Rain World: my journey
TL;DR: In Rain World (2017), you are a slugcat separated from its family, and now you are alone in a hostile world, trying to survive. Rain World tells you to explore, and then punishes you for exploring. Nearly every screen has something on it that’s trying to kill you, and it also has an arbitrary time limit that will kill you every ten minutes or so if you don’t find a save point in time. I don’t mind difficulty so long as there’s some sort of payoff, but in Rain World survival is not rewarded with a deep story or mind-blowing endgame. Your only reward is a punishing slog across hostile lands to learn fragments of a backstory that is vague at best, insultingly mundane at worst. The endgame feels like a slap in the face as a reward for all your effort. Rain World creates an interesting ecosystem, its visual style is beautiful and unique even though the procedural animation often makes the creatures look awkward, but it fails at being a game.
Full review (endgame spoilers below, clearly marked, for those who really want to know how immensely disappointing the goal of the game is):
Rain World (2017): You are a slugcat separated from its family, and now you are alone in a hostile world, trying to survive. You are told to explore, but the game punishes you for exploring by surrounding you with death on nearly every screen, and an arbitrary time limit after which you must find one of the uncommon save points sprinkled throughout the map. You must explore in roughly 10-minute increments. Venture too far without finding a save point, and you will be caught in the rain and die. All of this makes exploration a huge risk. The player is given no goal, rather expected to find the story while exploring, but since exploration always leads to death, the player has no reason to leave the safety of familiar territory. Exploration is something the player must force themselves to do, and they quickly discover there is no payoff.
The first story point is located on the other side of the map and is in such a hard to reach area you are likely to spend 30 hours wandering, barely staying alive before finding the first hint of what you’re supposed to be doing. There is a tutorial worm guiding you from the beginning, but it often gives contradictory and cryptic advice, so I learned to ignore it and just went my own way.
The story, along with the goal of the entire game, is hidden behind such a steep difficulty curve one would expect it to be worthwhile, but it’s not. Not to give too much away, but first you must find a certain person on the other side of the map. Then you must trek across the map to find special objects so you can talk to this person and learn what you’re supposed to be doing out here.
You have the option to bring this person special pearls found all over the map to learn more about what happened to this world and why everything is in ruins. You can only carry a maximum of 3 objects, one in each hand and one in your stomach. No pockets. No inventory. No shortcuts. No fast travel apart from a few you can earn from completing some very specific achievements (I only got two of them during my playthrough). These pearls are not even marked on the in-game map. You must do all of this trekking manually, and all the while you are expected to find food and fend off predators with weapons that do little but give you an extra second to run away from them. (You can kill predators and even befriend some of them, but doing so is a long, arduous process and the benefit for achieving it never outweighs the risk.)
Your only reward for bringing this person pearls is a few lines of dialogue hinting at the world’s backstory. The story is vague at best, but mostly mundane. Here’s an example (from the wiki), and it’s not a spoiler:
Oh this one is interesting. You must have found it in the memory crypts? It has some plain text, I can read it out to you.
"In this vessel is the living memories of Seventeen Axes, Fifteen Spoked Wheel, of the House of Braids, Count of 8 living blocks, Counselor of 16, Grand Master of the Twelfth Pillar of Community, High Commander of opinion group Winged Opinions, of pure Braid heritage, voted Local Champion in the speaking tournament of 1511.090, Mother, Father and Spouse, Spiritual Explorer and honorary member of the Congregation of Balanced Ambiguity. Artist, Warrior, and Fashion Legend.
Seventeen Axes, Fifteen Spoked Wheel nobly decided to ascend in the beginning of 1514.008, after graciously donating all (ALL!) earthly possessions to the local Iterator project (Unparalleled Innocence), and left these memories to be cherished by the carnal plane.
The assorted memories and qualia include:
Watching dust suspended in a ray of sun (Old age). Eating a very tasty meal (Young child). Defeating an opponent in a debate contest, and being applauded by fellow team members (Late childhood/Early adulthood).
...and the list goes on. I'm sorry, little creature, I won't read all of this - the list is six hundred and twenty items long.
Hours and hours you could spend retrieving this pearl only to be rewarded with... that. This is the typical payoff for finding the game’s story.
