Rise & Shine Review
Rise & Shine is a game about video games. You know video games, right? Well, so does Rise & Shine. It wants you to know that it gets video games, that it loves them as much as you do — and it’s going to try really hard to prove this to you, getting quite carried away in the process.
It all starts with the setting. Young protagonist Rise lives on Gamearth, a fantastical world primarily inspired by pre-NES and early Nintendo game franchises with a few modern classics like Portal thrown in. Gaming tropes and plot devices are integral to life here, from a shopping mall that advertises powerups to a passing comment that every Gamearth citizen eventually gets tasked with saving the universe. The richly detailed environments are also peppered with references to familiar franchises: there’s a legendary warrior who might as well be Link, a Space Invader, a Companion Cube, and Gamearth’s royal couple are essentially Mario and Peach. The sheer number of these references, and the detail and affection with which they’re presented by the game’s artists, speaks to a deep love for that era of gaming history.
Gamearth is, of course, immediately invaded by the forces of evil, which Rise must defeat using his trusty magical gun, Shine. This enemy is called Nexgen and is composed of characters and robots that evoke Gears of War and Halo, along with some zombies. That’s right — on a very basic level, Rise & Shine could be read as a story about Xbox franchises trying to exterminate Nintendo franchises.
If it sounds like Rise & Shine is gearing up to do something interesting with this premise, rest assured — it isn’t. It’s certainly cute at first, but the game’s world building never grows beyond a loose collection of references served with a side of winks and nudges. As the game draws to a close, and you realize there was nothing more to any of it, the experience can be deflating.
The game is also peppered with plot holes, stale tropes, and thematic inconsistencies, of which I’ll highlight just two examples: First, when Rise finds a dying warrior with Shine, which provides infinite respawns, Rise actually asks why that owner isn’t just respawning thanks to the gun. The game teases an explanation, as though swerving to avoid a plot hole, but never delivers, in effect just calling out its own inconsistency. It also introduces a girl so traumatized by the slaughter of her family that she never speaks. She immediately becomes infatuated with the protagonist, after which she spends all her on-screen time being protected by male characters and emoting hearts at the protagonist. Rise & Shine might think it’s cleverly referencing the way female characters are often (not) characterized in games, but since it never delivers anything beyond that awareness, it ends up highlighting its own lack of narrative originality instead.
These are just two of a whole slew of issues with world building, plotting, characterization, and all those references, all of which lead me to my lasting impression of the narrative: what’s the point? Rise & Shine is intensely self-aware and metatextual, and exposes a lot of fertile ground where it could cultivate delight, humor, surprise, joy, or even good old nostalgia, but it’s so busy trying to cram in references and winks that it doesn’t stop to try anything interesting.
It’s a shame the narrative is so shallow, because the developers otherwise seem very good at their craft. For one thing, the visuals in this game are simply gorgeous, with lush details and lively animation imbued into everything from background trees and non-interactive critters to characters and explosions. There’s a lot of clear, artistic talent, with some genuinely beautiful moments here and there.
Even more impressive is the economy and confidence with which this visual flair is presented. You’d expect a team with great artwork to constantly be throwing it all at you, to the point where it becomes overwhelming, but Rise & Shine reuses its assets only when truly necessary, and doesn’t contrive reasons to revisit things twice. A stand-out for me was a zombie sequence where almost the entire screen went pitch black, save for my meager flashlight and the glowing eyes of the zombies. It’s a surprisingly effective and gripping sequence that relies on an eerily effective soundscape — and it’s never used again, a great example of the commendable restraint the team must have exercised during the development process.
Most of the systems and content design is also excellent: the mechanics are simple and discrete, and the challenges are clearly communicated while sufficiently challenging; the combinations of weapon types and firing modes achieve both variety and distinctiveness; and most of the enemies respond to specific strategies quite effectively. Gunfire and explosions have all the right sounds, animation, and responsiveness to feel weighty and satisfying; puzzles and combat alternate regularly to prevent monotony; and, for the most part, difficulty increases at a reasonable pace until the final chapter.
In the final two encounters, the game takes off the gloves, revealing not hands but ice picks swinging straight for your face. I spent more time trying to clear these last two encounters than I did playing the entire rest of the game. The combinations of enemies you face are still pretty reasonable, but fights become infuriatingly long, to the point where dying in the later stage of an encounter forces you to flawlessly replay several minutes you’ve already mastered just to get back to the part you’re actually trying to learn. They also include a specific enemy type that is small, mobile, deadly, and nearly impossible to hit with any weapon type. This bot is difficult enough to defeat on its own, but it’s usually deployed in the midst of a heavy firefight, making it even harder to focus on.
There are usability woes as well, but these only truly become a nuisance in that final level. Aiming with the gun lowers your speed significantly, but the mouse cursor disappears entirely when not aiming, making it very difficult to aim quick shots from the hip. The game also stopped consistently recognizing my aim button in the final boss fight, randomly re-holstering my gun at the worst possible moments. Worst of all, the game appears not to save consistently at every checkpoint, instead only saving at the start of a larger area. After having an awful time trying to master the first encounter of the last level, I chose to leave my PC running with the game minimized in the background rather risk losing my progress and being forced to play that encounter again.
But despite my complaints, Rise & Shine has convinced me to keep an eye on its creators. It’s clearly the work of a very talented team, and while they’ve stumbled in a few crucial areas, their incredible artistic talent and overall strong design sensibility gives me great hope. If they are able to move beyond empty self-awareness and pop-culture references to build a narrative with some kind of substance, and if they’re able to better balance the difficulty curve over the course of the game and try for more usable controls, I’m confident their next game could be excellent.