The idea of giving players more agency has been growing with popularity over the years, and for good reason. Developers are scrambling to distance themselves from traditional hand-holding and over-tutorialization of their titles as, it turns out, people like to find and discover on their own terms without being told explicitly what to do and when to do it. Allowing players such a greater influence over control has worked to the benefit of nearly everything from Dark Souls, Fez, and even The Legend of Zelda.
Even with developers letting go of consumer’s hands, there’s still plenty of breadcrumb trails left behind to pull players along a certain sense of a path. Despite any challenges that may arise, you still feel like there’s a sense of progression to make it through the levels one death or trial at a time. Unfortunately for Adult Swim’s Rain World, developers Videocult seemed to have forgotten that breadcrumb trails aren’t for eating, leaving players with a confusing, often befuddling experience that never lives up to its gorgeous presentation.
I’ll start with the game’s largest and most prominent highlight: it’s graphics. At times the game looks positively stunning. It may look deceptively simple, but the intricacy and craftsmanship of the pixel art is astounding – without a doubt the best part of the game. Everything feels grimy, overgrown, and so densely packed as each pixel seems so painstakingly placed. It’s an incredible let down knowing that traversing each panel of the insanely large map is such an unfun pain.
You play as the aptly named Slugcat, a creature who looks like a cat but unfortunately plays like a slug. More often than not, jumps will be missed and it almost never feels like my fault. Plenty of platformers have played so well that any death felt like it was only player error, but in Rain World every missed jump and grab feels underdeveloped, muddy and heavy, a combination that only makes the map’s traversal tedious and annoying.
The biggest threat in the game are rain mechanics. You’re presented with a weather cycle of sorts that can be hard to read at first, but you’ll soon realize it works as a kind of checkpoint system. Survive the cycle until the next time it rains and you’ll hibernate, advancing to the next “stage”. If you die, you’ll be sent back a stage. Survive and hibernate enough and you’ll progress enough to move forward. If you’re left out in the rain for too long, there’s a good chance you’ll end up dying and having to restart the cycle all over.
Sprinkled in the mix is a rather novel idea of having procedural enemies that never quite spawn in the same place making each attempt that much more different through each pass. While some enemies are more advanced than others, all are very dangerous and can snap you up and kill you all too quickly. Unfortunately, that means you are now required to go all the way back to your hibernation point where you must endure the travels back through the map to get to the same place you died in hopes to progress. Remember when I mentioned Dark Souls? Yeah, I wasn’t kidding.
Not only does the climbing and overall character movement feel stilted and undesirable, the navigation leads to confusion as well. Chalk it up to my personal issues with navigation in real life, but I’m often able to discern game maps fairly well. Rain World’s layout is intricate but also intensely difficult to navigate through. Mario-like “pipes” connect one panel of the map to another but these can be clumped together in such a way that consistently left me confused.
This review focuses on the more recent Switch version, which seems like a good match as the game is huge. Rumor has it there’s more than 1,600 rooms available (I lost count), each sure to create frustration. Having these rooms on a mobile console should be much easier to whittle down and work your way through. This version also includes new playable characters that can make the game easier or even more difficult. Also – there’s an insane level of vibration coming from the rumble features on Switch, to the point it became obnoxious. Sure, vibrating Joy-Cons do a great job warning you about your impending doom, but it also does a great job at making your hands numb.
Ultimately, Rain World suffers greatly from its glut of unrewarding and unfulling gameplay and mechanics. If the developers had spent just half the time fine-tuning and tweaking these areas as they did making those beautiful pixels it might have been something magical, possibly profound. Some may appreciate the bone-crushing difficulty, aided in part by the sloppy mechanics, but an unbalanced game is still unbalanced. What’s left is a game unsure of itself, and want it wants to be.