After the sixth hour the game becomes a cryptic, punishing slog to survive with no reward for doing so. The game’s difficulty is more frustrating than challenging. When I die in Super Meat Boy, I know I died because of my failure. When I die in Rain World, it’s often due to something beyond my control, such as a lizard falling out of the sky right on top of me and eating me, and there had never been a lizard in this location the previous fifty times I’d been there. Things like that happen all the time, and it makes for a frustrating game because I died so much I spent most of it at the lowest karma level, and there was nothing I could do about that. No matter how good you get at survival, you will still lose to things outside your control.
The only way I got so far was by consulting external maps just so I had a reason to leave my place of safety and an endpoint to my venturing. And then I hit a dead end at the top of the Wall. An out of reach vent. Apparently I’m supposed to go the long and difficult way to Five Pebbles, following my tutorial worm’s urgings up the Leg and Underhang. I wasn’t supposed to use my only fast travel to position myself to take a shorter, easier path. To advance from this position, I need to carry a sticky worm from Chimney Canopy across 30+ screens to the top of the Wall—the only such time in the game I need this insect’s ability. (A squidfly can also work, and I’ve read you can throw a spear downward to make a pole for yourself to climb up, but this is a bug exploit, not a feature. I tried over and over and couldn’t get it to work.)
I explored, I survived, I endured, and my reward is a dead end. I must now trudge back the way I came, risking death on the way back down, and then risking death again on the way up. I got tired of being punished for exploring, so I walked away from the game after about 24 hours of playtime.
<<<< ENDGAME SPOILERS, BECAUSE IT REALLY IS THAT DISAPPOINTING — I read on the wiki what the end of the game is: your goal is to talk to Five Pebbles, who tells you to go down beneath the Depths so you can kill yourself. Yeah. All that time you spent surviving a harsh landscape, making impossible jumps, evading hoards of lizards and vultures trying to eat you alive, and the goal of the game is to end your own life. Oh, sure, you’re “ending your cycle of reincarnation,” but the fact remains that the game’s goal is to kill yourself! On top of that, you need to maintain maximum karma to survive in this final area so you can reach a specific pool in which to drown yourself, meaning you must be outstanding at preserving your life in order to end it! Why the f* did I bother staying alive for so long if my end goal is suicide??!! >>>>
Everything in this game seems designed to punish the player for trying so hard, and there is no reward for enduring any of it. Respect to Videocult for creating a living, breathing ecosystem to inhabit, but they failed to give the player a reason venture forth and explore the land, choosing instead to punish the player for doing so by hiding the game’s story behind a needlessly high level of difficulty that does not have a corresponding payoff, and even going so far as to make the endgame a slap in the face for all their hard work.
It didn’t have to be this way. If not for the game outright punishing the player for exploration, this might be fun, and the player might have a reason to explore and then discover the story organically on the way. Yes, if the player encountered SOMETHING besides constant death and found hints of the story all around instead of having to fight to one particular spot on the map again and again to learn it, there’d be a reason to get out there and see the world. There were less aggravating ways to incorporate the story into the game. Ways to make the punishing difficulty worth it. Videocult chose not to.
POSITIVES: the music is good, and the pixel art style gives the game a unique feel. It’s gorgeous to look at the few times you can look at it when something is not on screen trying to eat you. The procedural animation succeeds in being a style, even though it doesn’t always look elegant, with lizards stumbling over their own bodies as they turn around and vultures getting caught on poles and struggling to free themselves. It doesn’t look like these creatures are deliberately choosing to act this way, rather trying to overcome the limits of their algorithms. Still, it is done well enough to be a style.
Videocult should have sought some input from a storyteller, or a game designer at least, because while the game itself is well-made and everything works, nothing in this game is fun, and your reward for exploration is not worth the effort.
