Like flashbacks to relationships in my youth, it’s a real drag when you want to love something but it just keeps on pushing you back. That’s the conundrum I faced while playing Rain World, a 16-bit exploratory survival platformer that stars an adorable slug-cat tasked with finding its way back to the safety of its cute feline-cum-mollusk family. It sure is different, I’ll give it that.
As the sticky and dapper protagonist, it’s your job to maneuver your way way through a multitude of derelict, post apocalyptic environments brimming with nasty critters that are hellbent on seeing you wind up on their empty dinner plates; the order of the day is sautéed slug-cat, sir… mmm, just like mama used to make!
Predators come thick and fast and to the game’s credit, they’re remarkably-realized beasts; invisible reptiles fire out long gluey frog-like tongues, hulking vultures that take up half the screen stalk your every move, and strange humanoid troglodytes armed with spears, speed and a relentless can-do attitude hunt you down with the singular endeavour of turning your fleshy carcass into a pot of delicious slug-cat marmalade. Suffice to say, the world US-based developer Videocult has constructed here is a dangerous one, an otherworldly ecosystem of mutated flora and fauna, eking out their desperate existence in a hopelessly barren and desolate landscape.
Save-points are sprinkled sparingly across the levels, but before hibernating in these vault-like safe-houses, you’ll first need to fill up your hunger meter by eating berries, bats or plants that are scattered across the decrepit terrain. The dilapidated world genuinely feels — somewhat ironically — alive, with bizarre creatures wandering the levels. Critters you see in one area, maybe gone the next time you visit, and vice versa. This really gives the game a distinctive, randomized feel and helps to keep you on your toes. Just because an area was empty the last time you visited, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be free from beasties the next.
A dominant theme in Rain World — and something the game practically beats you over the head with — is the idea that you’re at the rock bottom end of the food-chain in this peculiar, weather-beaten land. Basically, you’re going to die. A lot. This leads me into one of my main issues with the title: it’s frustratingly obtuse and its difficulty feels like it’s been pitched too high.
Now, these issues can be sidestepped slightly, dependent on your patience with certain mechanics. The game tells you very few things directly. Everything within Rain World must be learned either through trial-and-error, subtle environmental cues or mysterious otherworldly symbols and glyphs. It sure makes for a neat idea on paper, but in practice it simply comes across as frustrating game design that should’ve been ironed out in the alpha. A yellow flower-like guide does occasionally chime in to help give you some direction, but for the most part, its presence just isn’t all that helpful.
Like I mentioned before, enemy placement is randomly generated. On a few occasions, monsters spawned outside my save-point entrance, which was the only way to get out. I had to sometimes wait up to five minutes before I could leave the safe-house as a weird purple crocodile was blocking my exit, his jaws snapping vigorously in my squidgy slug-cat’s face.
On quite a few other occasions, I walked into a hostile monster without actually seeing it. The single screen design lends itself well to blindly walking into encounters with hostile mobs, which resulted in some dishearteningly cheap deaths. It’s never fun making progress through a dangerous, frustrating world to be swallowed whole by a monster you didn’t even see.
Further still, combat is mostly ineffective. Spears and rocks can be used as weapons but serve only to stun enemies momentarily before the adversary in question makes a bee-line straight towards where the projectile was thrown. The AI is also brutal. The various beasts you’ll come across in the game are relentless, and hiding in one of the assortment of nooks and crannies that litter the landscape is a bit of a crapshoot. Most of the time the brutes will just sniff you out and “crunch” — game over, man. Game over. Add to all of these annoyances the fact that the game crashed on me a number of times… which just adds even more to my overall disappointment.
A cool aspect I did discover hidden within the title is its karma system, which isn’t communicated to the player very well. Essentially, when you hibernate and save your game, your karma increases, though when you perish your karma decreases. Entrances to new biomes require a certain level of karma, which is communicated to the player in a strange, otherworldly language. It’s all very oblique and tricky to understand at first, however, the more time you put into it, the more the game begins to show you some of its more interesting mechanical elements.
Another detail Rain World gets right is that its aesthetic design is really eye-catching. Environments are distinctive with bold, vivid colors and a wonderful 16-bit Flashback-esque retro art-style. The game looks lovely and the little animations of your squishy protagonist are surprisingly expressive and very well done, too. It sure looks cute and quaint, but unfortunately, a good art-style alone does not make a good game. The audio design, on the other hand, is barely noticeable and sadly forgettable.
The most teeth-clinchingly frustrating part of it all is that there are some cool ideas in Rain World. Its vague but clever karma system is unique, its minimalist aesthetic is striking and its world feels like a real ecosystem crammed full of threatening creatures and deadly vegetation. However, the moment-to-moment gameplay is far too unsatisfying to wholeheartedly recommend, which is a mighty shame. There are far too many hoops that you need to jump through to get to the joyous exploratory discovery that the game so ardently aims for, which ultimately relegates the experience to nothing more than a quirky experimental curio with an uber-cute protagonist at its helm. And boy, that thing sure is cute.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
There are definitely some cool ideas in Rain World, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is far too unsatisfying to wholeheartedly recommend.