In 1991 I owned an Atari ST and bought most of my games from the local markets or car boot sales. These games usually came with little to no information and so you very rarely knew what you were getting. One day I returned home with a title that would change my idea of what gaming could be. Cast into a strange alien world I had to use all my wits to figure out how to survive: with no Google or for that matter no Internet I was on my own. The game was Another World and it had me mesmerised for weeks.
Gaming is a different beast these days and with global media coverage, it's almost impossible to be utterly surprised by a game. However, sometimes you can still pick up a game that inspires feelings of wonderment and trepidation in equal measure. Independent developers are the white-hot forge of innovation and experimental concepts in the games industry. It wouldn't be fair to say that all AAA games lack creativity, however, when a game does do something distinct it is usually down to an indie developer taking a risk. So when something special comes along I sing it's praises from the rooftops: Rain World is one such game.
Breath of fresh air
Rain World comes to us from developer Videocult, a small independent studio based in Boston. They describe their own game as a challenging survival platformer and I think this is a fairly accurate summary. You play as Slugcat: a creature that certainly does possess the traits of both its namesakes. The game uses a system of procedural animation which infuses Slugcat with a wonderful sense of personality and dynamism. Traversing through the 2.5D environments is a joy to watch with fluid and often surprising movement. It is not only Slugcat that benefits from this clever animation system but the other creatures you meet are also partly procedural fused with conventional animation. Slugcat can leap, climb, dangle, swim and so on: but the way all these actions are melded into one is where the magic lies. I have seen some readers and reviews mention they found the controls a little unwieldy but from my own experience, this is just a matter of practice. Top tip: when leaping to another pole hold your left stick up.
The environments have a wonderful, almost retro feel to them but then there is sumptuous detail lavished over every room and each feels unique. On top of the platforming shenanigans, there are objects to climb and small tunnels to scurry down. These can be navigated manually by squeezing Slugcats jelly like frame into them: there are also smaller dotted tunnels that will take you to a new place depending on the symbol on the entrance. There are so many cool tricks and scenes within the many chambers of this rust-encased landscape: even the multi-layered map is designed in a way that almost looks like Slugcats memories.
I cannot remember the last time I saw a gaming environment that felt so alive. In most games you very quickly learn what your enemies can do: but in Rain World the way these creatures find their way around is off the chain. They will leap, fall, stumble their way around in the pursuit of their next meal: if that happens to be you then so be it. There is a lovely element of chance to gameplay which has to be seen to be appreciated. I remember in one instance a predator was climbing up into a cave to eat me: in sheer panic, I pitched a stone and it knocked the beast backwards to a fatal drop. I have also found myself in the jaws of a bigger creature only to be knocked free by another rival predator attacking. These are not scripted events but very clever AI coupled with some of the best pathfinding I've seen in a long time. I have even grabbed some of the more annoying flying insects and used them (to their obvious dismay) as a temporary organic jetpack.
Cycle of life
So as you move through the twelve zones that make up Slugcats world your goals are fairly simple. As you find fruit and various insects to devour you fill your hunger markers until you reach four (you have seven in total). At this point, you must find one of the safe dens in order to sleep. Hibernating is the games way of earmarking your progress but there in lies the mechanism which allows you to advance through this hostile world. When you sleep with a belly full of food the symbol in the bottom left goes higher in value which unlocks certain doors. However, if you die this number will then decrease by one and with ever decreasing food on offer this can become a desperate situation forcing a total restart. This can mean hours and even days of work can be washed away in a few minutes, it is undeniably harsh and will lose some gamer's forever. Here we see what I regard as one of Rain Worlds most decisive and controversial aspects, like the real natural world: the great circle of life often fatally unfair.
Another key system to be aware of is the constant threat of the rain. As you emerge blinking from your slumber, time is limited before the next rains come to wash you away. The inevitable deluge is always fatal and in my opinion is one of the most important aspects of the game. This impending watery doom spurs me on, gives me a reason to value the time I have and also make judgement calls. Can I afford to hibernate again? Dare I risk exploring further for food? If I was just able to explore endlessly I'd just strip the levels bare of all resources and mysteries before moving on: where would be the fun in that?
I think most of us will have played difficult games at some point but even here most of them at least fight fair. In Rain World, you can have your ever so fragile frame nobbled in the blink of an eye and sometimes you literally don't see it coming. This is another point where I'm sure some gamers will pitch the controller across the room and reach for uninstall.
I think what I am saying is that Rain World is not for everyone and despite its playful visuals, you need to accept this game will require a good degree of tenacity and grit to see it through. You will sometimes have your life snatched away in a seemingly unfair way. However, I would say that no matter what you come up against there is always a way around it: even if this just comes down to some nifty platforming or a well-placed spear. In some ways, this game is a rogue-like in disguise and like all good rogue-likes: you must accept failure in order to glean success.
When is a review not a review?
I have found it interesting and a little frustrating watching how some mainstream media sites have reviewed Rain World. Opinions are opinions at the end of the day and I openly accept that mine is just one more drop in the ocean. However, I do think that when you have a site that reaches out to a large base of gamers you do have a responsibility to review games professionally, fairly and adhere to certain standards.
Rain World can be an infuriating game granted, but this difficulty level has been chalked up as a negative by many sites with a lower score to reflect this. One big site even admitted they hadn't beaten the game but still called their impressions a review. These critiques matter, they affect the sales of a game and to a small indie developer, this can be the difference between making another title or shutting down for good. This is partly why I have decided to avoid a scoring system for my site and instead focus on my written impressions.
I can wholeheartedly recommend you pick up Rain World on the proviso that you understand (and accept) the challenge it lays at your feet. It can be very easy to get conditioned to expect no consequences for death in the games we play. But then if there is no punishment for death where is the incentive to survive?
Rain World is an exquisite game that deserves far more praise than it is currently getting. The team at Videocult have clearly poured their heart and souls into bringing this visceral and striking world to life. If you are tired of playing cookie cutter platform games or run of the mill survival romps then take a look at this title.
Thank you for reading my review for Rain World on PC, this game is also available on PS4. I played the entire game using a controller and would strongly urge you to as well in order to get the most from this game.