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Woesome gaming - Rain World: A love letter to challenging gameplay or everything, that can go wrong with souls-like games

Narcosis

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Disclaimer: This article is meant to be more of a rant, rather than a classic review. If you're looking for the latter, there's plenty of good ones around the net, that perfectly share my feelings about the game. Although I tried it to be as much spoiler-free as possible, talking about the game in it's current state is almost impossible without slight spoilers. You've been warned.

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I have a particular fondness for difficult games. This goes back to times, where games used to be both much smaller in scope and simpler in terms of goals and mechanics, yet provided us with hours upon hours of challenging, meaningful content; a feat failed by plenty of modern competitors, that often cost millions of dollars to create and are made by teams of hundreds over the course of many years. How is that possible? Mainstream gaming focuses on producing games, that are easily accessible to a wide audience; games, that are supposed to bring profits in the first place. As such, they can't offer challenge as part of their content, because challenging content needs to be mastered and that takes time. Something, most of modern, mainstream gamers don't have time for, neither want to bother with. The stakes are simply way too high for developers to risk any sort of deviations from their widely accepted formula. Instant player gratification became a key, that opens the gates towards success.

This is why we - people, who have been given a chance to embrace the golden age of computer gaming - mainly 80's and 90's - are currently reliving the best days of our lives as gamers, thanks to independent game creators. Games, that are often crafted with heart and passion reminiscent of the old days, rather than immediate, coldly calculated gains. As such, they are often what mainstream games won't ever become; they often lack the professional polish of their bigger brethren, but it is exactly that sort of unpolished feel that gives them life, as opposed the the big development studios, that often take weeks to slowly get rid of all those "bumps" from their products, so no one gets hurt.

It is without a doubt, Rain World belongs to that group of games - games made with a deep and profound passion, propably not without a greater goal of it's own. An indie game I - like many others - have been impatiently awaiting for many years, straight from the very first news, which was posted somewhat around 2011 on TIGSource. An action-adventure, exploration-based survival platformer about a tiny, ultra-cute slugcat on a joruney, trying to survive in a harsh, post-apocalyptic enviroment. Over the course of it's production, we've been given a chance to amaze at the gifs posted by the devs on their Twitter feed - it's undoubtly stark, sinister-like pixel graphics showcasing a ruined world, coupled with procedurally-generated animations that had never looked as uncanilly good. We've been sitting on the egde, waiting for the game's release to finally dwelve into the Rain World ourselves. The call of adventure, well known from other metroid-vania games was beckoning.

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In all honesty, I have to applaud the devs - throughout all those years, there wasn't a single title that ever made me feel like this; wanting to put my fist through the screen, as my tiny slugcat stumbled and fumbled on it's journey towards primal ascension. Even though I still managed to enjoy it to an extent, I can't say it was a pleasurable experience. More like a trial of sorts, given by devs. For what reason? I honestly don't know.

It is only now, upon finally reaching the game's end, I can say Rain World is definitely a game, that shown a lot of premise and great ideas behind it's initial concept, but utterly failied in it's execution within the genre it supposedly resides. I can't cross out the possibility of it not even being a game, analyzing the words spoken by the devs themselves. An engimatic experience - simulation, that puts you in the shoes of a small creature, stuck in an ever-repeating cycle of death and rebirth. Some sort of reminder, perhaps, judging we - the human race - have managed to ascend so much, there's literally nothing that threatens us anymore... except for another one of our kind. Yet - as a player - no matter the choices behind the game, I can't really call it anything else than pretentious bullshit, when such concepts collide with basic gameplay and mechanics, literally taking away all the joy the game has to offer.

Why do players keep coming back to metroid-vania styled games? What exactly causes us to love that genre so much? Why it doesn't get boring after all those years? Perhaps it's the fact, that our thirst for adventure and seeking answers to questions is deeply rooted within our human nature. There is not a single other genre, that allows us to indulge in that side of humanity and thing's don't look different with Rain World. It's a game of neverending questions, that only grow thicker as we near the end of our journey. The need for exploration they offer quenches that thirst, by giving us ways to deal with questions they often build up, as we travel from location to location, trying to unravel their secrets and mysteries.

