I have a known fondness for difficult games. When applied correctly, adversity and challenge can raise a game to another level. I've gleefully lapped up the absurdities and frustrations of titles like Darkest Dungeon and the Binding of Isaac in the past.
Rain World is the only title I've played in recent memory where I felt I had to shut it off for the night and walk away or I was going to put my controller through the screen. It's the kind of game that wallows in the worst kind of difficulty. The kind that wastes the player's time, punishes them for factors beyond their control, and undercuts what otherwise could have been a phenomenal experience.
Rain World [PS4 (reviewed), PC]
Publisher: Adult Swim
Released: March 28, 2017
Rain World is a survival/stealth/horror hybrid with a metroidvania flair. It's about embodying the life of a slugcat -- a tiny, slightly gelatinous cat/rabbit creature trying to survive in a hostile world. The story is simple: You're a slugcat, you were separated from your family, you need to survive long enough to find them. How you accomplish that in a world determined to do you in is the real question.
Set in a simulated ecosystem, you have to obey the laws of nature. Just like any animal trying to survive, your little slugcat needs to fend for its own basic needs. You need to eat, avoid or overcome predators, and find shelter from the elements. A variety of simple commands (pick up, throw, jump, eat) allow for a startling variety of survival techniques and abilities. While picking up a rock or spear may have an immediate and obvious purpose, there are lots of little secrets and odd interactions to be found. Plants you eat may have surprising secondary purposes. Shiny stones might be good for more than distracting a predator.
But, you'll have to discover these techniques on your own. Rain World is strident about not holding the player's hand. Outside of a quick five-minute tutorial that explains basic locomotion and hibernating, you're completely on your own. A weird flower/worm buddy may occasionally spring out of the dirt and cryptically warn you about some danger or suggest a nearby route, but I found those warnings always came a second too late, and the directions too vague to provide any real guidance.
While I'm generally a fan of games that respect the player's ability to figure things out on their own and make their own way, Rain World tests the limits of that design choice. It's easy to dump hours into it without fully understanding the basic mechanics and rules necessary to progress.
The first thing that is immediately apparent about Rain World is the look. Yes, this game is as gorgeous and amazing to look at as every animated GIF you've seen of it teased over the past few years. Each screen is a painting of a ruined world, a tableau depicting the stark beauty of nature reclaiming a post-human environment. The procedurally generated animations of the slugcat are as fluid and viscous as playing with a water balloon in your hands. The way it slips and slorps his way around, squeezing through narrow tunnels, balling itself up as it leaps from ledge to ledge is delightful.
The second thing that is apparent as soon as you get it in your hands is how difficult it is to control all those gorgeous animations. For as fluid and nimble as the slugcat looks, it controls like a soggy sack of bricks.
Unbelievably, for a game that has been largely marketed based on how cool it looks in motion, nothing about Rain World feels right to the hand. The slugcat's jump is oddly heavy and stubby, its ability to cling to ledges inconsistent. Scurrying up and down poles is frustratingly finicky; trying to jump off to the left or right can sometimes result in the slugcat just dropping off the pole to one side or another. And forget dropping from a higher beam and clinging to a slightly lower one, especially when the pipe you want to grab is at the edge of a screen transition.
Of particular frustration is the slugcat's habit of getting stuck in imperceptible nooks and crannies that scatter the world. The game is bafflingly full of these tiny holes (other monsters use them as spawn and travel points), but the chief frustration is that they always seem to flank vents and pipes that you need to access to get around. I can't tell you how many times I died thinking I had narrowly dodged a monster, only to find my slugcat had accidentally wedged itself into a small hole JUST below or above the vent that would have ushered it to freedom. It is such an obvious and persistently frustrating issue that I can't help but feel it was an intentional design choice, but I also can't begin to fathom the logic behind it.
The myriad of control issues makes exploration and movement, in a game all about exploration and movement, a thankless chore. On its own, this would already be troubling, but the controls are just the start of Rain World's issues.
