An incessant drizzle falls across the the bleak streets of this unnamed continental city. A boy wakes from a fevered dream and stares out of his window. It is quiet outside, not a soul stalks the grey, wet, roads. A city in the rain feels lonely, isolated. Suddenly a girl darts across his vision. The way she sprints, water splashing everywhere, shows she is running from something. Is she in danger the boy wonders? Then he spots it, The Unknown, a creepy beast - the kind that brings forth nightmares, seemingly intent on catching the girl. He has to help. Rushing out into the rain he attempts to distract The Unknown, save the girl. But something is not right with this rain-drenched world, somehow it is not quite real.
And so begins the story of the unnamed boy. Rain is a stealth-based puzzle game led by a children’s narrative that contains a unique mechanic which sees our protagonist (and all creatures) disappear when they find shelter from the ceaseless rain, leaving their beastly stalkers at a loss to where they have gone. In many ways Rain is a ‘my first Metal Gear Solid’, with most of the action concerned with nipping between cover from the rain while enemies have their backs turned, or plotting ways to deceive or confuse them. It is non-violent of course, Rain has a heavy emphasis on childish innocence, with themes that allude to coming-of-age and companionship. However this pitch towards the younger market means the puzzles within the game are watered down to a such a level they will provide no significant challenge to a mature player. Yet at the same time the bleak, unimaginative and decidedly grey city setting along with the confusingly old-school control mechanics will inevitably turn off the younger target audience.
That is not to say that Rain should be shunned immediately, however. Some of its design principles are delightful, such as the way the narrative text fits into the scenery as it is displayed, or the tiny splashes of water that give the player hints to their location, or those of their hunters, when sheltered and invisible. It is impressive that given you actually disappear on screen when in shelter, rarely is the player confused about their own location. Certainly Rain exudes quality, from the disturbing creature designs, its intricate level structures, to the wonderful watercolour art that punctuates the storyline at the beginning and end.
The trouble is the gameplay simply lacks substance. A typical scene will see you controlling the unnamed boy as he runs and climbs around rain-soaked streets, the camera stuck in that typical Japanese-style gaming cinematic viewpoint, changing angles as the boy disappears off stage. Often proceeding through a level will simply be a matter of finding shelter and remaining invisible until you can pass by the beasts that hunt you. Events do become more interesting as you venture deeper, with more gameplay elements introduced such as puddles that splash and attract creatures when hurried through, or insects being released to feast on your enemies, or mud that causes the player’s footsteps to be visible even when in shelter, yet it feels like the developers are afraid of implementing them in any clever way. The muddy footprints idea, for example, is rarely used, seemingly discarded for being too complex.
Admittedly there are some excellent moments, generally later in the game when the boy catches up with the girl and they begin working together to thwart their pursuers. While you never control the girl, the boy must use the environment to help them both progress. One moment sees the boy having to save the girl from a car being pushed into a river by a giant beast, another sees both of them working together, each distracting the fearsome Unknown creature, while the other manages to escape his clutches. There is a brilliant moment where the boy hides in a tiny sheltered locker, invisible, as The Unknown smashes open doors trying to find him. Sadly though, these moments are few and far between and disappear quickly, leaving the rest of the slightly short five hour playtime to rather more tedious puzzles.
If we have learnt anything from the recent indie revolution it is that a game can shine above its gameplay if other areas are endearing enough. Thomas Was Alone, with its barely adequate quadrilateral puzzle play, ended up staying in many players’ hearts because of the charming narration and enveloping soundtrack. In a way Rain tries to follows suit: the story of the two children finding each other and working together to survive in the mysterious rain-drenched city could be evocative and emotionally involving, and like the best children’s stories it rings true with metaphors about life and maturation. Yet the way it is told, through cumbersome passages that often overtly describe the solution to a puzzle ahead, drags it down. Perhaps it is an issue with the translation from Japanese, but the words feel clumsy and inadequate, devoid of feeling as if written by a machine. That being said, the end still managed to bring a small tear to the eye.
Similarly the environments the children must meander through lack vibrancy and imagination. If this is meant to be a game for a younger audience, as the simplistic puzzles suggest, why drag them through street after street of grey brick, or a bleak decomposing factory, or a dreary churchyard? Sure darkness and rain is a metaphor for illness, death or the end of childhood, but the game consistently lacks any form of colour and the result is a very boring area to explore. It is as if the game wanted to follow the dark steps of cult indie classic Limbo but failed to consider its audience. Admittedly the very end of the game, when the world takes on a more interesting form, may save Rain from its constant drizzle but it all feels a little late.
While you can expect most narrative driven games to be linear, Rain seems to almost willfully mock the player with its single-minded approach. The stealth-based puzzles can in general be solved in only one way, but what is perhaps even more baffling is the constant dead-ends that occur throughout every scene. At the beginning players will no doubt try and explore these random passages hoping to find an optional route or collectable, yet will always without fail end up empty-handed. All becomes clear when the game is completed and secret pickups are unlocked, but it seems completely bizarre that a game that has little to no replayability has to be finished to unlock a mode that could have made the first runthrough more interesting.
Rain is an interesting but failed experiment. The single mechanic that renders everything invisible when in shelter from the rain is clever and quite endearing, and the way it is implemented creates a unique stealth-driven puzzle game. Yet the game consistently fails to consider its audience. The puzzles and narrative are too simplistic for adults, yet the environment and control mechanics too dull and confusing for children, so it is unclear who the developers are targeting. It feels as if the development, which is split between three different companies, had some disagreement over the type of game they wanted to deliver. Rain is a lite version of many genres of games from stealth, to puzzle, to adventure, but it fails to be particularly capable at any.