I’ve developed something of a love-hate relationship with survival platformer Rain World. First I loved it, then I hated it, now I’m kinda back to loving it again. It’s a game that can sometimes frustrate just as much as it enthrals and mesmerises, let down by some finicky controls and one or two questionable design decisions. It’s certainly proving divisive on the old internet, but on balance I’d say the positives do outweigh the negatives.
Rain World is set in a mysterious post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland – the rotting remnants of a lost alien civilisation, now colonised by an opportunistic yet chaotic ecosystem. It’s a world ravaged by frequent rains so bone-shatteringly intense that nothing caught in them can survive. Instead the inhabitants of this realm spend most of the time hibernating, only venturing out during the fleeting dry spells in search of nourishment.
You play as an adorable baby slugcat (yup, that’s half slug, half cat!), tragically separated from your family during one of these downpours. Lost, alone and hungry, you must now learn to fend for yourself in a hostile and unforgiving landscape. You’ll perish if you don’t find food and shelter before the next storm. That is, if other, bigger creatures don’t eat you first. It seems that young slugcats are at the lower end of the food chain and taste delicious, so you need to always be on your guard. But if you do manage to survive for long enough, then perhaps you can begin the search for your family.
Vast and non-linear, Rain World is divided into an incredible 1600+ interconnected screen-sized rooms spread across 12 distinct regions. So don’t be expecting to find your folks any time soon, though fortunately you do build up a map as you go along. Slugcats happen to be nimble creatures, capable of running, jumping, climbing and swimming. Plus you can crawl through ducts and pipes and pick up and throw the junk you find on the ground. You’ll need to rely heavily on these skills not just for avoiding and outwitting predators, but also for negotiating the many obstacles and environmental puzzles the game throws at you. I do hope that you’re good at wall jumping.
Its varied and numerous inhabitants are semi-persistent and, like you, utilise the network of bolt holes in order to move between these chambers. Creatures can be hostile, neutral or even sometimes friendly, and it’s up to you to work out which. Some will compete with you for food, some will hunt you, others will leave you alone if you don’t bother them or if they see something tastier. They’re also capable of remembering acts of kindness but can bear grudges too.
Early on, the main threat is the large dragon-like lizards. These come in a variety of flavours each with their own unique traits. For instance, the green ones can’t climb but are quick on the ground and will attack the blue lizards, whereas blueys can scale walls and have a short tongue for grabbing you, and purples are tenacious climbers with a tendency to fight each other. But regardless of their type, once on your trail they will follow you across screens until you lose them or something else catches their attention.
In general though, your primary concern is the passage of time. Rain World is not a game that encourages too much dilly dallying. The rains come every ten minutes (I timed it!) and you can only hibernate in special, designated vaults, which also serve as the game’s only save points. But in order to do so, you first need to consume at least four units of food (up to a max of seven, with the excess giving you a head start for the next cycle). In the initial stages, this means catching bats and plucking vine fruits. But as you progress, you’ll realise there are other things you can luncheon on.
At its very best, Rain World is a thing of dark beauty with a compelling sense of mystery and discovery. The hand-drawn backdrops are stunning and enigmatic, immediately conjuring up the timeless aesthetics of 16-bit classics like Another World and Flashback. It’s an intoxicating blend of muted blacks, greys, purples, browns and greens. The sumptuous detail conveys an ever-present narrative of a once great and technologically-advanced society, now long forgotten and abandoned.
Everything is overgrown with moss, vines and shrubs, while the creatures hunt and forage amongst the rotting factories and buildings – a rusting, polluted wildness of arcane machinery, cogs and gears, pipes and ducts, fans and girders, tanks and vats, chains and cables. Its curious monuments, effigies, symbols and graffiti loom large and indecipherable.
The flora and fauna are fabulously queer and alienesque. There’s squid-like flying insects, huge carnivorous plants, eyed tentacles, enormous mask-sporting vultures, snake-sized leaches, barb-firing turtles, monkey-like tribesmen, playful dolphin-frog thingys and fearsome mechanical leviathans. Minimalistic in design, they’re so fluid and naturalistic in their movements – a combination of code, physics and traditional animation making them pliable and responsive to their surroundings. The bobbing, undulating and slightly 3Dish water also looks amazing.