It is a rare thing to see a game so fundamentally at war with itself. Without a doubt, the best of Rain World lies in exploring and discovering what its mysterious, vaguely post-apocalyptic world has to offer. The breathtaking visuals and unique quirks of each new area. The nervous excitement of spotting an unfamiliar creature. The thrill of finally piecing together what a certain plant or gem can be used for. All of these moments are brilliant, and beautiful, and sublime.
But, tragically, the game is dead-set on making the path to these moments as tedious and unrewarding as possible.
Death is harsh and frequent in Rain World. A slugcat's life hangs by a thin thread and nearly every predator can kill you with a single bite or swipe. Deaths from predators, falls, and other threats are all regular occurrences. Dying resets you back to the last hibernation spot you slept in, erases all forward progress, wipes any new discoveries or trails you blazed off the map, and reshuffles the locations and conditions of all the roving creatures who may want to make a snack out of you.
To their credit, the dynamic AI of the monsters populating Rain World is impressive. Each animal has its own abilities, and survival priorities. Lizards of different colors slink and snap their way across the map, some possessing the ability to crawl along the background imagery, or turn invisible. Underwater terrors lurk in murky depths, moving to a prehistoric rhythm all their own. They squabble over territory, hunt game, and huddle together like actual animals.
It's all fascinating to watch, but the most salient point is that they all want to kill you, and most of them are ruthlessly efficient at doing so. The problem is, there is no way to really understand what each monster can do (does it have an extending tongue? Can it fly? Does it shoot some kind of ink or thorn?) or how it will behave until they give you an up-close and personal demonstration with tooth and claw.
This extends to the environments, which are maddeningly opaque. Rain World is covered in carnivorous plants, hidden obstacles, and gotcha-style sudden-death traps. The difference between a plant you can eat, and one that can eat you, is almost impossible to know without sticking your neck out (for ages I was deathly afraid of some red, spear-shaped plants for fear they'd animate and kill me if I got too close. Turns out, you can eat their seeds like popcorn).
This isn't even counting all the times the game's rust-covered art style makes it difficult to discern foreground from background. Knowing for sure what poles you can grab onto, which garbage piles are decoration and which are obstacles, or even which ledges you can hang on to is impossible without just taking a leap and finding out for yourself. It's all trial and error with the looming specter of this harsh penalty hanging over you.
As the monsters all reset and spawn in different positions each time you die, there is no optimal path or strategy to work out to deal with them. Sometimes you get lucky and the monsters clear a path for you. Other times, a lizard will squat in the exact vent you need to travel through and refuse to move. Or three monsters will spawn on the same screen and corner you together. The most controller-pitching moments of frustration I had were when enemies were positioned exactly at the edge of a screen transition or the end of a vent, resulting in a completely unavoidable, impossible-to-predict death.
If that was the worst of it, I could probably handle it. Unfair deaths and punishing checkpoints are some grievous sins, but not immediate deal-breakers. The real killer though is the entirely unexplained karma system that penalizes each death with a major curtailment of your potential to explore.
Each time you lay your slugcat down to rest, a rotating icon ticks up in the left hand corner. I assumed this was a calendar system of some kind, representing the passing of days (or months, who knows) while the little slugcat happily dreamt the horrors of the world away. Instead, these are actually a kind of accrued point you receive and build on for each successful day where you manage to eat enough food to be able to hibernate without getting eaten yourself. Die, and you roll back a point (provided you haven't devoured a special kind of flower, a mechanic that is also left entirely unexplained).
There are literal gates that will only open and close (in an admittedly beautiful sequence) if you have the appropriate karma value when you reach them. If you have explored the open areas available to you as far as you can, you have no choice but to reach the karma level required to open one of the gates -- which means finding something to snack on and sleeping a few days. It's dressed-up XP grinding.