Raw review: My journey through Rain World. (SPOILERS)
[[7 hours into the game] Rain World: The developers succeed in creating a living, breathing world for the player to inhabit. The game requires exploration to progress and then punishes the player for exploring—either a predator finds you while you’re viewing the map trying to decide where to go next, or you’re caught in the rain too far from a save-point while venturing from your comfort zone. Is there a point to progression? I’m not certain, but the mixture of dread prior to leaving my save-point and triumph for finally reaching a new area makes me determined not just to survive, but to thrive in this place. Survival is a goal unto itself, making this game a perfect metaphor for life. Why explore? Why bother surviving and venturing further and further out, risking death every time? Because something better must exist elsewhere, beyond the outskirts to which I am accustomed, a place where I don’t have to live in fear and can achieve something beyond mere survival, yes there must be more to life than—*lizard snaps its teeth around you as you ponder this. “Life is good,” it thinks to itself*]
[[9 hours into the game] the lack of a goal is starting to bug me. Really... what is the point of surviving and moving on to new areas? What am I supposed to do? Is there a point? Is survival the point of this game? I’m reading hints that there is a story, but I have yet to see any of it, and I’m deliberately avoiding reading more about it. I hope the more I explore, the more likely I am to find it... if I can keep my karma above a 1 for any length of time. Holy hell this game is a perfect metaphor for life, as you can be an expert at survival only to have a lizard fall out of the sky and eat you, or an area you’ve been to a hundred times has a white lizard camouflaged on your path to the exit, so you’re dead, and you never saw it coming. So much for skill. That’s probably the most frustrating part of this game. Even after you have everything figured out, you can lose it all to a chance encounter. I’m starting to wonder if this game has an ending. Is it meant to be enjoyed, or is it one of those games you must respect? Papers, Please isn’t a game I enjoy. I respect it. Perhaps Rain World will be another.]
[[12 hours] Wow, finally an event! I met a Spirit, and I got a karma upgrade! I would have missed it had I not been trying so hard to get my karma up so I could go to a new area (Chimney Canopy to The Wall), and I followed the glowing blue light and was rewarded for it. I had no idea that would happen, and I just so happened to be in the right place at the right karma level to see it. So apparently the game is dependent on one’s karma being high, but since I get killed by predators several times a day, and I haven’t found a karma flower in ages, I spend most of my time at a 1 or 2 and must be missing out. Now I have a goal. Something good must happen if I get all of these encounters. I’m only using a map I downloaded as a guide. I’m avoiding other spoilers. This game is brutally difficult, but also quiet at the same time, so it’s hard to ragequit. Instead I dreadquit. Meaning I quit when I’ve made progress and then I dread going back to it for fear of losing my precious progress to some randomly-placed lizard falling out of sky. At least I have a goal now, and I intend to make my way to the other areas and reach these places with high karma and the special pearl found in each area. Does the game ever tell the player to do this?]
[[18 hours] You are not supposed to play this game with a goal in mind. You are supposed to inhabit this world and discover things as you survive. But having a hint of a goal would give me a good reason to freakin want to survive because exploration is punishable by death, but here in my little hiding place is safety and comfort. So far my only strategy is to camp near a hibernation chamber, get my karma up, and then travel to where I’ve read the next meeting place is. Really, if not for the short time limit, this game would be easy, maybe even fun, but since you have only about ten minutes between rain cycles and then must find a hibernation point or you’ll be killed when the rain hits, the game becomes a terrifying experience that punishes you for venturing out too far. There are so few save points exploration is a huge risk. I managed to find the meeting place in Sky Islands, and I had a special pearl in my hand when I met this Spirit, but nothing different happened besides another maximum karma increase. No promised piece of a story. Guess I am mistaken about how to get the story, so I just move on then. If I’m right, you must be at maximum karma for each encounter to happen, but I was when I found the place once, and it didn’t show up. So I went back after somehow surviving long enough to go back to my hibernation point, and it showed up that time. I don’t understand when these spirit things appear, or how the player is supposed to know about them, let alone play well enough to get one, as this time being at 5-karma wasn’t enough. I had to be at 7 for two cycles in a row for it to appear this time. How the hell does anyone play well enough to find these on their own, and what is the point of having more karma if I still die and end up at a 1 for most of the game?]
[[20 hours] Sky Islands: directions that appear you can go but lead to instant death, both vertically and horizontally. One of the only directives the game gives you is to explore, and the game punishes you for exploring in every possible way. Either you go out too far and can’t find a save point because they’re nearly impossible to find without a full map, or a predator is at the door, or you fall down a hole and die because it looks like you can go in that direction but surprise you can’t—and all the while you’re losing karma for each death so you can’t move to a new area, and there’s still no hint of a story or even a goal. To tell the player to explore and then punish the player for exploring is unforgivable.
