For a game that effectively gives you two choices – choose left or choose right – we are astonishingly bad at Ring of Pain. It’s part of its cruelty: even when there are only a few things in your control, you can still mess things up royally and die within the opening moments.
Ring of Pain is in the growing club of strategy games that pilfer from the roguelike genre. Slay the Spire, Dicey Dungeons, Griftlands: we are getting dozens of them each year, encouraging you to build decks and character sheets in an effort to progress further than before. But then you die, holding onto a sliver of progression that you get to keep for the next run. They are crack-like in the way they keep you playing, tempting you with the possibilities of a successful run.
Ring of Pain may be the simplest of all of them. As the name of the game suggests, you are presented with a ring of cards that act as encounters, and two of those cards are displayed at any one time. Your choice is to pick the card on the left or the one on the right (with some capability to move around the ring, should you like neither card). Those cards can be a variety of things, but the vast majority are either monsters or items in some form. The items equip to you, making you more likely to survive combat encounters. Those combat encounters whittle away your health and give you souls (Ring of Pain’s currency) should you beat them.
The one card you can guarantee on every ring is an exit. But Ring of Pain’s genius is that there are often many exits. They glow with different colours, and – as you play Ring of Pain over several hours – you begin to learn what the different colours mean. The ‘???’ above each exit becomes known. They might take you to an ambush, a set of crossroads, or conversations with celestial beings. For the first few hours of Ring of Pain, you are unwrapping its many gifts and learning what’s inside. It’s the best period of Ring of Pain: when every step is an exploration.
But as enemies hunt you around the ring, fire at you, explode, block you from exits, and just generally act like dicks, you run out of valuable life and the only option is to die in a shower of giblets. Ring of Pain informs you of whether you overcame your personal best, before recognising which cards and beasts were new to you in that run. It might even give you a couple of extra items as a bonus. Then it unceremoniously dumps you back at the menu screen to start again. There’s very little progression in Ring of Pain: you’re not unlocking much that’s new that puts you in better stead next time. There will be the odd item added to the library, but most of the time you are just improving your knowledge of what lies ahead of you.
Ring of Pain is an astonishingly difficult game, tempered by how quick and easy it is to replay. It’s common to die in the opening four or five rings, lasting barely more than a few minutes. Exploding enemies can cause chain reactions that take you out, or the item rewards fail to generate traction in some of the important player stats, like Attack and Defense. Even if you feel the engine turning, and your items synergising in welcome ways, it often won’t matter. The final moments of the ring will pit you against bosses that have health in the hundreds, a huge spike from the other enemies who max out at 100. It’s a difficulty spike that is as hard to swallow as it is to justify.
But Ring of Pain does such a good job of being frictionless. Playing again is just a single button away, and you can play it while barely even thinking. It is, after all, a glorified game of Reigns, as your choices are extremely simple. Choose left, or choose right. Occasionally, flee to the left or right. That’s it. And the accumulation of your choices will either cause you to succeed or fail.
I’ve got such complicated feelings about Ring of Pain. First of all, it’s hard not to have a deep love for the world it’s created. A lesser art direction would have just chucked this in a generic fantasy dungeon and be done with it, but Ring of Pain’s world is so much more sinister. The battles take place in a series of bracken rings, carved out of a macabre heath. It feels like you are lost in a horrible, hazardous wilderness with few friends to call on.
And those ‘friends’ are fantastic. They’re reserved to an owl-faced slenderman called ‘Owl’, who occasionally brings you items (brilliantly, and to highlight how close you are to death at any point, you can accidentally attack it, dying near-instantly), a shadow who owns the game’s shop, and some floating crystals that act as a safe haven. You can talk to them, but they reply in riddles, leaving you pretty much where you started in trying to work out what’s going on. The Sphinx-like approach to worldbuilding might turn a few off, but we enjoyed the opaqueness.
But it’s the game itself that has us swinging wildly between love and hate, and that unsurprisingly correlates with how well we did in a run. When you are doing poorly, Ring of Pain can be vexing. You look back on your choices and think about how you could have possibly done better, or made better choices. The answer is often ‘you couldn’t’, and that masochistic bent of Ring of Pain may be too much. It offered you useless items that had no combination potential, and then ushered in some wildly difficult enemies. So you died, due to no fault of your own.
And, just as often, the dominoes will fall in your favour. You might become a stealth machine, for example, dodging enemies and collecting the best items to power yourself up for the important battles. Or your items stack effects like curses, freezes and poison, obliterating enemies before they even had a chance to touch you. In those moments, Ring of Pain is a joy, and you will stride through its rings like a god.
But even when we were powerful, and it looked like our run would take us further than before, we couldn’t help but think that luck was the biggest factor. There wasn’t enough personal agency to make us think that we did well, that we out-thought the game. There wasn’t enough opportunity to mitigate events, to prepare or stockpile for them. If the Ring of Pain wants us to succeed, it will let us. If it doesn’t, then we are doomed. And that’s confounding. We found Ring of Pain’s capriciousness to be its greatest fault.
Ring of Pain is a tempting toy to return to. There’s something spellbinding in its art and world, and it’s all too easy to give it a spin for the five minutes it takes to complete a run. But it’s also a fickle little toy. It’s as likely to give you a poor hand as it is to give you a knockout one, and there’s often no coming back from the first. It only takes a few minutes to dust yourself off and try again, but – on occasion – we wondered whether it was worth the pain.
You can buy Ring of Pain from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S