Game review: Rain World for PS4

Hoo boy, where do I even begin with this game? Let’s start with this. Before playing Rain World myself, I watched several YouTubers try it out and quit early on, some of them ending in tearful apologies for not being able to go on. Let that sink in: this is a game that has reduced grown men to TEARS.

Rain World had the potential to be a great game, something iconic that we might all collectively look back on with fondness and nostalgia. But it is consistently hampered by the decision to marry demands for perfection with a control scheme that frequently ignores inputs and does whatever the hell it wants.

I feel I need to justify myself in your eyes before I can even get into the review. I have unlocked several trophies in this game, among them a trophy called Dragon Slayer. This trophy requires killing one of each type of lizard from the green, violet, blue, white, orange, and black varieties. (There is a red lizard, too, but its rarity is such that the game doesn’t require killing it for the trophy.) To even find orange and black lizards requires making it to the farthest end of the game’s many levels, and at the time of my winning this honor, 0.6% of players had managed this feat. I’m in some rarefied air for having made it to the end of the game. AND YET, I could not actually reach the end.

Keeping that in mind, let me backtrack to the beginning, which is so much easier to explain. Rain World starts with a slideshow introducing the player to a family of slugcats. These cute little critters were migrating from somewhere when a sudden rainstorm sent the parents scampering for cover, and in climbing a ruined building, a little slugkitten slipped and fell off its parent’s back. That’s who you’re guiding then, a cyoot widdle slugkitten who got separated from his totes adorbs family. From there the game starts, and a very short tutorial guides you through the basics of the game play. Find food, find shelter to get away from rain, rinse and repeat. Here’s how to do a charged jump, oh, and you can throw stuff in straight lines to the right or left. Aaaaand good luck surviving!

Nothing else is explained through actual text, and while a pair of flowers sometimes show up and project images offering some kind of direction, it’s often impossible to understand what message they’re trying to convey. A lot of the mechanics of the game can only be discovered through experimentation, trial and error. Some of it comes down to observation of the environment. For instance, I noticed how the moth-bats slugcat used for food were attracted to a certain red weed, and he could pick up and carry that weed, making the food practically fly into his mouth. Less obvious and harder to understand was the mechanic of eating and regurgitating an object to keep it in storage. Slugcat can hold two items in his hands, and one in his belly, and this extremely limited inventory system means you either have to leave behind stuff or have a very good memory about which shelter you dropped an item in. (Many, but not all, items dropped in a hibernation point will remain there until slugcat carries them out. This is useful for stockpiling food or spears, or pearls which are used as a form of currency in certain situations that I’ll briefly touch on later in the review.)

Observation and experimentation are key in all facets of the game. The game won’t tell you a certain flower consumed will give slugcat the perception of slower time, allowing you to evade predators more easily, or to hunt them in turn with less risk. You have to just eat stuff to find out what it does. The game will vaguely tell you about certain enemies, but it is careful observation that reveals which poles are climbable, and which are mimic-like predators waiting to pull you into their nests to be eaten later. (Pro-tip: the mimic poles occasionally “bristle” with red spikes, giving themselves away.)

It’s ideas like these that could have made Rain World into a classic title, but what undermines the brilliance of the world are the procedurally generated animations for slugcat. It is impossible to convey how bad of an idea this is if you haven’t played the game, but I can try to sum it up this way: slugcat is first and foremost a cat, and that means that sometimes despite your best intentions, he will ignore your controller input and do whatever he feels like doing.

Several sections of the game require holding the jump button until slugcat arches his back, cluing the player in that he is ready to do a charged jump. And yet, even after he arches his back, he may just decide to roll off the ledge you perched him on and plummet several screens, erasing what little progress you’ve made.

Similarly, slugcat is supposed to briefly stick to walls, making it possible to leap from one wall to another. This wall jump is lodged in my muscle memory from countless other games through the years, so this should be a piece of cake. But Rain World has vertical shafts two screens high, requiring something like ten to fifteen wall jumps, and at any given time, slugcat may decide not to stick to a wall, sliding all the way back down to the bottom of the shaft and ignoring any frantic efforts to get him back to wall jumping.

