I really wanted to love Rain World; I mean, look at how neat the concept seems on paper. A side-scrolling platformer with style to spare, Rain World casts the player as an estranged creature, a Slugcat (which looks exactly how you would expect such a beast to look) and tasks you with finding your way back to the rest of your Slugcat family by navigating through a post-apocalyptic world blighted with crushing rain and a fully simulated ecosystem.
Sounds great doesn’t it? Imagine my disappointment then when I discovered that such a wonderful and neat premise ended up being almost totally undone by poor checkpointing, unwieldy controls and a difficulty level that was harder than a pack of frozen turds. And yet, despite this unnecessary tarnishing of such a great concept, shafts of promise still manage to break through, reminding you of how much Rain World still manages to get right in spite of such ill-advised design.
An ambitious platforming adventure
From the top, it’s clear that Boston based developer Videocult has been paying close attention to Rain World’s contemporaries in the platformer genre. As such, the result of peering over such fences is that broadly speaking, the game ends up feeling like Limbo by way of Super Meat Boy with added survivalist elements generously sprinkled on top.
More than anything and no doubt greatly aided by the gradual drip-feed of sumptuous looking GIFs for the better part of the last two years, the first impressions of Rain World are that it is one spanking looking effort. The post-apocalyptic setting that serves as the backdrop for Rain World is realised with profound melancholy, showcasing an environment that is steeped in decay and reminders of the homo-sapiens that have long since stepped away from the world and left it to rot.
The palette too plays very much into this sense of visual spoilage with muted colours of rusted reds and browns, deep greys and, of course, plenty of the black stuff complementing the aesthetic with aplomb. It’s an astounding looking place all told, and the lively, brilliant white of the Slugcat protagonist juxtaposes grandly with the oppressive world around it.
Speaking of the world, traversal across it is handled a little differently than other titles. Rather than one continuously scrolling environment, Rain World is instead split up into over 1,600 rooms with the camera staying fixed at all times until the Slugcat walks off the screen (or crawls through the nearest tunnel) and enters the next area. It’s a decidedly knowing nod to the platformers of yore and one which finds itself complimented by a distinctly minimalist UI that is both clean and pleasingly free of screen clutter.
In addition to presenting the aesthetic of a world that appears so harsh and unwelcoming, there is no shortage of peril in Rain World. Chiefly, the moniker of Videocult’s game has not been given without reason; as the ominous roll of thunder heralds the crushing rains which can outright kill our Slugcat should the player not find the safety of shelter quickly enough. Having this kind of natural threat bolsters the danger of the world too, infusing every screen with a sense of peril even in the absence of the typically physical threat that other creatures often provide.
Certainly on that note, the numerous creatures that inhabit the world, on land, water and air, all present unique challenges. As such, Slugcat’s gallery of nightmarish looking foes often prove to be very difficult to kill, with survival more reliably guaranteed by simply running away rather than making use of the crude pointy bits of refuse that you occasionally find strewn about the environment. Even fleeing from a confrontation doesn’t necessarily guarantee survival either, since many of the hostile creatures you come across can crawl through the same tight spaces that you can, lending an almost omnipresent sense of threat to Rain World in the process.
What’s especially interesting about this though is just how these predators which inhabit this dank realm conduct themselves. Much more than one-note antagonists, these creatures move and behave as you might expect animals to do so, hanging about in packs while also chasing and cornering other prey besides our precious Slugcat. The feeling of this natural ecosystem that has arisen from the ashes of apocalypse is arguably one of Rain World’s most enduring features.
In a neat turn of events, the predator and prey dynamic also extends to Slugcat itself, since the crawling feline must feed on plant life and other smaller creatures in order to not perish from starvation. More than just topping up a health bar, meals must also take into account Slugcat’s need to hibernate, as the act of hibernation not only consumes food, but also doubles up as a save checkpoint in the process.
Far too difficult for its own good
Unfortunately, undoing much of this goodwill is Rain World’s level of challenge in so far as it becomes so unfairly difficult that the experience frequently veers away from “oh this is fair, I was caught out, my bad” territory and into “oh look another frustrating death, I now need to replace my new TV because my controller is now stuck in the screen.” Just about everything in the world is out to get you and can murder your fluffy little Slugcat pretty much instantly, whether that’s other creatures, dormant traps, pitfalls and more, there is no shortage of horrible stuff to send you back to your last checkpoint.
And this is the other problem; the checkpoints are so far apart that a single death carries with it a great deal more frustration than it normally would otherwise. Compounding this are the huge amounts of trial and error that has threaded itself through Rain World’s design DNA. You see, Rain World explains nothing to you outside of some abstract visual instructions regarding how the controls work in the early going. The upshot of this is that the onus is on player discovery, which certainly would be fine in any other game where failure isn’t rewarded by a lengthy and dispiriting trip back to the previous checkpoint.
The lack of any kind of tutorial feature beyond the controls also makes other elements in Rain World deeply opaque. As mentioned before, the ultimate objective is to survive and return to your family, yet, along the way you’ll make all sorts of discoveries that are tied to the old world, but what they are or why they’re there, are kept aggravatingly unknown for the most part. While I get what the developers of Rain World were going for here; following Dark Souls lead of deliberately not detailing some aspects of its design to encourage a community to form around the game, the truth is that Rain World is simply far too frustrating for such social structures to take hold among its demographic.
Compounding all this misery is the fact that controlling Rain World’s Slugcat protagonist needs some serious work. Far less effortless than Slugcat’s silky smooth animation suggests, the feline crawler often gets snagged on bits of scenery, while attempting more acrobatic feats, such as leaping from one hanging beam to another, can often result in Slugcat falling through the beam and, more often than not, to a grisly death.
I so desperately wanted to appreciate the gem that this game so easily could have been, but time and again I found myself rebuffed by Rain World’s frustrating difficulty level which was exacerbated in turn by the less than reliable controls. It’s these flaws which essentially rob this year of one of its most promising prospects too, which when you consider the stellar promise hinted at by Rain World’s gradual trickle of media is quite the crying shame indeed.
More frustrating than anything, is the fact that underneath all that anguish there’s actually a great game at the heart of Rain World. With its focus on survival and an evocatively nihilistic world blotted by decay and peril, all it would have taken is a drop in the difficulty and some tightening up of the controls to make Rain World into a very good, or even great effort.
As it is, the Rain World that we have in front of us now stands a far cry from such flights of fancy and sadly presents itself as a gem whose lustre has been cruelly and unnecessarily tarnished by poor design choices.
Rain World review code provided by the publisher.