“Bad Rats is a physics puzzle game where rats finally get their bloody revenge on their new prisoners: The cats”
It includes “realistic” physics simulation, 10 specialist rats, 11 different deaths for the cat, 10 functional objects, and 44 maps.
It has also embedded itself as a sort of meme in the Steam community over the years. An impressive number of users own this 2009 title via Steam gifting or other means. However, by looking at the percentages on even the simplest of achievements it’s evident that a large portion of these users have not properly played the game. That’s where I come in today.
I received my copy of Bad Rats: the Rats’ Revenge in 2019 and sealed my fate by agreeing to review it. I used to do written reviews fairly often back then but haven’t done so in some time. In this blessed year of 2021 I will finally follow through with this monumental task.
So, I played Bad Rats. And this is what I think of it.
It should be noted that I primarily run Arch Linux on my main PC. Being that Bad Rats is only natively available on Windows, I would rely on Proton to play it. Proton is a compatibility tool built into Steam on Linux that allows users to run Windows games. The various reports from users on ProtonDB indicate some prevalent technical issues, though it seems that in a lot of ways Bad Rats is comparably dysfunctional on Windows as well, so this shouldn’t be too much of a differentiating factor with the experience.
After a few long minutes of testing different versions of Proton, I settled on version 5.0 to get the game to properly launch. That isn’t important, though. What is important is that I was able to experience this work of mastery in game development for myself on my operating system of choice.
Bad Rats is essentially a collection of puzzle stages where you set up objects and specialized Rats in order to move a ball around using the game’s physics engine. You place objects while a stage is frozen, then press play to see how your plan executes in real time. Ultimately, the ball needs to make its way over to a button, an anvil, a gun, or something similar. It doesn’t matter which object you’re trying to reach, at the end of the day they will all trigger a mechanism to bring a hideous cat being held prisoner to its violent demise.
The overall sense of the gameplay is easy enough to gather upon completing the first stage, so I’ll first take a step back and look at what makes up this experience on section at a time before really drilling into the gameplay itself. Saving the best for last, like they say.
Firstly, we will just look at things from a surface level. Aesthetics.
The game presents an overall cartoon-ish appearance but is quite difficult to look at, at first. The titular rats themselves are interesting enough with unique equipment and voice lines, though some design choices in this regard are questionable, to say the least. Case in point: the evidently sterotype-based design of the Bomber Rat.
Each rat has a unique voiceline and idle animation based on its specialty. The voice lines can actually be kind of funny at times. After hearing them repeatedly when pausing and starting a level, though, they can become more of a taunting chant rather than a welcome part of the experience.
Other models, such as the cat, are outright hideous and cause me to recall terrible memories of straight-to-DVD knockoff animated films. Something just isn’t right with that thing. I know the situation this cat finds itself in is dire but you can tell from just looking into its eyes that its soul had been torn away long before you decided to boot up this game.
The backgrounds are equally unpleasant in a lot of ways. Every stage has you starting at some grimey alleyway with aesthetically displeasing graffiti strewn around. Even the main menu itself makes me feel like I took a wrong turn walking home and will come out the other end of this experience missing both my shoes and frantically calling the bank to freeze whatever cards were in my wallet. At the end of the day, it’s fitting. This is the Rats’ town after all. They took this cat captive in their domain. This is what the world of a rat is.
It’s a consistently terrible aesthetic, to say the least. There’s nothing too enjoyable to look at. As I tortured myself by playing through more and more levels, though, the overall look and feel of the game grew on me. It has a sort of revolting charm to it that no modern game really carries these days. It reeks of a bygone era of indie game development.
Music / Sound Design
Transitioning from the art direction, we can next look at the soundtrack and sound design. There isn’t really much of a soundtrack that I can find, though. When loading into the main menu, a tune plays momentarily. The rest of the game is vacant of a backing track from my experience.
The rest of the sound effects and notes reek of low bitrate, highly compressed mp3’s. These low fidelity audio cues are somewhat fitting against the backdrop of the art direction. It adds to the consistently disturbing feel and therefore isn’t out of place. Or maybe I’ve just grown to accept that this is the way things are through the course of playing this game. What was once disturbing has become my expectation of baseline quality.
