Rain World is a strange game. You play as a nomadic slugcat, a white creature with a long tail and grippy hands, that has been separated from its slugcat family. They lived a perfect life in a terrible industrial, post-apocalyptic hellscape; the opening cinematic shows a catastrophic rain that appears, sweeps the player slugcat away from its family, and casts it deep into the earth. The game is about getting out of this world, going somewhere else, and trying to recapture the warm cuddly feelings that appear in dreams throughout the game.
It’s hard not to be charmed by Rain World. The first images that I saw of the game a few years ago made me deeply curious about what this kind of game would be. Was it a platformer? Or was it something like Metroid or Castlevania? Maybe it could be something like Dark Souls where you are given a set of skills, little information, and a general idea of how to move forward. I think those questions of what Rain World is are still operative, and I think that trying to fit it into a traditional game genre (or even suggesting that it is a SomeGame-like) probably does it a disservice. It is wholly unique; that’s excellent in some ways and very, very frustrating in others.
To find some grip of comparison, I think that Rain World is remarkably close to the PlayStation 3 sleeper hit Tokyo Jungle. Both games are about an ecosystem of nonhumans attempting to live in the wake of technological (presumably human) disaster. More importantly, both are games that are interested in simulating that ecosystem in a robust way: both Tokyo Jungle and Rain World put lots of animals and plants onscreen and then show how they help or hinder one another. However, navigating that world of intense competition is rarely about interacting with that simulation. For the most part, you just have to hope that all of the other animals will just distract one another as you slip by. For this reason, both of these games, and especially Rain World, feels more like a puzzle game than anything else.
Rain World is, theoretically, about exploring and making your way out of a polluted hell. It is about entering new areas, seeing what the game wants you to do there, and figuring out how to do it. For the most part, this is dependent on a couple different core mechanics.
The first centers around food and hibernation. The slugcat can eat smaller animals and fruits in order to fill up its weird little stomach before hibernating. After it hibernates, it attains “karma points”, unlocking new areas. Being killed by the various animals and plants that prey on slugcats takes a karma point away. Entering an area, scoping out the creatures that prowl through it, and locating the food becomes an all-consuming focus. Or, at least, it was for me. Because I am hot garbage at this game.
My lack of ability really comes into play during the other core part of the Rain World experience: the micro-movements. In games like Starcraft II, players distinguish between macro (economic management and base creation) and micro (the tactical control of small groups or individual units). Being a good micro player is hard because you need intensive knowledge of how units move, what their abilities are, and how they counter specific other enemies. My experience with playing Rain World is very close to that of fighting enemy armies in Starcraft II: I had to fill my small grabby hands with rocks and spears, learn to finesse climbing across wires and bars, and figure out exactly what my short and long jump distances were.
None of this is weird for a game of this type. To get good at a game, you have to learn new skills. But the specificity of control that you need to master to be truly good at Rain World is closer to a Devil May Cry game than it is to Spelunky. The kind of subtle controller movements that the game requires from me aren’t foreign to someone who has to play lots of different kinds of games in lots of different contexts (say, someone who reviews games), but even I found them profoundly frustrating and unforgiving. These fine-grained controls are also paired with a save system that is incredibly punishing; I spent a couple play sessions grinding out levels and exploring new areas only to die and have all of that exploration rolled back to the last place that I hibernated (acting as both a save point and level-up zone).
Rain World has a lot in common with Hyper Light Drifter in that both lean heavily into their difficulty and neither have much interest in telling you what to do at any given time. Drifter, in following a Zelda-ish format, basically gave you four “wings” of the world that told you to defeat bosses there. Rain World is slightly more linear than that, but it also is much less clear about what its expectations are for you. There was a point in the first couple hours where I had to learn to throw a metal spear to create a platform, and I honestly just figured it out by accident. I felt that way about a lot of “discovery” in the game.
There are people who are going to love that kind of thing, and Rain World is absolutely for them. It is a highly-difficult game that is probably incredibly rewarding for those players who want to manage micro-movements and oblique hints about the way forward. Despite how much I enjoy that kind of experience on a conceptual level, it definitely isn’t my favorite kind of game to play, and I generally felt like I was solving puzzles with half of the pieces. Rain World is a beautiful, forward-thinking game that points to a form of game design that I want to see more of. I just wish it made itself a little more accessible.
Rain World was developed by Videocult and published by Adult Swim Games. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.