Friday, 22 September 2017

Rime - Review

Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Grey Box/Six Foot 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Switch, Xbox One 

[Warning: This review contains potential spoilers for Rime. Read on at your own risk.] 

Rime, as with many independent adventure games, starts by making you ask questions. Why is my character here? What is he doing? What’s happened? It’s an obvious “hook”, something that any good story, regardless of medium, is likely to do, and it serves Rime well.

Developed by Tequila Works, the developers of zombie-horror side-scroller Deadlight and co-developers of the recent Sexy Brutale, Rime plays out, visually at least, like a love letter to Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Left shipwrecked on the edge of an island, the game subtly nudges you in the right direction as you guide the nameless protagonist, a young boy, inland, clambering around cliff faces and scuffling over rocks.

It’s basic platforming, but is strengthened both by Tequila Works strong sense of atmosphere and their level design. Rime is linear in the sense that there’s a clear endpoint in every location, with only a few non-essential doo-dads for the completionists to force you off the beaten track. Yet, the design of each of Rime’s locations, rather than feel like “levels” simply feel like an environment, something to explore and wander through and be gently nudged (but never cajoled) in the right direction.

The developers soon swap Windwaker for Ico/The Last Guardian, as you’re introduced to a fox companion who gently points out where you’re supposed to go with a helpful bark every now and then. After laying out its basic structure of platforming and basic puzzles, the game settles into a rewarding hum as it shuttles along its five to six hour runtime.

Rather than simply stick to one basic location, the developers structure the game around specific areas, each with their own gimmick and set of challenges to overcome. After making your way across the island, you’re transported to a desert, where a bird monster constantly harries your progress by threatening to pluck you out of the sand unless you intermittently find cover beneath rocks or structures. Meanwhile, a later area takes place in a flooded temple (again, very Zelda) and has you attempting to reawaken stick-legged robot creatures from their slumber, slowing down the pace and introducing more puzzles.

The environmental changes from area to area, along with the simple yet satisfying puzzles, help Rime to maintain a gentle but effective pace without ever becoming plodding or dull. As with Little Nightmares earlier this year, Rime has a masterful sense of incorporating storytelling into its gameplay whilst rarely breaking player control. More importantly, it serves the game’s simplicity well, with everything playing out like a charming interactive animation.

Despite the simplicity of much of its mechanics, Rime is never tedious or boring to play. Its puzzles typically revolve around the boy’s “shout” which can interact with blue structures in the environment, be they switches or jars. Likewise, later sequences expand on this concept as you lug around shiny blue orbs that both function as keys, and can be used to “super-charge” the area around you, activating multiple switches simultaneously.

By the time the game reaches its final area, there’s a sense that Rime has morphed into something very different entirely. Like I said, it’s a game that tells its story through its gameplay but in a way that never feels obscure or vague for the sake of it.

It comes with something of a surprise when Rime delivers a “twist” in its closing act, shifting into very different territory than where it started. The emotional gut-punch of its climatic reveal is genuinely moving. It was there all along, staring you right in the face.

The fact that Tequila Works manage to craft such a story and tell it through a game that’s primarily about jumping around ledges and shouting at orbs is what makes it so engaging. Granted, it’s far from original as far as writing goes, and I criticised Outlast 2 earlier this year for doing something similar with its story.

Yet, it’s how Rime achieves its story as much as the one it tells that makes it satisfying in a way that Outlast 2 could never achieve. Ever since Silent Hill 2, game worlds as a metaphor for a character’s mental state have almost become something of a cliché, a shorthand solution for creating weird imagery and not needing to have a coherent story to tie everything back to.

The reason why Rime works in this sense is twofold. For starters, it simply avoids beating you over the head with its subtext. Instead, it trusts the player to simply enjoy the journey that’s unfolding and then allow the story underneath to emerge naturally, without reams of redundant dialogue or overdone visual metaphors.

Its other strength is its art-house sensibility. Rather than clutter its story and world with hints and nods to the story that’s emerging it instead takes a minimalist approach, trusting in the mood, atmosphere and beautiful soundtrack to communicate ideas that in most games would be stuffed into reams of backstory, notes and audio logs.

It's only when the absolute final reveal comes, and you finish the game, and open up the chapter select screen. All of the levels, the desert, the forest and so on, are each named after the stages of grief.

I’ve danced around the truth of what Rime is about rather than outright spoil it, but all I can say is it’s an absolutely wonderful game. It’s far from original perhaps, but that doesn’t matter so much when it’s delivered so effortlessly and in such a satisfying fashion.


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