“Hard but Fair” is a concept that comes up a lot in video game design. A game should always strive to achieve a balance between its difficulty and the rewards it gives to the player. A perfect balance ensures that the player always has the tools to overcome any challenge while also never feeling like the odds are against them. "Hard but Fair” is something that is extremely hard to pull off, and Rain World's biggest problem lies is its inability to do just that.
In Rain World, the player will take control of a mushy little slugcat. The little critter has been separated from its family and has to start a quest with the objective to reunite itself with its loved ones. Its journey sees the slugcat traverse a world littered with the ruins and remnants of a once thriving human civilization. Nature took back its rightful place and a whole new ecosystem has entirely replaced humanity. Slugcat finds itself both predator and prey in a ruthless and merciless world while it escapes nasty creatures, scavenges for food and seeks new shelter.
Rain World presents itself as a 2D platformer with some survival and Metroidvania elements thrown in. Within the first few minutes, the game shows you the entirety of slugcat’s capabilities: it can pick up objects, throw them, eat food, jump and do a charged forward jump. You don’t acquire new abilities further in the game but that’s not necessarily a negative. Rain World is a survival game, after all. The whole point is to make the most of whatever scraps you are given.
Once the noticeably short tutorial has been completed, you’re left with two tasks: explore and survive. The only sense of direction you have is a little golden probe that appears from time to time and points you in the general direction of what the game thinks is the most immediate concern. This can be either a food source, shelter or simply the next beat of the plot. This little probe is pretty much the only source of orientation that you get in the first chunk of the game, and you get even less later. This is a game that wants you to explore and doesn’t hold your hand in the slightest.
You'll soon find that you can’t explore forever. In fact, you actually have a very strict time limit. After a certain time spent wandering around, rain will start to fall and this rain is so dense that it will kill the little slugcat if it's left out in nature. Even if it finds itself inside when the rain begins, it will still drown because of flooding. The only way to survive the rain is to find a waterproof shelter before it starts. These little rooms allow the slugcat to safely wait for the rain to pass while also functioning as a handy checkpoint. Finding a refuge is not enough, as you’ll also need to eat enough food to hibernate through the bad weather.
Slugcats are omnivores, so you’ll be able to eat bats, insects, plants or fruits in order to nourish the little creature. Finding these resources can be tricky since they don’t respawn right away between hibernations. This forces you to rethink lingering around a certain alcove for too long and it fits brilliantly on the general theme of exploration and survival.
Hibernation also has another purpose. Successfully hibernating will rise the slugcat’s Karma level. Karma consists of a series of symbols that make a kind of “hibernation streak”. The more times you hibernate without being killed, the more your Karma rises. The only purpose of Karma is opening certain gates that will unlock only if you reach a certain level. If you die, your level goes down by one. Considering that you die a lot in this game, these gates can be quite difficult to overcome at times.
Hibernating also gives you progress on “paths”. This system is never fully explained and I don’t understand it completely even after finishing the game. Basically, performing certain actions between hibernations will make you progress in one of these paths. You start with only one possible path called “The Survivor", which you progress in it by hibernating while at max Karma. Once you complete that path, a few others become available and you’re awarded a “passage”. This is an option that appears when you respawn after a death or when you hibernate. Activating it will allow you to spawn in any of the refuges you've slept in previously with max Karma. You can use the passage only once for every path you complete and you can complete a path only once. Despite that, they can definitely come in handy. The scope of Rain World is huge, so one of these can save you a lot of backtracking once you realize you're heading the wrong way. I was able to complete three paths myself and I only have the faintest of ideas of what’s needed to complete the others.
As mentioned before, our little Slugcat is prey as well as predator. The world is full of nasty creatures eager to make it their next meal. The most common ones are giant lizards, which can come in many forms with different abilities. Some can camouflage and shoot their tongue at you while others are able to stick to walls. Then there are vultures that come from the sky, carnivorous plants that mimic poles and many others. Most of the times you’ll not be able to fight back these enemies. You’ll have to either sneak past them or try to turn them against each other.
Despite the vast variety of hazards both environmental and predatory, the biggest enemy of the player are not the vicious creatures that inhabit Rain World but the game itself. Rain World has a tendency of dishing out cheap deaths caused primarily by its own design choices.
