SCE Japan Studio is known for development of or involvement in several notable PlayStation games and franchises over the years, including Ape Escape, Demon's Souls (in conjunction with From Software), Echochrome, ICO, Knack, Puppeteer, Rogue Galaxy, Shadow of the Colossus, Siren, Soul Sacrifice, and White Knight Chronicles. It's not some wily upstart, though many titles maintain an indie-game sort of feel. It's also renowned for its titles' aesthetics in sights, sounds, and storytelling. Along comes Rain, which exemplifies its strengths of great artistic value but shows some weakness in level progression design.
The game starts with a boy finding himself strangely cast out in the rainy night. He walks through a doorway and becomes invisible except when wet. Right away, challenges are presented that can only be resolved with stealth or distraction, figuring out where objects are that will shield the boy from the rain in his pursuit of a mysterious similarly invisible girl who is perpetually out of his reach. She's not running from him, though. She's being pursued by creatures and monsters that have the same traits as the boy and the girl – being invisible save for the rain falling on them. So the boy keeps chasing the girl to try to make sense of what's happening to him and the world he finds himself in, and he eventually has to tangle with the creatures himself.
There are a handful of creature types, most of which just want to one-hit kill you, while one type actually attacks anything that gets close to it, including other creatures. Creature evasion, having no offensive capabilities, and the stealth mechanics governed by rain and mud open up the options for a bevy of great environmental puzzles. What you end up with, though, is more of a linear and somewhat tedious progression system that requires almost no thought to navigate. The fixed camera angles show you generally where to go, what to do, and which things in the environment to focus on, which conveniently flash or are highlighted when you get remotely close to them. If all that is somehow still too tough, pressing the Select button provides a hint, except they're not hints – they usually tell you exactly what to do.
Some of the trickier elements to clear involve areas where you can't see yourself, only your footprints, and have to weave between enemies and make accurate platforming leaps, while sometimes having only a vague idea of where you are in mid-air. Other times, you and the enemies are invisible, and it's a matter of watching all these small footsteps and making sure they don't intersect, or you don't accidentally step one toe out from under the overhang shielding you from the rain. Maybe it's my old-man eyes, but even on a 47" screen from about five feet away, I had to squint to make out some of these essential details.
So the puzzling is mediocre at best. What about the environments? They look good, if not great, and later in the game take on an almost Escher-esque level of design where weaving and intersecting and overlapping paths have you trying to keep up with the girl and her monstrous pursuer, but it still poses little to no challenge to the player if they're playing with their eyes open. The soundtrack is pretty well done, with piano themes and orchestral compositions that fit the mood of the moment with occasional vocal accompaniment. The near-constant sound of the rain can lull you to sleep if you're not careful.
Don't make the mistake of thinking Rain is even remotely about exploration – it's not. It's about walking and walking and walking some more until you catch up with the girl, and then you start again. Thankfully, there is a run button to keep things moving, but most of the time, I felt this should have been the default walking speed. On subsequent replays, the game offers hidden memories – three in each of the game's eight chapters – that you can find. Honestly, I kind of wish those had been available on my first playthrough. I kept looking for something else going on, anything to grab my attention or interest besides simply moving to the next block I had to push or ladder I had to climb.
I understand that adding some sort of cooperative play would have potentially hurt the story, and despite how little of it there really is, that's the focus of the game. I still couldn't help thinking of games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or Cookie and Cream while playing. My wife passed out every time I'd start playing the game because a) she couldn't join in, and b) there was that constant sound of rain.
Each chapter of the game can be finished in under an hour, meaning you can burn through it all and see everything in a long afternoon if you wanted to. The controls handle well enough, focusing only on moving, running, jumping, and interacting. The "hitbox" for interactive items seemed a little loose. Sometimes, I'd have trouble getting the interaction notification to appear, while other times, it would be there but I wasn't quite close enough to the object to actually use it. The one-hit death structure means that timing on certain distractions for enemies is important, so even a little wiggle room on responsiveness can get you killed. Fortunately, checkpoints save frequently, so you won't be set back too far.
The artistic value of the game is fairly significant, though the story doesn't quite reach the highs and lows I'd hoped for. You're mostly told what to feel instead of being shown real emotion of the characters, and since they apparently can't speak in their new darkened world, there's no dialogue. There are occasional moments of real inspiration, but then you're on to the same old block-pushing, ladder-dropping, gate-opening routine. I kept thinking about Journey, which I finished up recently. That's a game that goes all out for the artistic expression vibe, including making the sand and wind and snow part of the challenge, but avoiding frustrating repeated character deaths or traditional puzzle interaction. I enjoyed Rain for the most part, but I can't see myself playing it again.
The first and final moments of the story are storyboarded in a nice watercolor style, but the ending lacks any strong resolution or poignancy. It doesn't try to make sense of everything or what it all means or why it happened in the first place, but it does try to make you feel that everything turns out OK regardless.
Without any multiplayer, exploration, or any other significant points of interest, Rain is a short, easy ride you'd be hard-pressed to venture into more than once.
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