Moving on to everything else around the gameplay. The intrerface and options.
I actually sort of like this aspect of the presentation. The main menu buttons are presented as graffiti on a brick wall that you can interact with while a live demonstration of the Rats’ abilities plays out around the sides of the screen. I’ve always enjoyed menu systems that incorporate more dynamic aspects and go further than static images and buttons. It shows you what you’re about to get into and livens the place up a bit.
Most other menus are resigned to dingy notebook paper backdrops with handwritten entries. It’s sort of charming, in a way. It carries the consistent design philosophy of the rest of the experience. While the handwriting on paper aesthetic for game menus has been done countless times before, I have to appreciate the effort put into a fitting and consistent menu aesthetic that blends into the game itself. As an aside, I also enjoy that the game has a custom mouse cursor. It just adds a touch of detail that further draws you into the vibe.
That being said, the menus are a slog to interact with. The game seems to be locked to a maximum of 25fps for me which introduces a considerable amount of input lag. This terrible feel to interacting with the menu takes away from whatever the design choices added.
This low-framerate issue affects the interface in levels as well. I really like how your inventory is a selection of 3D objects and rats to choose from that you pick up and drop into the levels. But the perspective of the camera on your inventory paired with the unresponsiveness of input leads to a frustration amount of misclicks by a few pixels. Again, the technical issues with this game take away from whatever aspects seem neat on first impression. The same goes for the buttons that control stopping and starting the physics simulation for a level. They are just terribly dissatisfying to interact with.
As for game options and settings, there aren’t many. You can change resolution, though this doesn’t seem to carry over between restarts. There is no way to permanently set fullscreen or other windowing modes either. Other than that, there isn’t much to see aside from a basic save/load system and your basic volume controls.
Okay, enough dancing around. Now onto the main event: the gameplay itself.
You have a selection of rats with different abilities, as mentioned earlier. I quite like the options on display here. While a few of them accomplish very similar movements, they do them in different ways. For example, there are a few different rats that simply push / move the ball in one direction. However the ways in which they do this cause a different amount of momentum, or different angle, making it an important decision to choose the right rat for the job depending on the situation. Some rats are definitely more useful than others, though. Despite a handful of levels suggesting use of the Rocket Rat for a solution, I’ve found that almost every time the Rocket Rat just makes things worse than solutions I could come up with excluding him.
In this sense, with my playstyle some of the rats went woefully underutilized. The game encourages complex and creative solutions which I assume means incorporating more of the rats and objects rather than going for the most straightforward approach. Most of the time I did go with the most straightforward solutions, though, in an effort to just get a given level over with as quickly as possible. The game does award achievements for completing stages in less than a minute which in my mind contradicts the idea that you’re supposed to be more creative and incorporate more of your inventory. Whatever. The specialized rats do offer decent variety in how to complete a given stage, so in that regard the developer has accomplished their goal.
So, what is it like to do a playthrough from scratch?
When you start up a new save, you choose a difficulty from Tutorial, Easy, and Expert. The Tutorial mode is almost identical to the Easy mode aside from offering a brief explanation of gameplay at the start of the first level. After that it is just the same as Easy. For a tutorial, it dosn’t explain much at all. It simply reminds you that your goal is to make the ball touch an object to trigger the cat’s demise, which every single level reminds you of in their descriptions regardless. It doesn’t even let the player know that it’s possible to right click rats and objects to rotate and flip them. Sure, right clicking for more options is common in gaming but I went a good 2 or 3 levels without realizing you can do this. Right clicking is a crucial mechanic for completing this game and I didn’t know it was a thing until checking the official solution of a previously completed stage and noticing a rat was placed opposite the default orientation.
One contributing factor to me missing the right clicking feature is the fact that the game rotates objects automatically, leading me to assume there was no manual way to do this. It does so very inconsistently, at that. If you go to place a long object such as a wooden plank to build a bridge the game will erratically rotate it to odd angles that do not fit the placement you are intending to make. This, combined with the fact that objects are sent back to your inventory upon invalid placement, leads to a consistent frustration when creating ramps or placing objects at other odd angles. Okay, placing objects is janky. But what about the main draw? What about the physics?
