You know, for someone that writes about video games, I’m very bad at keeping up with what video games are coming out. Case in point Rain World which has apparently been highly anticipated by indie fans for a while now and has finally come out lately. And I’ve never heard of it before very recently. So I’m just going to google… really… quick… see who made it… Ah! There we go! Videocult! Small Boston studio. Fun.
I glanced a bit at the screenshots and a few seconds of trailer footage, and it looked right up my alley: retro-graphics, side scrolling platformer, post-apocalyptic environments and best of all, it just this second finished downloading, so I’m going to go play it for ten hours or so and be right back to tell you all about it, ok?
Rain World: Windows PC [Reviewed], PlayStation 4
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Release Date: 28 March 2017
Price: 9,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
A Slugcat’s Journey
Well, Rain World is definitely not what I was expecting. Looking back at screenshots or bits of footage from the game, one could be forgiven for assuming it’s a sort of linear puzzle platformer, akin to the Oddworld series. Hell, even the world design had that same oppressive industrial aesthetic, perhaps just a bit more abandoned than dystopian.
The Rain Worldly Adventures of Slugcat, in fact, is far different from anything I’ve played. It’s a methodical survival exploration game full of cryptic plot elements and environmental storytelling and a crushing difficulty level. Yes, above all, at least in my experience, Rain Souls is hard and unforgiving. For some, this will be the game’s greatest strength, while for others it will gravely diminish their enjoyment of exploring the beautifully designed game world.
Rain World begins with a painted still image slide show of a family of slugcats (which are, in this game, a thing) with one of the members becoming separated from the rest just as the rain begins. And while we don’t know exactly how it impacts the rest of the creatures, for a slugcat the rain is best avoided. The only guide or tutorial the player receives is via holograms projected by a mysterious yellow creature that makes it obvious from the get-go that we will need to explore and survive.
The rest of the game one has to figure out by intuition, discovery, trial and error. And error. And error. And error. I’m normally fine with this if done right (see: Limbo) but Rain World not only withholds information but punishes you brutally the first few times for your ignorance.
I will probably spoil some of what the game wants you to learn on your own by going over some of its systems, but such is life. Feel free to skip this paragraph (probably the next one too) if you want to discover everything on your own. Slugcat, our hero, can walk, jump, hold on to walls and climb poles as means of getting across the environment and avoiding the fauna which mostly just wants to eat him. The game is broken down
The game is broken down into cycles, each lasting for around twenty minutes, after which the rain will begin, at which point Slugcat must find a safe room (designated checkpoint areas) and hibernate there. However, in order to hibernate, Slugcat must have eaten at least four units of food, which can be obtained by various means such as picking fruit or catching small animals. Each hibernation will also advance your survival level, moving you one step forward on a track with five levels. Achieving and maintaining these levels is required in order to progress and access the next areas of Rain World.
You following so far? Good. Because the game is full of enemies that will hunt you and kill you in less time than it took me to type this sentence. It took me five minutes, but that’s just because I got distracted. It takes them less than that. Most lizards, bats, hornets, vultures and vile beasts need only touch you with their head areas for it to count as an instant death, and death means you move down one step on the survival ladder unless you have found and consumed a special golden plant that offers you protection from this effect.
So in order to progress in Rain World you’ll need to: find enough food while progressing from safe room to safe room, hibernate a sufficient number of times in order to unlock the next area, advance into the area AND find enough food and a safe room and hibernate, all this without dying in a game that makes it very easy for you to die.
Rust in the Wind
It’s a pity, really, that Rain World takes extra steps to punish failure by not only throwing you back to the previous checkpoint but also cannibalising some of your past progress because the world is gorgeous, unique and worth getting lost in. The 16-bit backgrounds and environments are highly detailed and well-crafted, but the animations and enemy AI are what really sell the world to me.
The creature animations are procedural, rather than being predefined loops. This means that the creature models behave according to a set of rules which tells them how to react to the environment geometry. This gives Slugcat an impressive fluidity in its motions (think Gish) while the giant lizards and hostile animals occasionally jerk around and twist and turn in unnatural ways. This should be immersion breaking, but the overall design makes you quickly accept it as a fact of this bizarre pixelated world.
Each creature has its own behaviour and movement patterns. It’s a tough art to master, but one can eventually learn the weaknesses of each animal, lure them around the map, trick them into fighting and killing each other, or throw spears until you either kill one or get killed for your audacity. Just remember that cunning and guile trump aggression and that violence is not always the answer.
The sounds and music of Rain World are minimal and ambiental. Used sparingly and appropriately, it’s the kind of sound design that doesn’t necessarily stick with you on its own, but rather as an integral part of the game world. Of special note is the sound of the rain, should you have the misfortune to be caught outside in it. It starts off mellow enough, the soothing sound of rain on a windowsill but it quickly becomes less endearing and more frightening as it becomes louder and louder and the screen begins to tremble and blur, eventually becoming entirely dark.
As for the story, I can only say that the main plot relies a lot on discovery and exploration, on paying attention to the environment. But the real stories of Rain World are the ones you tailor for yourself as you interact with the inhabitants and ruins of this devastated land.
Rain World was definitely not what I was expecting and it’s not going to be what a lot of players will be expecting either. It subverts your expectations and delivers something different and unique but not very approachable. While it looks amazing and is originally animated, your exploration and desire to delve into it might be seriously hampered by its crushing difficulty and unforgiving failure penalties. It could have been an indie darling, talked about in mainstream gamer communities but the developers wanted to deliver another experience entirely. The end result is a solid piece of video gaming, lovingly crafted and with a lot more depth than it may seem, but it will probably remain a cult classic, bearing the tried and true “not for everyone” label.