In Farm Arrays, the Rain Deer sometimes never stand where I need to climb on their antlers, making me waste half a cycle because I’m stuck in that one spot waiting for them, and I often die in the tube grass trying to leap for their antlers. The procedural animation allows for great flexibility, but it also makes the creatures look awkward most of the time with how their legs and wings keep getting stuck in things.
Finally found a karma flower. I will keep this thing no matter what! (A noble goal, but sometimes you die in an area where the flower is impossible to access a second time. It drops where you last died, so you must go back to that place to retrieve it to prevent yourself from losing karma when you die again, but random lizards or vultures are now where the flower is. If you can’t get to the flower and die trying, it doesn’t come back, and now you’re vulnerable and must go through the game with no karma.)
The Spirit does not show up the first time you’re in the area, even if your karma is high enough, meaning you have to know to find a chamber, save your game, and then come back a second time, or you will miss this encounter, and you don’t get the max-karma upgrade unless you’re at full karma, which means you have to camp for as many as ten cycles just to get your karma high enough to get the upgrade. These upgrades only seem to punish you for playing well enough to gain karma by raising the bar for the next upgrade, and for what?? What purpose do they serve? I’m not getting benefits from these things. No increased jump or speed or strength or anything, so what’s the point of getting more karma slots?
It’s all so arbitrary and obtuse, and so much of it is beyond one’s control. Super Meat Boy is hard, but when I died, I know I died because of MY failing. When I die in Rain World, it’s usually because of things outside my control, and that is what’s making me so mad.
All I want to do is get to the Shoreline, and then to Five Pebbles to find out if this story I keep reading hints about is worth finding, and if the ending saves this experience. Rain World has gone from an exciting ecosystem set in a world of beautiful decay to a slog of aggravation and dread. It gives the player zero incentive to explore, only extreme risk every time they step outside their comfort zone. If not for the punishing risk of exploration, it might be fun, and the player might have a good reason to explore, and then discover the story organically on the way. Yes, if the player encountered SOMETHING besides constant death and found hints of the story all around, maybe in beautiful places that are not surrounded by chomping lizards and vultures and tube grass trying to kill you, there’d be a reason to get out there and see the world. The only reason I persevere is because I’m using a map to guide my journey, and this gives me a goal. Without that, the player’s only reward for exploration is rebuke by predator, which makes the game no fun at all.
I’m told there’s something on this side of the map worth finding. I doubt anything can be worth this much trouble. Whatever story is hidden behind a difficulty curve this steep had better be good.]
[[22 hours] So... I followed the guide-worm’s unceasing urges and found... HER. I was confused. I made it to this part of the Shore just to find her because I read that’s the goal, and the “overseer” guide-worm kept urging me this way once I came here, but nothing happened. Very disappointing, and without consulting an external guide I would have had no clue what to do next, or what the point of coming here was. Now my worm is urging me to find more of those things floating around her head. I deduce it’s guiding me to where I can find more. Will this be worth it? I don’t see how anyone is supposed to get this far without an external guide; the tutorial worm urging you on throughout the game often gives you contradictory advice, and sometimes there is more than than one of them telling you to go to different places, so I learned to ignore the damn things. I backtracked through the Outskirts and Industrial Complex and then through the Shaded Citadel—endured hours of groping around in the dark and food scarcity just to find the Shore. All this, 22 hours into the game, before I get to any kind of story or goal. What the hell were the developers thinking? Just getting here has been a punishing slog, and now I have to go somewhere else before I can even talk to this person! I still feel like I’m being punished for exploration, especially since now I have to leave this chamber and swim across five screens of dangerous waters just to get out. According to the map, there is no direct way to get to Five Pebbles from here, which I have read is where I need to go, so I must trek across several worlds full of predators and rain to reach Five Pebbles. There is no fast travel option unless you have done some specific achievements, and hopefully you realized you don’t have to use your fast travel (“passage”) immediately... which I have not. I happen to have an option to fast travel to a place that might allow me to get to Five Pebbles faster than usual. Maybe. If I can ever make that damn jump to the Wall.