Completing the atmosphere is a rich ambiance that hints at the desolation and starkness of the place, but also cleverly alerting you to any nearby threats, while the sparse but chillingly evocative soundtrack heightens the sense of awe as well as the tension.
Clearly, Rain World is a game that wants to you explore its universe and unravel its many secrets. As well as the main narrative arc, there are a number of side-stories/quests to unearth and decipher. And along the way you’ll encounter scavengers, mysterious individuals and deities. You can even undertake pilgrimages. But that’s only if you don’t rage quit first.
Rain World outright refuses to explain anything beyond its most rudimentary mechanics. There is a little yellow holographic helper that follows you around offering infrequent and abstruse hints and occasionally indicating the direction of food, hibernation vaults and danger (I strongly recommend you observe it very closely). But everything else is left for you to fathom out entirely on your own, including many of the slugcat’s controls and abilities and the karma system that’s used to gain passage to new regions – something that flummoxed me for bloody ages. By the way, grinding karma to open doors – you gain one karma level each time you successfully hibernate, but lose one every time you die or quit the game – feels rather pointless and annoying.
Moreover, traversing the platforms and obstacles requires great skill and agility – one wrong move or slip up in this brutal Darwinian reality and you’re likely to become someone’s dinner. Yet the fiddly controls and collision systems frequently let you down in moments of danger. There’s a tendency to grab things you didn’t mean to. Getting on and off ledges and poles and into ducts is not always reliable, often requiring several attempts. And sometimes you unintentionally enter the wrong holes.
You can’t see what’s on the next screen, so you often walk straight into the jaws of death. And it’s not uncommon for animation glitches to result in creatures getting stuck and blocking your only path forward. It’s also difficult to see your slugcat when swimming through tunnels and very easy to get stuck on the scenery then drown. And the sudden switching of overlapping screens when near the edge can really mess up your jumps and movements. Oh, and did I mention all the tedious wall jumping up long, vertical passages, or the fact that looking at your map doesn’t pause the game?
Hugely exacerbating this is the checkpoint system. It’s wildly inconsistent. Sometimes vaults are only a few screens away, other times a dozen or two. And I have to say, reattempting long and arduous 15 or 20-screen sequences over and over again – having to find and catch food once more and clambeering past the same predators and obstacles – only to fall at the last hurdle because of a glitch or control difficulty, or to be suddenly plucked off the ground by a vulture or swallowed whole by leviathan that wasn’t there last time, is not exactly my idea of fun.
And yet, I keep playing it. Not because I have to (well, aside from writing this review), but because I want to. Obviously I’m besotted with the visuals and the fantastically imaginative and captivating game world that Videocult have painstakingly constructed. But a large part of it is that I’ve come to realise I’m just so used to modern games spelling absolutely everything out for me that it genuinely throws me off guard when I play something with scant explanation.
Rain World is a game that wants you to think and discover for yourself. It’s jam packed with these fabulously triumphant mini-revelations. Like figuring out the different aspects of the food chain or suddenly grasping what an object does or what a certain character is trying to tell you, etc. And all those “cool, I didn’t know that slugcat could do that!” moments.
I’ve also gotten a lot more comfortable with the controls. Rain World supports PS4 and Xbox pads, but it’s not really designed for analogue controllers. As such, the developers and lot of other people recommend playing it on keyboard as you’re less likely to push the wrong direction by mistake. But I’ll let you into a little secret: use the D-pad on your controller to get the best of both worlds.
Still, a little more tuition would go a long way. As would a number of bug fixes and some tweaks to the controls. For a start, a few more buttons wouldn’t go a miss. But most importantly, it would really benefit from introducing more hibernation vaults or some kind of quick save system.
Flaws and all, I think Rain World has the making of a cult classic. And like Another World and Flashback, which incidentally both also suffered from dodgy controls and infrequent checkpoints, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are still talking about it in 20 years time.
[UPDATE: After I submitted this review, Videocult released an update that includes some useful balance tweaks and bug fixes, such as increased resources in some areas and improvements to swimming. You can read the full change list here.]