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Rain World does an excellent job with asking questions and sending us on a voyage for the betterment of our souls. Unfortunately, it fails with answering most of them and doesn't provide us with means to fight the numerous obstacles, that pave the way towards ascension. In fact, I was mindboogled, when it turned out the game, which is mainly about exploring the numerous enviroments and searching for hidden clues within the long-forgotten remains of a great civilization, literally hampers my efforts in most ardorous and annoying ways possible. People often make a lot of comparisons with one of it's major market competitors - Dark Souls, primarily the third game, being the most polished one from the series, gameplay-wise. Rain World feels more similiar in core to Dark Souls, in any way it feels similiar to it's metroid-vania predecessors. The need for exploration is often superseeded by it's increasingly challenging and difficult gameplay, which requires both skill and mastery of game's elements to a level previously unfound in other similiar productions. The most important difference lies in the fact that even though both games are extremely difficult at times, they approach that difficulty in different ways. Dark Souls encourages patience and careful observation in order to learn about the enviroment and it's vicious enemies - their movement patterns, attacks; each well-earned death brings you forth towards mastering the mechanics of the game, which prove vital to survive in it's harsh world. Rain World does none of that and each death is a punishment, that not only draws you further from the game's goals, but also raises the difficulty through artificial content gating. Each death takes away one point of karma and sets you back to the previous chamber; chambers, which - much like Dark Souls' bonefires - act as save points; they are few and far between. As if traversing the highly dangerous enviroment wouldn't prove enough on it's own, the main gates that separate the different parts of the world are often locked to specific karma requirements; Frustratingly so - certain highly difficult locations often have them set to max and a single death can mean hours of backtracking ONLY to be given a chance to retry. Success is the only one thing, which is never guaranteed in Rain World, no matter how much effort you put into it. Often so - just like with nature - it remains random.

My relationship with Rain World could be best described as endless circle of love & hate. A sort of intoxication you feel for someone, that always remains out of your reach, even despite their efforts to lend you a hand. With time, you perfectly understand that you're not meant for each other; a sort of story, written by life itself, that does not include both of you in it, neither a happy ending. Yet, you miserably keep on trying, chasing that dreamt of person of yours, which is constantly in front of your eyes, far in the distance. You stumble, you fall, the distance slowly grows bigger but the image lingers on. It fuels your desperate efforts as much as anger and hate, that keeps on growing. In the end, you have nothing else to blame other than yourself - and perhaps fate, that played with you, oh so cruelly. A one way road, that leads to nowhere, but eternal despair.

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Rain World does so, by successfuly obstructing players from reaching their goals through means, which are completely out of their influence. Clumsy controls, completely unpredictable enviroments, as well as enemies; the overall harshness and unfairness that can only be best described as that one of mother nature's. At one point, it is exactly what devs wanted to achieve - make players feel how it is to be a small creature, stuck within a world, where everything wants to eat you. Unfortunately, what could be concluded as sort of an successful experiment, can't be called an enjoyable gaming experience and that one is full of angst, repetition and constant struggle that is often in vain, as the dangers that lurk within the Rain World get to you regardless of your pleas for mercy.

There's a couple of factors, which could be taken as the main perpetrators of Rain World's failure.

  • Unreliable controls. They are often unresponsive and wonky with weird gimmicks, that often cause players to achieve the exact opposite of what they planned; the physics-based, procedurally generated animation might look fantastic, but fails when players require precision from slugcat's movements. This might not be a huge issue on it's own, but when you're encouraging players to travel through an extremely dangerous enviroment, choke full of hazards and gaps that require near pixel-perfect jumping, it turns into an incredible problem that often greatly limits what players can (and will) do.
  • Completely obscure and cryptic gameplay; it's one thing when we're talking about breadcrumb systems and constant handholding and another when the game literally throws you into a world of hurt, where everything one-hit kills you and you're forced to discover everything on your own, often sacrificing hours of progress in the process.
  • Unthoughtful, punishing map design. The almost complete lack of any save points at few of the hardest portions of the world feels like an insult, raising the ever-present frustration even higher and taking away the freedom and willigness to explore on your own.
  • Artificial content bloating, that doesn't add anything of worth to the game, other than endless karma grind and sinks whole hours on redundant mechanics. Sure - catching bats or searching for food and shelter might sound fun for a couple of first seasons, but after a while it becomes a meaningless chore, that could be otherwise spent on exploration, adventures and unveiling the mysteries of Rain World.
  • Unpredictable, random enemy encounters that play completely different every single time; players are given no possible way to learn about the game mechanics through meaningful, meticulously crafted trial & error approach and remain constantly thrown at the whims of randomness.