First of all, the controls don’t feel as precise and immediate as they should. Sometimes, it feels like some of the inputs don’t register while other times slugcat behaves in unexpected ways. For example, you may be running away from an enemy and try to make a jump that you made countless times before but this time it's inexplicably shorter than the usual. Other times you leap over an abyss, aiming to grab a pole that is sticking off the ground on the other side, but the little critter passes over it without even touching it despite having made that jump in the past. It's never good to feel as if you don’t have full control of your character, especially in a game where precise platforming is so important. It gets even worse if you decide to play it with mouse and keyboard rather than a gamepad.
Another aspect of Rain World that will cause a lot of cheap deaths is its fixed screen nature. The camera is always static and it will transition to the next screen when you reach the edge or you enter a tunnel that transports you there. The problem with this approach is that you will often have no information about what’s in the next area until you reach it. It’s not uncommon to find a lizard at the other side of the tunnel that kills you instantly with no way to prevent it. The fact that the enemies move freely around the areas without direct intervention and that their position is at least partially randomized between each spawn contributes to this problem.
Rain World also likes to hide information from you. Despite the aforementioned golden probe, you’ll often feel like you’re wandering aimlessly. Some people may like the feeling of blind wonder and exploration, but the strict time limit and survival mechanics prevent you from stopping to metaphorically smell the roses.
Orientation is not the only obfuscated element of Rain World. Some of the slugcat’s skills are not explained in the game but left to the player to discover. The ability to wall jump and the ability to store pebbles and pearls by eating them are left for you to stumble across. All this stuff would improve your survival chances but for some reason, you’re left to discover them on your own.
It’s a shame to see how Rain World can be punishing, frustrating and unfair because the game is undoubtedly gorgeous. Its pixel art style is finely crafted with stunning details and great lighting effects. It does a great job of setting the tone of the game's various areas. The ruins of lost civilizations feel desolate yet alive with many dangerous creatures. On a few occasions, it was hard to distinguish between the background and the foreground, and that problem may cause some deaths, but it’s a pretty rare circumstance.
Another thing that contributes to the awesome visual feedback that Rain World provides is its animations. Rain World’s creatures are procedurally animated, meaning that they don’t have set animation loops but their skeletons and joints will move following the indications of the AI. This contributes in making the predators all the more threatening and unpredictable. It creates weird behaviors from time to time where lizards may get stuck or start spinning around but it happens rarely enough that it adds to the charm.
It’s worth noting that Rain World does not provide a 1080p resolution. The top resolution of the game is 1366x768. While it may seem weird, the developer explained this choice in the Steam Forums. Basically, the game follows a per-pixel game logic on pre-rendered backgrounds. This means that it's impossible to make the game natively compatible with all the possible resolutions, as they would need to redraw all the screens for all the possible configurations. The game, for this reason, scales the image to fit the monitor. It looks absolutely fine on a 1080p monitor but it may look differently on a 4K or ultra-wide screen.
The music and sound effects also do a great job of setting the mood. The game alternates moments of silence with soothing music or even menacing tunes when some of the most dangerous enemies appear. The hisses of the lizards and the sounds of the other enemies make them feel rather menacing.
Despite its shortcomings, Rain World's developers seem determined to keep updating and polishing this title to make it reach its full potential. The first update for the game is already out and addressed some of the major complaints players have about the game. For example, you don't lose the progress you make on your map when you die any more (you can imagine how frustrating it was before the patch). They also added food sources here and there and made many small tweaks. Sure, the complaints stated in this review are still valid, but it's nice to see that the developers are at work to make the game as good as it deserves.
All in all, Rain World is as beautiful to look at as it’s frustrating to play. People who value challenge and beating the odds above all else will surely meet their match here. For everyone else, you may want to be careful as Rain World is surely a hard game, but fairness is not its thing.
Rain World is a charming and beautiful game held back by its overly punishing gameplay. Imprecise controls and cheap deaths contribute in making this survival platformer way more frustrating than it needs to be.
- Beautiful Art Style
- Great World Building
- Frustrating Gameplay
- Imprecise Controls
- Overly Punishing