Well, the “realistic physics” are equally as inconsistent and infuriating. The physics system is very odd and touchy. You can move rats a few pixels from their original placement and have your solution play out in an entirely different manner. You can create a catapult contraption relying on dropping a fat rat and by moving him a few pixels go from a gentle toss to an incredible launch. Sure, the minute changes based on placement may be an upside and indication of “realism” in some games, but in a puzzle game it just gets in the way of ever creating a consistent solution to a given scenario.
This is especially unfortunate when the game penalizes you for using more attempts to solve a level. An “attempt” is counted every time you press play, and counted again every time you make a minor adjustment and replay the scenario. Because of the annoying physics simulation you can set up a completely valid solution to a level that won’t work 10 times in a row, then the 11th time you press play the physics will do their thing in a very slightly different way for no apparent reason and successfully complete the level, leaving you with 11 attempts on a solution that could’ve theoretically worked on the first press of the play button. Conversely, you can set up a terribly unusable solution that shouldn’t realistically work, spam the stop and play buttons 70 or so times and have it actually complete the level on the 71st attempt. This is a plainly terribly chance-based completion for a puzzle game.
Next up is the level design. Every level has an assortment of rigid platforms in the environment which you need to navigate the ball between to ultimately kill the cat. Some levels mix up the basic ramp and platform formula with gaps you must build bridges across, elevated areas you must launch the ball or build a ramp to, or vents that will push the ball upwards with bursts of air. Other levels will rely on clever timing based on the positioning of your rats and how quickly their respective abilities engage.
Some of the levels are much worse than others in a truly mind boggling way. Then, you view the official solution and realize you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover as despite the level having multiple complicated paths you are meant to use an absurdly simple ramp setup to move the ball through a path of little to no resistance. Each stage also suggests using or requiring a specific rat or object to complete it. Like I mentioned earlier with the Rocket Rat, though, most of the time I was able to complete levels with a few reliable rats in a setup that made sense to me while the suggested objects/rats seemed preposterous in my eyes. Maybe that just says something about how my brain works more than the level design. Who knows.
It’s not all terrible, I’ll admit. I did genuinely have fun with some levels. Sometimes the inconsistency and jank of the simulation lead to more fun. I would come up with solutions that definitely shouldn’t work, have the physics do something unexpected, and legitimately burst out in laughter as it actually solved the stage. Just seeing the absolute bullshit play out and progress me through the game was exciting, especially when an absurdly non-functional solution was met with not only a success but multiple Steam achievements.
I can’t get too carried away, however. This game is still a test of willpower and resolve to get through. The few moments of amusement and astonishment are entirely outweighed by frustrating level design and the inconsistencies of every game mechanic on display. This includes crashing. Every 20-40 minutes I would experience a hard crash to desktop. This could very well be a result of a badly coded game acting in a way that Proton can’t handle, as I have no idea if this type of crashing occurs on Windows. At the end of the day it would mean that I would eventually find some sliver of fun in this experience, encounter a crash, and snap back to reality. I was playing Bad Rats. I was playing Bad Rats and I smiled. Then that smile was torn away from me.
Conclusion & Verdict
Bad Rats is not a good game. It is not the worst I’ve seen though. Its meme status keeps it relevant on a very low level, as a sort of echo in the world of Steam. I did have genuine fun at some points while also experiencing very genuine frustration and anger. It’s a physics based puzzle game with a grand vision which is successfully executed in only small ways. It has legitimately interesting mechanics by way of the specialized rats hindered by obtuse level design, terribly inconsistent physics, and an overall veneer of jankiness at every turn.
My verdict: 1/5. Though deep down I know that it could aspire to hit even a low 3/5 if the numerous technical issues were ironed out and it received much more polish and attention to how the levels are constructed. And at that point, it just wouldn’t be Bad Rats anymore.