RiME

The last four paragraphs of this post contain major spoilers for Rime.

Rime (stylized as RiME) came out this past May, and people have been describing it as a cross between Journey and The Wind Waker. This comparison is understandable, as Rime has clearly borrowed visual design elements from both games. Its take on the genre of “exploration adventure” has been influenced from Journey, while numerous gameplay elements have been drawn from Wind Waker.

I think Rime is supposed to be about seven to eight hours long. In addition to an initial hour of wandering around aimlessly, I put about four hours into the game, and I think I’m done. Rime is like Journey without the charm and like Wind Waker without the cleverness and solid gameplay. Where it succeeds visually are its striking and brightly colored landscapes, but it forces the player to spend an inordinate amount of time in unlit interiors fooling around with moving block puzzles. It also opens with an immensely illogical failure in the design of its initial tutorial mission.

Like Journey, Rime doesn’t tell the player how things work but instead helps you figure things out for yourself through environmental design. At the beginning of the game, the player washes up on a deserted island, and within the first few minutes you’re given the task of activating four statues. Each of these statues is marked by a bright blue beam flaring directly upwards, the four of which collectively serve as obvious goalpost indicators. One statue is just off the main path from the beach to the interior of the island, one requires you to feed some fruit to a boar so that it will move out of your way, and one requires you to dive and swim through an underwater passage in order to be able to climb onto a small offshore structure.

The game guides the player through the actions needed to achieve these three goals. When you’re standing next to the first statue, the triangle button appears onscreen, showing you how to activate it with the “voice” command. When you’re standing close to the fruit bushes right next to the second statue, the square button appears onscreen, showing you how to pick the fruit with the “interact” command. When you’re swimming around the small structure in the bay, the x button appears onscreen, showing you how to dive using what you’ve already probably figured out is the “jump” command. No problems here.

The difficulty with the fourth statue is that it’s far away from the point of specialist action needed to reach it, and this target point is not flagged for the player in any way. What you’re supposed to do is use the circle button (which otherwise makes the avatar character perform a somersault) to drop down from a cliff so that you’re hanging from it by your fingertips. You then shimmy along its edge until you can jump to another cliff, which you then climb before following a path to the other side of the island. There are plenty of other cliffs on the island, but most players will have learned that they mark boundaries, as jumping off of them will result in death. Climbable ledges are marked by white erosion patterns (or guano?), but you can’t see these patterns from above, and you cling to and scale them with the jump button. Since the key action point involving the circle button is the only time that the player is required to actually drop down from a cliff, and since you can’t see its “climb marks” from where the camera is positioned looking down on it, and since it’s so far away from the actual statue, it would stand to reason that the circle button would appear onscreen when the player approaches this particular cliff – but it doesn’t.

I therefore spent a good hour running around and trying to jump over or climb up or somersault through piles of rocks close to the fourth statue, all to no avail. When I finally gave up and resorted to a video walkthrough, I noticed that the circle button prompt didn’t appear onscreen for that player either, which leads me to believe that it’s not something I missed but rather a deliberate feature of the game meant to help the player develop exploration skills.

Because I’m a shitty casual gamer, I frequently have trouble figuring out the internal logic of games that are new to me, so this could just be a consequence of my own relative lack of skill. Regardless, I still think exploration challenges with this level of difficulty should not be included in a tutorial mission. This wouldn’t be a flaw in a game that is in fact meant to be difficult, but it’s definitely a problem in Rime, which is meant to expansive and atmospheric instead of twitchy and stressful.

Speaking of twitchy, Rime’s platforming elements are atrocious. The player-character will not successfully land his jumps unless he is positioned in exactly the right place and at exactly the right angle, and the camera angle often doesn’t help. The character moves so slowly that returning to the jump point is often a tedious process, especially later in the game when chains of jumps must be completed. I could only stand to play about half an hour of this game at a time, and I had to take a few days in between play sessions to allow my frustration with the poor game design to abate.

I eventually got to the point where I started to search for spoilers. I suspected that, like other indie games in which a child must complete trials in a world with no other people, the boy who serves as the player-character might already be dead. If that was the case, I wasn’t sure that the emotional payoff of the game would be worth the frustration.

Spoilers ahead.

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It turns out that the kid is in fact dead, having fallen overboard during a storm while on a boat with his father. It’s not clear whether you play as the kid’s soul making the transition from life to death or whether you play as the father imaging the kid’s fantasy adventures as he navigates the seven stages of grief, but the last bit of the game involves the father walking around the kid’s room and picking up the kid’s toys, each of which played a symbolic role in the game (a stuffed fox is the fox spirit that leads you through the early stages, and so on). I am predisposed to cry at video games, but this revelation came so totally out of left field that my reaction was basically, Wow that grieving father has some nice real estate, I wonder how much his house is worth.

I think I would have preferred a more straightforward story of a kid being shipwrecked on an island and discovering the remains of an ancient civilization. The game is structured so that the boy is able to visit the island in what seems to be different time periods: in one it is lush and green, in another it is filled with ghosts and sand-choked ruins, and in another there are robots. Also, many of the game’s puzzles involve circles, orbits, the sun and moon, light and darkness, and other elements that suggest the cyclical nature of time. It would therefore make sense, both in terms of game design and gameplay, to have the game’s theme be the ultimate ephemerality of even the most monumental human achievement within the endless flow of time.

I think it would also be cool if the game involved the kid gradually realizing that he is the heir to this ancient civilization but then leaving everything behind on the island so that he can go home. Or the kid inadvertently (or deliberately) destroying everything on the island and being okay with it. Or the island being some sort of trial or pilgrimage the kid has to undertake in order to become an adult, kind of like a spirit quest.

What I’m saying, I guess, is I wanted the game to be more thematically cohesive. As it stands, it’s a waste of what could have been some gorgeous environmental storytelling. I’m not sure that even the most resonant of themes and the most brilliant of storytelling could have made up for the endless series of contrived puzzles and the godawful platforming, though.

( Header image from the game’s review on Kotaku )

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