Last updated on April 4th, 2017 at 04:53 pm
Table of Contents
A Torrent of Small Issues
I recently played Rain World on stream, and as anyone who tuned in would know, I don’t hate the game but it has far more problems than I was expecting. A core issue of the game is…there is no core issue; it’s a big messy tangle of small issues that wouldn’t even be problems if not tied to other small issues, and they all bundle up into a big ball of frustration.
This isn’t quite a review so much as a critique on how to make a much more approachable game. I’ve only played about 4 hours, but it’s flaws are so readily apparent (and so well agreed on) I don’t feel that’s a problem. If you haven’t played the game, Destructoid has a good run down on the issues in it’s review.
So let’s go over the individual problems that add up to a greater, incredibly frustrating hole. Note pretty much all of these are fairly innocuous alone and I’m not calling any of them inherently bad design; instead I’ll go over how each interacts negatively with other factors to result in more frustration than funstration, a word I just made up and must now swear to never use again.
The game has a “Karma” system of sorts where you have to stay alive X days to reach the highest ranks, and the highest ranks are generally required to open airlocks between areas. Dying reduces your Karma and basically means you have to grind back up a few days in addition to losing the progress you made before dying. Karma has a (fairly low) cap and can be very easily be reduced back to zero even from the highest value with even just a bit of bad luck.
This system is annoying at it’s best frankly, and when you combine it with unpredictable enemy locations, instant deaths, and the inherent truth that you are going to die every time you find a new area or enemy that you don’t know how to handle, you spend a great deal of the game not exploring, but finding food and holing up as soon as you can.
It really just feels like an arbitrary punishment system. The combination of nearly forced deaths (enemies you don’t know how to handle) and random deaths (oh there was a guy RIGHT outside the door I just traveled and I had no way of knowing) means you will lose progress almost constantly. And unless there’s a Hibernation Chamber right at the start of a new area, you’ll run the risk of being sent all the way back to the old area if you die to some new horror, and locked out from the gate to boot.
Karma is probably the closest the game has to a central flaw, as almost every other problematic area is worsened significantly by the punishment that death brings.
A fairly minor issue on its own, but dying not only reduces your Karma, but it wipes any progress you made on the day you died as well, so if you scout out an area you better hope you actually survive. It, like many other things, just feels like arbitrary punishment considering how randomly you can die and how thoroughly punished death is even without this specific aspect of it.
When it rains, it pours. And it always rains in Rain World.
Rain World, per it’s name, has brutal, insta-kill rain that happens after maybe 20 minutes of messing around on a given day. To survive you must find a Hibernation Chamber and hole up, but only if you’ve eaten 4 pieces of food for that day. This is usually not a problem, but when it is, hoooo boy is it a problem.
Rain World is a dangerous place and playing with caution is, in theory, rewarded. Until it starts raining, then caution is harshly punished. Many Hibernation Chambers, particularly in the Citadel, are also set extremely far apart. When a path takes half a day to traverse properly knowing exactly how to do everything, going through a map hunting for the next Hibernation Chamber can feel completely suicidal (and often is), yet that’s pretty much your only choice in some areas.
There’s no real way to know where the next hibernation chamber is, and even if you find one but die, your map progress is erased up to the last time you hibernated anyway. Your Hologram Worm buddy will try to indicate the vague direction of the next Chamber, but it could be one room over or 15 for all you know, and he could be indicating the absolute most dangerous way to it.
All in all, the game is pure exploration, trial and error, luck, and experimentation; none of which really mesh well with a timer at all. Most days the timer felt entirely pointless, but in the few days it did it was the worst feeling in the world. And of course, not only did you lose the progress you made that day, you lost your map and Karma, again.
I’ve never seen a game more committed to obscurity than Rain World, even in puzzle games where finding out how to operate the game itself is in fact the puzzle. The Hologram Worm which “helps” you is so laughably unhelpful he often leads you directly into more danger. After a couple hours you’ll probably almost completely ignore him, and before that you probably won’t even be able to suss out what he’s even trying to tell you.
I, like probably everyone else, immediately wasted my first “Passage”, an instant teleport to a prior Hibernation chamber. I mistakenly assumed it was some sort of chapter select, and just returned to my current location. This completely and permanently wasted an extremely limited resource, cool stuff.
