Rain World looks to be set in a fairly commonplace videogame post-apocalypse at first. Wild vegetation grows from mysterious structures, the skeletons of skyscrapers scratch a leaden grey sky, and living is neither convenient nor fun. Except in Rain World you’re a slugcat (a cat that is also a slug), and the apocalypse it must endure is among the bleakest and most punishing I’ve ever experienced. You’re not punching trees to build abodes, you’re not meeting warring survivor factions and buddying up, you’re not grinding for a nice pair of trousers. You’re just surviving, by a thread. And it’s hard to do that.
It’s a platformer and a survival game, but neither of those categories are a neat fit for Rain World’s peculiar brand of misery. There are traces of other games’ DNA, such as the original Dark Souls’ bonfire system and the roaming, improvisational foes of Alien: Isolation, but Rain World stands apart as one of the most alienating and difficult games in recent memory, previously mentioned company included.
There’s little exposition: you’re the aforementioned slugcat, wrestled away from its family and plunged into a decayed urban dreamscape plagued with erratic, free-roaming monstrosities that want to eat you. As a slugcat you’re close to the bottom of the food chain, but not rock bottom: you’ll need to eat bats to survive, or more accurately, eat in order to hibernate. Hibernating can only be done in hibernation chambers, and one must have at least four units of food in order to use them. These chambers are infrequent, with each rest cycling to a different season in-world. Seasons work like a ladder: hibernate without dying, and you’ll move up. Die, and you’ll move down. This process is agonising, but I won’t spoil why.
Oh, and the reason you can only hibernate in chambers is because they’re waterproof. As the name implies, there’s rain in this game, and like virtually every other damn thing in Rain World, it kills you. Each life, or hibernation cycle, is timed: if you don’t get anywhere meaningful in the allotted time, such as another hibernation chamber (for which you’ll need to be well fed for), then you’re buggered.
There’s a whole lot more to learn about how Rain World works, but I’ve already said too much. The game only explains how to eat and how to hibernate, otherwise you only have the guiding hand of a cryptic yellow ghost, which you’ll probably try to kill and eat early on, as the game refrains from telling you that it’s there to help.
On that note, the early hours of Rain World will annoy anyone without steely patience: slugcat’s traversal feels cumbersome and it’s terrible at jumping, but once you get a feel for what this game is trying to do (make you feel utterly disempowered) it will feel less like bad design and more thematically appropriate. You’re a slugcat. You’re nothing. You should already be dead. And yet, there are small problems with traversal that are hard to ignore, such as slugcat’s propensity for crawling into a crevice below or above the actual crevice you want to be in—particularly grating when you have three glowing numbskulls pursuing you for nourishment.
Yes, it’s cute that you’re a cat that is also a slug, but that’s where Rain World’s whimsy ends. The world is a bitterly depressing, 16-bit inspired wasteland, and while the beautiful, dilapidated grandeur is enveloping, there’s nothing in it that will make you feel good. It’s possible to feel like there’s no way you’ll survive in this world. I restarted twice towards the beginning of the game, feeling like I’d dashed any chance of progression.
And yet, despite utterly loathing Rain World for the first five or so hours, once I learned the basic pattern of survival, and once the true consequences of death became apparent, I started to begrudgingly love it. This is a huge game, requiring a supernatural reserve of patience from its player, but the intrigue of the world will keep the converted on course.
Still, it’s a hard game to learn. Slugcat has a small number of moves that aren’t necessarily gated, but you won’t realise they’re there unless through circumstantial trial and error. Meanwhile, the free-roaming enemies can gang up on you in ways that can mean either certain death or a long time waiting for them to disperse, and the latter is often more grating when you’ve got torrential, deadly rain to worry about. Sometimes in Rain World, you just have to die. I’m sure other players will learn how to avoid certain death, but for most of us, the emergent nature of the game will at times feel unfair.
And that’s because, often, it is unfair. That is the core of what Rain World is about: failure often makes things more difficult, and if you’re looking for a redemptive “it’ll all work out anyway through the strength of will” theme to drag you through the muck, then… I hope you have a surplus of will at the ready.
Rain World requires improvisation and smarts, and there’s no way to trick it into being easier. The early hours are taxing, and in all honesty, it continues to be taxing. It’s not relaxing. It’s not a game to wash away your daily worries with. But the variety of the world’s barren landscapes will keep the determined pushing on, and the seemingly insurmountable challenges are, well, surmountable, but not thanks to ‘tricks’ per se. You just have to be smart about it. You have to learn—and then very vaguely know—how to survive. You have to accept that sometimes you’ll be unlucky. Is that too demanding? For the vast majority of players, I expect it is. For those with the time and patience, Rain World will prove unforgettable.