Rain World, a 2D platformer from developers Videocult, is fundamentally about survival. Assuming the role of an adorable Slugcat, Rain World task players with navigating hostile environments, skillfully weaving their way around a world where nearly every other living creature, every precarious drop and even the weather itself is out to end them. While there is satisfaction to be found in coming to grips with Rain World’s obtuse mechanics, the only real reward to be found in the gameplay is victory over the game itself, which often doesn’t quite feel like enough.
Visually, Rain World is rather breathtaking. Its painterly-backgrounds are presented in a stunning detail, while the foreground pops out enough so as to never confuse the player what platforms they can land on. The animation quality is worthy of perhaps even more praise; at least partially procedurally-generated, Slugcat (as well as every other creature to be discovered within the game) moves with a bouncy elasticity that is highly endearing to observe, bolstering the overall presentation. Likewise, Rain World is notable on the auditory level. Relying mostly on atmospheric noise, the game cranks up the bass on sound effects to an absurd degree, making every clank of ruined machinery and every thud from a landed jump reverberate with visceral impact. And that’s all before the cacophony of the eponymous (and deadly) rain factors in, drowning the game in a truly hellish white noise.
The gameplay, however, is far more enigmatic than the obviously excellent aesthetics. On a superficial level, Rain World appears rather simplistic. You have the basic commands: running, jumping, and picking up and throwing objects. But even these core concepts feel intentionally obscured behind Slugcat’s plodding, deliberate movement, which carries a certain weight and momentum that players must fully come to understand before they have a hope of mastering the more advanced movement options, such as backflips and rolls. The game does an adequate job of conveying the very basics to the player, and while there is satisfaction to be found in learning all of Slugcat’s movement options, the context for those abilities and the appropriate times to implement them is totally up to player discovery, often leaving them out in the frigid, frustrating cold.
While it’s likely true that it’s an intentional aspect of Rain World’s design, frustration really is the name of the game here. The core loop of Rain World revolves around finding nourishment for hibernation. The entire game operates on a sort of timer system; a clock counts upwards and when it ends, the rain comes down, either pelting the player to death or drowning them. Luckily, there are shelters that players can seek out to hibernate through the rainstorm. Hibernation, in turn, requires filling Slugcat’s belly with some tasty treats, such as fruits or smaller creatures, like bats scattered throughout the game world. Once a screen has been cleared of food, however, it will take some time before those options repopulate the area, forcing the player to explore further and further away from their shelter and their comfort zone. As players explore and grow more comfortable with their immediate surroundings, they will inevitably come upon behemoth, locked doors with strange runes displayed on their surface, introducing the game’s Karma-system, its sole objective in terms of progression.
The way Karma works in Rain World is that if the player has cleared one cycle of rain via hibernation, their Karma wheel will rotate one notch, but iif they die, the wheel will revert one level. Each level of Karma is assigned runic symbols which match the locked doors scattered throughout the game world. And thus, the gameplay loop of Rain World is defined: find a new area, explore your surroundings for doors and resources and then pass through enough hibernation cycles to open a new path forward via the Karma level. The thing about Rain World is that it’s entirely unforgiving and uncaring towards the player. The game is a simulation of sorts. Regardless of player action or inaction, the clock will progress and the rains will inevitably fall. Likewise, all of the other living creatures within Rain World - most notably, the larger predators - have their own AI-patterns that they will follow. What this means for the player is that they can very easily travel between screens and into the maws of a hungry lizard without any way of knowing they would be there, respawning them back at their last hibernation point and down one rung on the karma ladder.
I would never describe the mechanics of Rain World as unfair, as the tools that players need for survival are all at their fingertips. It’s more that the systems of all come together to thematically embrace an image of the world that is - on the whole - unfair, uncaring and somewhat nihilistic. There are no upgrades in Rain World, no abilities and no tools to find that will increase the player’s odds, the story of Slugcat being separated from its family feels like mere set-dressing in comparison to the real story being told here; one of animals just trying to get by. Eat, sleep, repeat. Because, really, it’s that or die.
For its beautiful presentation and for all of the ponderous ruminations about life that it might invoke within the player, it’s a crying shame that Rain World just doesn't feel very fun to play. While there is nothing wrong with sluggishness and weight as intentional designs, the options given to the player feel totally at odds with the sheer relentlessness and urgency of the systems at work. Difficult games have certainly been in vogue for the past several years. The thing about a game like Dark Souls (a tiresome comparison, true, but one that Rain World definitely invites in its death mechanics) is that while it may punish the player for their failures, it’s not really about punishment. Rain World is an outright disempowerment-fantasy. There is satisfaction to be found in plumbing the game’s depths - in coming to grips with its obscure systems and its more complex movement options. But even the most skilled of players will inevitably find themselves in situations where they are utterly hopeless. Will there be a predator on the other side of that vent? Do I have the time to make it back to shelter before the rain? If I take a leap of faith here, will I discover a new area or fall to my doom? Only the repetitive cycle of eat, sleep, death - the intervention of player perseverance - can lead to success. The truth of the matter is that poor Slugcat never really stood a chance.