The obscurity alone, like most of these issues, would be fine if the rest of the game weren’t working against it. Exploration is great, but finding you’re going to die in one minute if you don’t get to a crawlspace is less great. Losing progress in addition to that death is an extra slap in the face, and makes the actual feeling of discovery feel like a relief at best, rather than a revelation.
When I first started playing I offhandedly compared Slug Cat’s movement to Gish, but was quick to correct myself since lots of people found Gish unplayably frustrating due to it’s controls (I still really like Gish). Turns out it was a lot closer to Gish than I thought.
Slug Cat is weird. Slug Cat is slippery. Slug Cat will often try to slip into tubes in the world, which is great, except for when you don’t want Slug Cat to do that. Which is often, because the world is littered with non-functional tubes which Slug Cat will still happily crawl into. If a “real” tube is next to a broken tube, Slug Cat will often magnetically attach to the wrong tube many, many times before slipping into the right one. While hilarious on it’s own, it’s far less funny when you’re dealing with a time limit or escaping one of countless monsters that can instant-kill you.
Slug Cat has this extremely annoying “long jump” kind of like Mario 64, but it’s used by putting Slug into a “crouched” stance that serves no actual purpose beyond enabling this maneuver. Oh, and if you’re too close to a ledge, pressing down will make Slug Cat drop off the ledge instead of crouching. Also, of course, every time you actually need to long jump you’re doing it at the edge of something to leap somewhere else.
All in all the “crouch” stance seems entirely pointless and long jumps should just be a separate button or something. There’s only a few places it’s even needed, and half the places I thought it was needed it turned out to not work in. It should really probably just be removed from the game entirely, unless I’m missing something there’s only a few rooms in which it has any use at all.
Slug Cat also has an aversion to clinging to edges and you must hold up to grab onto things. On occasion this means you will have to press down to drop down, then press up but only after falling and before passing the thing you want to grab onto.
The controls alone aren’t entirely rage inducing, but they’ll cause a few extra deaths at the absolute worst possible times. That would be annoying enough even without the always present straight-up punishment for dying no matter how little your own skill was involved.
This is a real good example of how a legitimately awesome, technical marvel of a game feature can interact badly and result in a frustrating experience.
You see, enemies in Rain World have “lives”. They move around and can appear in many places, and they’re persistent throughout the whole day. You won’t find enemies at (exactly) predetermined locations and enemies might wander a fair distance from their “usual” spot. It means you never know what you’re going to get.
This sounds extremely cool and unanimously good. At least until the first time you open a door and there’s just a giant alligator there and you’re dead before human reaction time of 200 milliseconds can even cause you to flinch. And it happens a fair amount of time.
The core thing keeping games like Binding of Isaac sane is that, at least in 99% of cases, whatever is thrown at you is going to be possible. Usually even in procedural games some elements will be hand-crafted. Even the extremely few rooms in Binding of Isaac Rebirth that required a player to take damage were found to be a massive issue due to The Lost, which made those rooms an instant death and lost run.
Slug Cat isn’t quite as bad as The Lost/Keeper in BoI, but it has some unfortunate similarities. You’re often put into situations that do not feel like you even could have handled. You have nearly no skills to put to use and you may or may not even have a spear, not that they help a particularly great deal. Instead you’re often put into situations that can just randomly kill you, then as always you lose progress and have to do everything again, praying the exact same thing doesn’t happen this time.
By the time I reached The Citadel, I was quite over any inherent curiosity I had in regards to interacting with alien wildlife. Everything wanted to kill Slug Cat. Even the Hologram Worm, my only friend, pretty much just told me about cool new ways to die. “Hey Slug Cat. There’s a really great way to die over here. You’ll just love it.”
It turns out there are in fact creatures you have to interact with in a non-violent manner in the game. I avoided doing so for about half an hour because I just (reasonably) assumed everything was going to kill me and there was no reason to think otherwise. That you can grab and use Spider Mice as a sort of living, struggling, very upset flashlight is neat, but if I wasn’t told to do it by my stream chat I would probably never have even tried.
The eternal cycle of punishment, often for doing seemingly harmless things, pretty thoroughly killed my inherent curiosity. Which is a pretty dire outcome for a game about exploration.
You can’t…really fight things in Rain World. There’s spears. Technically things can die. It is basically never in your interest to “fight”. Most enemies that die will probably die randomly as other enemies decide to kill them. Your spear doesn’t work very well against even common enemies, and they’re somewhat rare so you’ll often be without one.