But even the simplest act of jumping can be hampered by slugcat’s arbitrary nature. He might do the full jump that you need to clear a gap or jump over a charging predator, or he might do the most pathetic hop possible, sending him plunging down several screens or into the waiting mouth of a lizard. It’s agonizing enough screwing up a good jump by the tiniest miscalculation, but there’s a special torment in knowing you pressed the right button and your on screen avatar went, “meh, I don’t feel like making the effort.”

Then there’s slugcat’s arbitrary aim with spears. You may think it’s simple enough, that he throws in the direction he’s facing, and about two-thirds of the time that is the case. And yet, there are times when for no reason whatsoever, slugcat will chuck his spear back behind himself. Launched spears have a tendency to stick into objects and become lodged, making retrieving them impossible. While this mechanic can be used to build ladders of sorts, it’s also a huge problem if you’re trying to kill a much larger predator and that was the only spear in the area.

(On a side note, I would like to proudly point out that I was able to kill multiple lizards using only one spear, a trick that requires leaping over a charging lizard, throwing a spear into its back before it can flip over to face slugcat, and then running up quickly to retrieve the same spear to repeat the process three and four times depending on the breed of lizard. It was only much later that I discovered the combination of explosive spears and the aforementioned slow-mo flower that fighting lizards became somewhat less fraught with perilous DHOOM.)

Failure will often mean death, and failure due to an arbitrary decision by slugcat to ignore your input can already be demoralizing enough. But this is where the karma system steps in to make every defeat that much more punishing. To unlock the various areas of the game, you must feed slugcat and send them safely into hibernation chambers before each spot of rainfall. You have to keep doing this to raise karma, and each day you survive, your karmic symbol is upgraded. Those symbols correspond to symbols locking the doors between areas, so to travel to a new area means you need to have the right symbol or something of a higher value. For each death, you lose one karmic symbol, and it it is possible to slide so far down that slugcat becomes trapped in an area. Making this more problematic is that sometimes, food resources can deplete completely from an area, so it becomes a frantic and vicious circle of trying to find food and race back to a safe spot to sleep before another rain comes crashing in. Just when you’ve finally got the right symbol to exit the area, slugcat decides to bunny hop into a lizard’s mouth, and you’re right back in the same fine mess. Oy vey.

If slugcat dies in a new area before finding a place to hibernate, he will return to the last place he rested. Losing one karmic point, it can sometimes become a struggle to find enough food to pass a gate check, and then find another spot to sleep. There is a rare yellow flower that when consumed will create a “shield” around the current karmic symbol. This means that when slugcat dies, the shield prevents him from losing karma. But that’s only good for one time, and to keep the shield, slugcat needs to find and eat another yellow flower.

There is a visual timer on the interface to let you know when each rainfall will come, and I’ve seen many folks incorrectly refer to this as a day cycle. But it’s not a timer lasting a full day. It is simply the time you have until the next rainfall, and sometimes that timer can be very short, while other times it can be extremely generous. What you get is random, but knowing where to look to see your available time means being able to judge if this is a good chance to push ahead and open a new area or to just find enough food to nap again and wait for a better time cycle. Again, keen observation rewards the more cautious player, while the casual player may very well never know why some “days” are longer than others.

I need to mention that unlocking various trophies will grant players a set of fast travel tokens. These can only be used one time, and in any given run, it seems it is only possible to unlock six trophies at a time. The first trophy you will always pick up is the survivalist, which requires keeping alive at the highest karma level for six cycles. (Not consecutive cycles, as it is possible to die and not lose all progress toward earning the trophy.) After this is unlocked, you can get other trophies. There’s one earned for eating only meat, another for eating only fruits, another for not killing anything to survive, and yet another for trying to kill everything. There is the Dragon Slayer trophy I mentioned, and another which requires resting once in every area of the game. Once an area has been unlocked in any play through, it is possible to travel there in a new game once you have a fast travel token. But as you can only get six in any given run, mostly you have to hoard them until you have no other choice but to backtrack.

