How Rain World Botches Extreme Difficulty
Even gamers looking for a challenge may want to look right past Rain World. Here's why.
From tough-as-nails indie platformers like Super Meat Boy and Spelunky to the punishing landscapes of Dark Souls, modern gamers are no stranger to brutally difficult adventures. Videocult's stylish new "survival platformer" is the latest game to amp up the challenge to extreme heights, but a few fatal missteps ruin the experience. Here are five ways Rain World crosses the line from difficult to frustrating.
Editor's note: While I played Rain World long enough to form a concrete opinion of the game, I didn't come even close to finishing it. As such, I'm not comfortable assigning an official review score. Instead, I'm offering the following criticisms to give any potentially interested players an idea of the challenges and flaws that lie ahead.
#1: The Controls Are
Simply put, if a game is going to present players with viciously demanding gameplay, the controls must live up to those demands. Rain World drops players into a sprawling Metroid-style world that's filled with deadly traps and creatures, but your slugcat protagonist moves at a plodding pace, and the controls feel sticky and imprecise. I guess that makes sense for a slugcat, but it also makes overcoming Rain World's myriad challenges a pain, and will lead to countless unfair deaths.
For example, performing a long jump requires you to press down on the d-pad and hold in the jump button for a second. However, pressing down while too close to the edge of a platform will make you slide off of it instead. This problem is compounded by the fact that the long jump isn't particularly long, so you're naturally inclined to shimmy as close to the edge as possible. You can expect to fall off countless ledges while trying to guesstimate this distance, and miss countless other jumps because you were too conservative. You won't die from an errant fall (unless an enemy is lying in wait), but traversing a screen full of mazes to get back to a jumping point for the third time is still annoying.
Rain World's environments are filled with tunnels that transition you from one screen to the next, but there are also tons of dead-end holes that you will frequently plop into. Oftentimes these holes are right next to actual tunnels, and slugcat isn't great at differentiating which tunnel you're trying to enter. At best this is another pace-slowing annoyance, but if you're being chased by a deadly creature, the bungled controls often end in death.
Sometimes slugcat even manages to trip over its own long and awkward body – you'll inexplicably enter a tunnel backwards when maneuvering in close quarters, which makes you move at a slower pace than usual. Difficult games need dependable controls; Rain World's physics-powered animations may look good, but they don't feel good.
#2: Enemies Are
Deadly, Unpredictable, And Spawn Randomly
It's not just that Rain World's enemies can and will one-hit kill you. It's not that their sim-based behavior is unpredictable, making it impossible to anticipate their patrol patterns or attacks. It's not even that the weapons at your disposal – mostly rocks and sticks you pick up in the environment – aren't enough to kill the predatory creatures. What really botches Rain World's difficulty is that these lethal enemies spawn randomly.
If you're playing Dark Souls and an enemy unexpectedly jumps out from behind a door and stabs you in the back, you're probably going to die. But the second time you go through that environment, you know he's lurking behind the door – and every time after that. In this way, Dark Souls allows you to learn the layout and dangers of your environment (as well as the moves and weaknesses of your foes), which instills a sense of steady progression even amidst hundreds of deaths.
There is no such predictability or dependability in Rain World. On one life, a screen of the environment may be completely devoid of life. On the next life, it may have three deadly lizards roaming around, blocking off the only passage forward. Foes frequently slither onto the screen via the same tunnels you use, with only a moment's notice. Your only real option is to circumvent them, and while this results in some tense cat-and-mouse moments, it also results in some hopeless situations where death is unavoidable, as well as boring moments where you're stuck hanging around waiting for a twitchy reptile to shamble out of the way.
#3: Progression Often
Gives Way To Regression
All of the issues with the controls and enemies are exacerbated by Rain World's save system and progression mechanics. In order to save your progress, you need to find one of Rain World's save rooms and hibernate. In order to hibernate, however, you need to first eat four pieces of food, whether they are hard-to-reach berries, or small creatures like bats. Food can be difficult to come by; while some screens may reliably produce a berry or two, living prey – like Rain World's predators – are frustratingly inconsistent.
Hibernating also increases your Karma rating by one point, and Karma is how areas in the world are gated. Here's the problem: When you die in Rain World, not only is all of your progress on the map erased back to your last save, you also lose a point of Karma.
This is where the Rain World experience really falls apart, and what led to my breaking point a handful of hours into the game. I had carefully creeped from one screen to the next, dying frequently and redoing areas until I found another all-too-rare save room (more on that later). I then managed to scrounge up enough food to hibernate a couple of times and unlock the next area. I traveled to the new area, and made it a few more screens before succumbing to the new traps and creatures of the unfamiliar surroundings. I then respawned at the save point back in the previous area. My most recent map progress was wiped out, and the gate to the new area was blocked once again. To get back, I first had to scrounge up four more meals, then go back to the save room and hibernate, then return back to the passage that unlocks the next area. However, I died in the jaws of a surprise sewer lizard during this process, which meant I had to do the entire scrounging/hibernating routine twice. When I finally made back to the new area, I forged a few screens further than the last time, before getting trapped in a tunnel by two enemies on either side of me, Pac-Man-style. I died, and all of my progress was wiped yet again. How do you make this entire sadistic process even worse? Keep reading...
#4: Save Rooms Are
Few And Far Between
Not only are there way too few save rooms, there's no way to tell where they'll pop up in the labyrinthine sprawl of connected screens. This once again aggravates all of Rain World's other problems. The slow pace of your character, the spotty controls, the super-deadly enemies that spawn and behave randomly, the need to collect food before you can hibernate, and the need to hibernate in order to raise your Karma and unlock (or re-access) new areas – with so few progress-saving rooms available to you, exploring Rain World's eerie environments becomes a grueling and infuriating test of patience.
#5: The Game Explains
The first few screens you traverse lay out the basic mechanics of Rain World. After that, you're on your own. Normally I appreciate games that encourage me to discover things by myself, but with so many obstacles already hindering your progress, Rain World's obtuse mysteries are just frustrating. Exploring and experimenting aren't fun when a single errant move can kill you and wipe out 30 minutes of progress. What's this red feather for? Will it prevent that carnivorous plant from eating me? Do I have to carry it somewhere, forgoing a weapon in the process? If so, where am I taking it?
Frequently, the only way to learn something in Rain World is to die from it. That weird alien grass that you didn't even see? It will kill you. So will that large tentacle that's disguised as a regular climbing pole. So will the rain! But you avoid other objects at your own peril – that suspicious red plant may offer up a bountiful meal. Rain World wants you to explore and discover, but the stakes are always too high – even if you just stumbled out of a save room, death carries a hefty penalty.
I have no doubt that the defense of Rain World fans will be to "git gud," and that feeling confused and helpless is the point. After all, you're an innocent little slugcat who's lost in a cruel and dangerous world – it should be dangerous! Maybe that dynamic would work with better controls and a more sensible save system. As it stands, however, reaching a new area didn't fill me with a sense of achievement or satisfaction; I was still frustrated by my slow progress, and dejected by the knowledge that my next inevitable death would wipe it all away. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t play enough of Rain World to feel comfortable giving it a review score, but I am comfortable telling all but the most masochistic gamers to give it a hard pass.