Of course, new areas also represent fresh, unexplored hazards waiting to kill you and there is rarely a checkpoint/hibernation area close to the opening of a new area. So, poking your head into a new zone usually results in having it quickly chopped off.
This leads to an interminable cycle of grinding for karma points by hunting, eating, and sleeping in the same areas again and again, retracing the same path to a new area, and praying that you don't lose another karma point to another cheap death to a randomly placed beastie. All for the privilege -- the absolute joy -- of getting one step further into a new area before the next impossible-to-predict, trial-and-error trap kills you and starts the cycle all over again.
It's a process that absolutely killed any enjoyment I was having with the game.
This is also without mentioning the weather pattern the game gets its name from. Rain World is beset with regular monsoon downpours that punctuate your exploratory efforts every 15 or 20 minutes or so. These storms drive down rain with such unrelenting force and volume that it's fatal to stand exposed to them, while also quickly flooding any subterranean shelter you might be hiding in. If you're not in a safe, air-locked hibernation cubby when the water begin to rise, you're dead. These precious points are few and far between.
To me, the rain system is almost a perfect microcosm of the high-points and faults of the game.
The style and personality is so on point during these storms that it hurts. The rain looks beautiful and harsh and instantly defines a killer mood that hangs over the entire game. The way all the other noises die down as the slow trickle of the first few drops echo off the walls gave me honest-to-god goosebumps the first time I heard it. I was playing on the PS4 and didn't expect the sudden strobing flashes from the controller in time with the lightning, illuminating my darkened living room. At its best moments, Rain World made me feel the primal dread of being a small animal trapped in a storm from the cozy comfort of my couch.
But while aesthetically remarkable, the rain seems directly opposed to the game's core strength: exploration. You're actively punished for straying too far from familiar surrounding by the very real, and very likely, danger of being unable to find a safe haven. Everything tells you to go forward and explore, but then the world pulls the rug out from under you and sends you back to square one for your troubles.
Is it realistic for exploration to be dangerous to a small animal trying to survive in nature? Sure. Does it make for a game that is in anyway satisfying to play? No.
From the moment I hit start on the intro screen, I had the distinct feeling that Rain World wants to be the next Dark Souls, Fez, or Spelunky. A slow-burning classic, rich in mystery and secrecy, begging to be revealed. A game that pushes the majority of people away with its apparent difficulty and needs to be "discovered" to be appreciated. One that is teased and prodded at for months (or years) after release by a fervent and growing fanbase until all of its secrets have been unveiled. It certainly has the depth, the mechanics, and the world to be one of those games.
But, from my perspective at least, Rain World does nothing to justify that kind of dedication. Dark Souls is an amazing action game even if you couldn't care less about who Gywn's firstborn really was. Fez is a delightful puzzle-platformer you can enjoy without ever diving into the inner-workings of its mystery. Spelunky is a master-class in procedural generation and religiously enforced world-rules applied to every object.
Rain World is sloppy, clunky platformer. It's a game of fumbling controls, arbitrary deaths, and tedious repetition. Why should I bother figuring out what all those twee little glyphs mean? Why should I devote dozens of hours to figuring out what spitting up one kind of plant might do in a specific situation when the controls can't even be bothered to feel consistent? You can't just make a game that tells the player nothing, smacks them down at every other turn, and expect them to happily commit themselves to unraveling its mysteries. There has to be a reason to want to dig deeper for buried treasure.
I feel so badly for this game in a way. It seems so close to being something special and wonderful, but is just undermined at every turn by baffling design choices, poor controls, and frustration. Maybe some of these issues will be addressed in a future patch and Rain World will become the game it feels like it should have been. Someone else will have to let me know. As far as I'm concerned, my days of being a slugcat are officially behind me and I won't be looking back.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rain World reviewed by Nic Rowen
An exercise in apathy, neither solid nor liquid. Not exactly bad, but not very good either. Just a bit "meh," really.
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