In Rain World, you are a slugcat living in the vast, overgrown industrial wastes from long ago. You’ve been separated from your family and must learn to survive in a hellishly beautiful ecosystem on your own, jumping and climbing and outsmarting predators. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I backed it on Kickstarter in January 2014; now that I’ve finally taken the plunge, it turns out survival is hard. Unfortunately, figuring out what exactly you need to do to survive is even harder.
The game starts off with warmly illustrated, beautiful images depicting the life of your slugcat and its family as they make their way in this world. Very quickly, things go wrong, and you’re separated from the others. A few hints here and there throughout the game suggest you’re looking for them, and there are other, more nebulous suggestions that there are other intelligent creatures lurking in the world’s depths, but the early stages of the game focus on survival and figuring out the basics of the world, with the narrative unraveling slowly. Surviving won’t be easy, and it will require you to stay on the move.
Rain World makes almost no effort to explain its systems to the player, aside from an early tutorial on the most basic actions. It’s immediately clear the control schemes are profoundly limited. Your slugcat can throw rocks and spears, but can’t aim in any meaningful way, only throwing right or left in a slight arc. You can crouch or stand, but you need to constantly watch your posture and switch as necessary, since certain terrains or architectures or actions seem to induce posture changes without your input. If you enter tunnels while standing, you’ll often be crawling through them rear-first, slowing your progress significantly. If you’re trying to escape a predator while crouching, well, good luck. Wall-jumping becomes necessary for navigating certain areas, but the controls for this are very unforgiving.
Once you get used to the controls, though, the world these slugcats live in begins to unfold and make sense. The rain in this world is pounding and deadly, so your key objective is finding enough food to enter hibernation in a mechanized safehouse where you can wait out the daily rain. The game’s systems push you forward organically, though; food doesn’t always replenish quickly or even ever, and animals move around the world of their own accord even when you aren’t around. The survival elements here feel true to the fiction without being obnoxious — you won’t starve if you aren’t constantly eating, but as food grows scarce you still feel the pressure to keep moving.
Each time you successfully hibernate, your slugcat levels up along a ranking of symbols. Sometimes these ranks are accompanied by dream sequences that hint at future turns the story might take. Higher ranks allow you to sit in brightly demarcated areas to open doors to new areas of the world, and dying costs you a rank, making it more difficult to progress. It’s an under-explained system that doesn’t seem to provide any interesting challenges besides the already relevant “don’t die,” but it’s vitally important to progressing through the world. And I desperately wanted to progress, because I wanted to see more of this strange place and discover more of its inhabitants.
If you’re one of those people who enjoys photographs of decaying buildings, ruins and infrastructure, you’ll love Rain World’s environments. Most of this entire world was clearly built by some advanced civilization, with chains and pipes and a few mechanical systems still churning, but it’s rusting apart and overrun by gnarly weeds and hardy grasses. Beyond the crunchy 2D art style, the lighting and shadows are pretty incredible, and there’s a fair amount of depth to the scenery that makes the world feel much larger than the screens you’re confined to. It’s a world that manages to feel real and vibrant despite its grim atmosphere — a real visual achievement, to my eyes. The soundscape is vivid and naturalistic as well: from the pattern of rain to the sledgehammer of a downpour; from gentle insect buzzing to the cries of louder beasts; and a gentle, atmospheric background track that fades in and out.
The environment is populated by a variety of other creatures who have their own distinct behaviors and interact in a variety of ways with the slugcat and, crucially, with each other. It’s this extra layer that really makes the place feel alive; many games focus on how the protagonist interacts with the world and neglect how elements of the world might interact completely independently of the protagonist. Rain World makes sure everything interacts with everything else — you’ll see animals hunting each other, wrestling with each other, flocking, and moving around between the various bits and pieces of the world in much the same way you do. They don’t just spawn in places either, but move around the entire map persistently, which greatly helps everything feel organic. There’s a rudimentary but tangible ecosystem here to explore, and learning about it is a key to survival.
It’s not a perfect illusion of life, though. This ecosystem is incredibly hostile, with an astonishing amount of predators given just how few prey animals and autotrophs there are. While this makes video game-sense, ecologically it’s a mess. What, exactly, are all these predators eating? They appear to have a taste for slugcat-sized meals, but in all my wanderings I saw animals my size much less frequently than the colorful-headed lizards, hellish sky-vultures, or other predators that preyed on us. There are also barely enough smaller plants and animals to sustain a single slugcat in its wanderings, let alone whole populations of mesopredators. The food chain is incredibly top-heavy — it’s an effective tension-generating design from a gameplay perspective, but it does break some of the ecological illusion the game otherwise tries so hard to establish.
While Rain World does a great job at creating a game world that’s full of threats and challenges and dynamism, there’s an obscurity to some elements that’s more troublesome. Many of the game’s objects respond well to experimentation. It’s easy enough to figure out how animals behave, and a few plants respond readily as well, like a cluster of red pods that burst like firecrackers, but there are a number of other plants and fungi that your slugcat can consume which appear to do… nothing. I’ve yet to figure out what most of them do, except for one that appears to slow time (including for the slugcat, so I’m not sure what it’s good for). I’m left wondering whether I’m missing critical insight that might let me progress more quickly.
Ultimately, any one of the game’s challenges — rare food sources, frequent predators, stilted controls, sparse checkpoints, muddy mechanics — is individually easy enough to overcome. But they work in tandem, an ecosystem of annoyances that feels hostile to the kind of mystery and discovery and genuine tension that should flourish in this beautifully grim place. In this sense, it reminds me a lot of Hyper Light Drifter, another recent game that draws you in with the beauty and mystery of a fallen world and then repeatedly sucker punches you in the face. Rain World isn’t quite so difficult in its moment-to-moment, but its checkpoint and progression systems are arguably more punishing.
And yet, despite my complaints, I feel quite confident I’ll return to Rain World. I’m pulled in by this mysterious, beautifully-rendered place, its post-apocalyptic ecology, and the slugcat’s primal story of loss and reunion. I need to know more. It will likely take a fair amount of time and a lot of unnecessary pain to do so, but it may be worth it in the end.
RECOMMENDED – Here’s a quick TL;DR of why we recommend Rain World