That karma flower I found has made things so much easier, and there have been fewer predators lately, making progress faster.
On the plus side, I am getting all kinds of uncommon Steam achievements following this path. Now I’ve read that the player earns maximum Karma upon visiting Five Pebbles automatically, so what is the point of these Spirit meeting places? I half expected the game to require a certain Karma as a prerequisite to entering Five Pebbles, so I sought out these meeting places I saw on the map after finding the first one by chance. Turns out the game is not as punishing as I had thought in that regard. I’m not asking for my hand to be held, but some direction would have been nice, as there’s really no benefit to earning Karma by visiting the meeting places anyway. Maybe this is what happens when programmers make a game without input from game designers or storytellers. I’m getting a very strong emphasis on systems over gameplay or story.]
[[24 hours] F* the Wall. It’s a good challenge, but because the lizards are never in the same place twice, getting through the gold-lizard nest is a matter of luck, not skill. Every problem with this game would have been solved if it had taken away the punishment for exploration. That is: had the developers removed the need to find a specific place to save your game every 10 minutes and instead allowed the player to continue from wherever, this might have been doable, but because you are tied to this arbitrary time limit and are given no reason to explore and no goal or fast travel, the game is impossible without some sort of external guide. I can’t imagine how anyone can progress through this game on their own because RAIN WORLD PUNISHES YOU FOR EXPLORATION! How can a game tell you to explore and then punish you for doing so??
So I finally got to the top of the Wall only to find an impossible to reach vent that leads to Five Pebbles. Any other place I’d just throw a couple spears at the wall to make ledges to climb up—I’ve done this many times before, but it doesn’t work here, and ONLY HERE! Why? I seem to be stuck. I looked up what I’m supposed to do, and the only solution I’ve seen is to go back down to Chimney Canopy, grab a sticky worm (which I had encountered only once before in passing at maybe my fifth hour but didn’t know I could pick one up and carry it), kill it, carry it all the way back up the wall, through the nest of gold lizards, past the cluster of white lizards, and then finally use that to climb the last bit to the top. What the f*? Did the developers never play a game before?
Someone on a youtube video commented you can throw a spear downward while doing a backflip and make a pole for yourself to climb up, but I’ve tried that over and over and over. The wiki also says you can do this, but I can’t make it happen. If it’s possible, it’s a bug, not a real move. I can’t find any videos where anyone gets to Five Pebbles from Chimney Canopy. Is it meant to be an exit point only? Then why does the guide show it’s possible to go both ways??
So now I’m condemned to be stuck just a couple screens away from my goal. I’m supposed to go back down, brave the predators all the way to the bottom, cross to another area, brave more predators to find that worm, and then go back again and brave those same predators all the way up, all the while lugging a heavy insect and rendering me defenseless! Or maybe I was supposed to enter Five Pebbles through the Underhang, but why are there two ways if one is incorrect? The game punished me for using my only fast travel, and all I wanted was to take the shortest path.
The people who made this game must never have played one themselves. From everything I’m reading, my only reward is more trudging across hostile lands just to get lines of dialogue. That’s the story. Fragments of dialogue hinting at what happened to this world. Hints of a vague story, and you must bring special pearls to this specific place from all over the map to get these hints. No shortcuts. You must walk through hundreds of screens just to go to unmarked locations in the game world and bring back these tiny objects. A few lines of dialogue is your only reward for trudging across this hostile land, practically helpless to defend yourself against an entire world that’s trying to kill you.
Apparently the goal of the game is to dive to the bottom of the world and drown yourself to end your cycle of reincarnation (https://rainworld.gamepedia.com/Plot). That’s it. That’s the goal. All that time you spent surviving a harsh landscape, making impossible jumps, surviving predator after predator, and the goal of the game is to kill yourself anyway. F* this. And you still must have max karma to survive this area so you can reach the pool so you can commit suicide! What a f*ed up system: you must be outstanding at survival so you can go kill yourself!
Rain World is beyond unpleasant. I’ve wasted enough hours giving this game the benefit of the doubt, trying to meet it halfway on the hope that maybe the story will be worth it and the ending will save it, but I am tired of being punished for exploring, and finding out what the endgame is makes it even more disappointing. This is where I walk away.]