Despite the unsettling beauty of the world, there's little to no interaction with it's enviroment. This makes the locations feel more like incredibly large, empty backdrops rather than an integral part of the gameplay. Aside from fights with it's local wildlife residents, the whole game boils down to constant, tedious travel from point A to point B and so on; mostly an near-impossible voyage from one shelter to another. A rather dull experience in terms of exploration on a game's scale.

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Despite the massive worldbuilding and deep lore behind the Rain World, the game's story remains both incredibly vague and unused to a large extent, which feels like an enormous waste. Throughout the game, players are pointed towards two major locations (excluding the final one, which ends the game). These "story" points are barely used as story-telling devices, despite what could be considered a massive side-quest route (this especially cover's practically the entirety of contacts between player and Big Sis Moon). The interactions are scarce and player does not feel any sort of true interaction or bonding between characters (despite what the game is trying them to tell) and neither will he feel rewarded for reaching these locations, despite their importance. what's worse, the entirety of the game's backstory (or more precisely - the lore of the world) is told via "pearls" - ingame devices, which act as memory banks. These can be read by the Big Sis Moon, provided you fulfill certain requirements (one requires you to bring her additional neurons). All of this is an addition and considering how cryptic the game is and how hard and difficult it often remains to traverse through a single location, majority of players won't propably ever take part in the pearl-hunting and as such, will never know the truth behind the Rain World's story.

Which brings us to another question. Is there any way the game could be improved?

As of 6th April, the game received a small update, which included a couple of important bugfixes and tweaks, that improved the player's experience, but it's still nothing compared to major annoyances the game brings within it's core mechanics. It is known, the devs are already working on a major update, that will supposedly bring two additional game modes (each mode having it's own slugcat with their own stories to tell, as well as variety of gameplay mechanics) and so much wanted multiplayer content with hints on a possible co-op mode. I'm seriously looking forward to the latter, considering travel with a trusty companion might prove less ardrous... or will it, considering now you'll be forced to look for and take care of each other? Eitherway, it sounds like a really interesting concept.

That aside, I can't feel any other way, than hope the Easy Mode will introduce sort of gameplay for less skilled players, so they could discover and enjoy the game at their own pace. This game has really a lot to offer, trust me.

As for what needs to be adjusted in general - not only for those less skilled - taken from my own experience:

  • Adding more shelters to the world and making certain areas slightly less punishing through small adjustments within the map design
  • Including more food sources, as well as more possiblities to obtain it
  • Removing the constant karma requirement for gates, in favor of a single-time karma requirement that permanently opens the gates; alternatively, each zone could require player to find a control room, that opens the gates - which could also work toward increasing the exploration and pushing players into interesting places
  • Permanent fast travel available between various locations, provided you fulfill certain requirements (optional, but not really required; granted the world is enormous)

TL&DR Despite it's rather massive flaws, Rain World remains a good game, just not for everyone. The devs have simply failed to balance between originality and accessibility, alienating a large part of their potential playerbase. Those with hours upon hours of free time, that aren't afraid of incredibly punishing core mechanics will fall in love with the game, solely for it's massive exploration elements, which are - to put it blunt - delightful. I presume the lessons it gave might prove useful for the future generations of both gamers and developers and that's propably what devs aimed for as well. I can only hope their next game will be as good in concepts and less flawed in game design.

As hauntingly beautiful of an experience it is, Rain World will be mostly remembered for it's incredible art and fantastic soundtrack; much less for it's uncompromissing, vague gameplay that never even gave the players a chance to fall in love with the game itself.



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