional movements. Falling down? Why not hit the slam/stomp button to speed things up and add another combo? Walking? Walking is for plebs, keep dashing in time to move along at a better rate. You never find a reason to really just stand around, because even standing allows you to tap SOME buttons to keep the game going. There are achievements baked in that will display when you hit so many combos or do so many different button techniques, so why not try and achieve them as soon as possible?
The visual aspect of Mad Rat Dead is fantastic, there’s no two ways about that. I loved the character designs and monster creations, and the colours simply explode out of NIS America’s wonderful choice of anime stylings and careful creepy/cute ideals. The Mad Rat himself has plenty of facial expressions during bumpers, though his default of disdain is perfect. Even his heart, which is literally just a heart with two eyes and two cartoon hands, is a wonderful addition to the roster, and you’re always happy to see him. The one thing I didn’t love is how grotesque the time-control heart looked: a bit too science class dissection if you ask me. Still, it fit the motif, and it inspired me to not die as much as possible so I didn’t have to look at it.
Additionally, the music is such a banging, enjoyable soundtrack. Mad Rat Dead has a wide range of original tunes made for the game, from jazz and bossa nova to some driving swing tunes and even a few electronic dance numbers. HEART’s Beat reminds me so much of the 16 bit era of a more exploratory level, whereas MAD HEART captures some of those same undernotes while delivering a significantly more urgent and angry tone. Underground Hug sounds like it could be the theme for a secret kids casino back in the 1950s, while Neuchatel has more of a synthetic sound that evokes a bit of a dystopian restaurant scene. The whole soundtrack is incredible, and it’s only improved by the different sound effects that come from your Rat’s movements and the collisions with goods and baddies alike.
My only real complaint about Mad Rat Dead is that there does feel like some playback issues, though I honestly cannot tell if it’s by design or if it’s by accident. There are moments when it seems that the game and the music both slow down, but not always as part of the song’s presentation. Instead, it seems like the game gets momentarily overwhelmed by everything it wants to convey – the silly graphics, the great rhythm action, the driving soundtrack and the constantly growing and depleting meters – and it shifts into a lower gear for a moment. This always caused me to break my combo and, in several instances, miss hitting an enemy or dashing to avoid falling, thus leading to my death. If this is by design, I genuinely don’t like it, but I guess it could be overcome with more playing and more exploration as to the finer details of the songs. If it’s by performance, then I sincerely hope NIS America patches it soon, because rhythm gaming folks traditionally don’t like it when the game can’t keep up with their playing.
Having said all that, Mad Rat Dead is unique and wonderful both in the story and how it approaches the gameplay aspect. This is one of those rhythm games that doesn’t ask you to be on board with a particular styling of music or to understand the more intricate details of music and how to best copy it. Instead, you have a darkly funny protagonist with some surprisingly great plot twists (Can’t all animals go back in time?) and strong boss fights that don’t go too far off the reservation from what you’ve already been practicing, making it a successful execution. If you want to jam out to some fantastic tunes while piloting around a creepy character this Halloween, then the timing couldn’t be better for you to perform a bit of a gaming experiment of your very own.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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Mad Rat Dead Review
Gameplay - 8/10
Graphics - 8/10
Sound - 8/10
Replay Value - 8/10
User Review( votes)
Zombie rat is unhappy at being dead, seeks revenge on scientist, learns a thing or two about compassion and eighth notes along the way: simply wonderful.