Oh, and one other benefit to these tokens is that using them resets your karma to the highest level. This is something of a reprieve from the crushing difficulty, but again, as it is a finite resource, you have to consider whether it will be harder to regain karma and backtrack the hard way or just fast travel to a slightly less grueling area.

Now add to this mix a group of semi-humanoid scavengers who are, putting it nicely, fickle as fuck. The scavengers run toll bridges that require you carrying and dropping a pearl in front of them. Do this and they let you pass. This also opens up a potential relationship with them and a chance of unlocking another trophy if you’re accepted into a new tribe. Trouble is, even after paying the toll, scavengers will frequently turn hostile for no apparent reason. I’ve tried dropping gifts in their camps and helping them to slay bigger monsters, and invariably after all my efforts to curry favor with them, one of those bastards will bean slugcat with a rock to make him drop his spear, run over to take the spear, and then unceremoniously stab him in the head. It is for this reason that I later on said “fuck it” and went to their camp to steal a glowing stone to light my way though the darkest areas of the game. Thereafter, I at least understood their hostility and could respond in kind.

If I’ve at any point made this sound fun, allow me to set you straight. This is not fun. It is agonizing. Each area I opened only led to further agony and frustration, but the height of this came when I reached the end of the game. I had uncovered an area where no rain fell, and where I had all the time I needed to explore and slowly map out a dungeon until I could suss out where the real exit was. But guarding this exit were a series of giant figures who would not let me pass. I made several attempts, and each time they used some kind of magic to hurl slugcat across the screen. Eventually this led to a fatal impact with a wall, and to my dismay slugcat was transported several thousand meters back with me having no understanding of why he was denied access.

I ended up having to use the wiki to see where I’d gone wrong, and it turns out you need to have a certain karmic symbol to get past. Which symbol? The wiki didn’t say. Where would I get that symbol? Again, the wiki didn’t say.

It was at this point that I decided it was time for me to give up and stop torturing myself. I’d spent way too long feeling aggravated for little to no reward, and while I could theoretically backtrack to see what I missed in the other areas, I simply cannot work up the desire to keep bashing my head against this proverbial brick wall.

I will not say I’ll never play again. There was a patch applied to the game that eased some of the demands from the release version. For instance, in the original release, dying would erase all progress made on the map, and now that is no longer the case. Perhaps a future patch will tighten the controls and make slugcat more responsive. Perhaps a future update might make it possible to earn more fast travel tokens. Anything is possible in this age when a game might be a patch away from greatness. But as it stands now, this is less of a game and more like an endurance test for masochists.

Now I reach the difficult point of needing to score the game. I want very much to give it 1 star, but I reserve that score for something broken and unplayable. The shoddy controls are not broken; they are working as intended, and I think the developer considers the crap controls part of the challenge. I waffle on giving it a 2 or a 3 because even a 2 feels horribly unfair. The ideas behind the design are pure genius. The visuals and music are sublime. The whole conceit of the game rewarding observation and experimentation is fucking brilliant. So how can I punish the game with a 2 when there’s just this one nagging problem? At the same time, the nagging problem is central to my enjoyment of any game, the need for responsive controls.

In the end, I have to give 3 stars to Rain World. I genuinely hope that a patch will one day come out to address the biggest problem with the game, and I hope that the developer takes to heart the criticisms offered by countless reviews before making their next game. Because even if Rain World doesn’t quite make the leap to being “best game evah,” there is still the potential that the next game could take that award. I for one look forward to seeing if the developer can learn from their critics and deliver a better game with their next release. (And I also wouldn’t mind trying this again, and even reviewing it again, if a patch fixed this one glaring flaw.)