Not every game needs combat, but you do stumble into a lot of encounters which seem to assume you’re armed in some way and you’re not, and even more encounters that are effectively identical if you weren’t armed, you’re just better off running.The game feels like it would play smoother if it didn’t even bother with this pretense of combat. It just doesn’t work, and it feels like enemies would be better designed if they were all designed not assuming the player has a spear.
I will admit actually killing things feels like a revelation when it happens, but it’s really not worth the effort in most cases. It’s like playing Outlast but you have a twig. You can try to kill the people with the twig. You really, really shouldn’t bother.
Is This Easy Mode?!
Let’s take a look at a few ways we could tone down the difficulty/issues just enough to make the game enjoyable for someone like me. I’m open to a challenge, but I don’t have a ton of time to spend on one game, and frustration/repeating sections really turns me off.
Also note I’m specifically recommending the addition of an easy mode, not necessarily reducing the difficulty of the current mode. There’s a specific niche who will certainly eat up the difficulty; one of them was in my stream chat as I played. I’m glad that person got the game they wanted, but I really do think most of the rest of us would prefer a bit of a change-up.
The I Wanna Be The Guy Method
The ship has long since sailed on this one, but the way most superhard games solve the frustration issue is simply taking everything one bite-sized, still insanely hard segment at a time.
I Wanna Be The Guy is even harder than Rain World, but it and it’s ilk are laid out in purely linear passages with instant repsawns. Through sheer effort you will eventually clear a screen and never have to see it again. It doesn’t really make the games easy by any means, but it avoids the frankly insulting problem of “NES Hard” games where you have to repeat level 1, which you had no trouble on, just to retry level 6, in which you died instantly.
The game’s not really designed for it and it would fit in sorta awkwardly, but I do think an easy mode could potentially introduce instant respawns to some capacity, perhaps each death removes a Food Unit and Rain/losing your food units still sends you back to the Hibernation Chamber.
The Bunny Must Die Method
Bunny Must Die is a surprisingly similar game; a brutally hard Metroidvania with pretty specific controls (some would say “bad”, I would say those people are bad, and stupid, and dumb), a lack of explanation and a clear sense of “well you figure out how to do it if you’re so damn smart”.
BMD will gleefully kill you. It’s right in the name. But in Bunny Must Die, much like I Wanna Be The Guy, you’re never losing much progress. There are save stations in almost every single room in the game. And you need them. Your first playthrough of the game is basically a constant struggle simply to get to the next save room, and it often takes 10-20 minutes to progress through the next room, often only a few screen lengths in size at most.
Skill matters a great deal in Bunny Must Die and most things are decently choreographed, meaning a skilled player will do in 20 seconds what a newbie will struggle with for 20 minutes. Rain World never really has this skilled feeling in my experience, even visiting the very first areas feels awkward.
The Easy Way Out
The way to change the game the least while making it less frustrating would be to simply remove the Karma system or make it one-way. The grind of surviving five days just to open the airlock to the next area is infuriating and makes no degree of sense whatsoever so I really see no worries in removing this entirely.
A sort of quick-respawn could be introduced like the IWBTG example, taking away a Food stock in exchange for respawning on the same screen or such.
Additionally, teleports could be made reusable, either making it a permanent unlock or at least allowing the re-earning of a Passage after repeating the conditions.
The map clearing upon death is just rude and pointless and should be an extremely easy inclusion in any easy mode.
These changes leave a lot of the problem areas untouched but would make dying less annoying, which is the common thread among most conflicting aspects of design. By making death less fearsome we allow the player to actually enjoy the game as an exploration game. People who enjoy staring at the same screen for 40 minutes could instead play on “Normal” mode, though I would personally call easy “normal” and the current mode “hardcore” in this case.
Too Slick To Fail
I don’t hate Rain World. I certainly wouldn’t have wasted my time to type all this up if I didn’t enjoy the game. But dear god I enjoyed it despite how it plays, not because of it.
I really do want to see the game improve, hence my criticism, and I really do hope some manner of mode, option or balance patch arises allowing the game to be more accessible. The world really is beautiful, the exploration really is nice when you start to ‘get’ it. But as it stands now, far too many people will never get it and simply find an extremely frustrating experience.