Platform: PS3 (PSN, £9.99)
Developer: PlayStation CAMP
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Sony should be congratulated for bringing a diverse and experimental range of gaming experiences to the PlayStation Network, and Rain was set to be their bravest and most innovative yet. This soulful adventure stars an invisible boy alone in a storm-swept world, chasing a mysterious girl who's always just out of reach through a sort-of-stealth puzzler, trying to get back home. As fans of innovative new experiences, suffice to say that we were more than a little excited about PlayStation C.A.M.P.'s latest venture.
So it's galling that Rain falls totally flat because, when it comes right down to brass tacks, it simply isn't brave nor innovative enough. In fact, it has a dirty little secret that undermines almost everything.
We're getting ahead of ourselves, mind, so let's start by accentuating the positives: Rain is one of the most beautiful games I've played in years. The city, an impossible labyrinth of rain-drenched French architecture, is brought to life with a rich yet muted colour palette, melancholy practically dripping from every gutter and flowing down every drain. A real sense of loneliness and isolation is hammered home by a truly masterful soundtrack that applies the lightest touch: a light piano refrain here, an accordion there, and silence when necessary for maximum impact. It is truly a feast for the senses.
There are moments when you'll just stand staring at your television, gobsmacked and humbled, listening to the rain.
Gaming is an interactive medium, though, and Rain had some exciting new gameplay concepts to play about with. Our invisible lad can only be seen when he's standing in the rain, making him disappear when under cover. As he gradually moves through the hostile city, encountering all manner of bizarre creatures and a creepy nemesis at his heels, he'll need to stay hidden or abuse his newfound abilities to distract them out of position. You'll need to watch for the smallest on-screen cues to locate your character, the shaking of a bottle or litter falling over, a tiny splash in a puzzle. Enemies, too, become invisible when dry, forcing you to pay close attention to every sight and sound. The stage was set for a revolutionary experience, a game that matched its atmosphere with truly innovative mechanics.
But this never really happened. Instead, Rain pulls you through a suffocatingly linear selection of trial and error 'puzzles' that typically revolve around sneaking past enemies, running headlong from them in timed chases or some simplistic platforming. There's almost no brainpower required for the majority of these overtly compartmentalised sections, since interactive objects and important features are always highlighted, and the camera delights in swooping in on your objective. There's a monster there. A gramophone there. I have to distract the monster somehow. Rocket science this ain't. Even the late-game offers straightforward platforming over any interesting applications of the invisibility mechanic.
Rain does offer some slightly more involved scenarios, especially in the mid-game. But even in these more complex sections, the narrow level design usually just points you straight at the only solution, while roofs and other important features are arranged neatly in a line. Complete it, then the next section begins with another camera pan and a door locking behind you.
Rain isn't really a puzzle game or an adventure game, rather it's more of a 'Simon Says' execution challenge. You'll almost always work out how to master each solution within seconds even if the game doesn't railroad you into it, but the only sense of threat stems from the fact that every hazard kills you instantly and every mistake results in death. Accidentally step out from under a roof? A dog will kill you. Get ambushed by a tiny jellyfish-like critter? You die. Fall off a ledge because the fixed camera perspective doesn't quite give you a decent view of the action? Game over, man. Yet there's no real danger, because the only penalty is a quick respawn back to a checkpoint made scant seconds ago. It's the most lazy form of trial and error, especially during chase scenes when you only have to work out where to climb or crawl over multiple attempts.
Imagine if Portal explicitly told you how to complete most of its objectives, but made all fall damage lethal.
This could have been forgiven. After all, much of our brains' processing power is taken up just revelling in the atmosphere and art direction, and the beautiful loneliness of the game world. Which is where, I'm afraid, Rain actively undermines all its own hard work with a purposeful - and deadly - design decision.
Remember that 'dirty little secret' I mentioned earlier? You won't see it in trailers and screenshots, but Rain actually has a narrator. Floating white text appears on walls and hovers in the background, describing and foreshadowing almost every minor event in grimly utilitarian, workmanlike and tactless dialogue. The aim was clearly to make Rain feel like an interactive storybook, but in practice, it's like playing through the strategy guide.
Throughout the entire game, this poorly-written and obtrusive text shows up to tell you - explicitly - how each new gameplay element works and how to complete each section. Even the final encounters offer step by step instructions right there on the screen, without having to press Select for an optional and profoundly unnecessary hint. Rather than being able to experiment with muddy puddles, invisibility and sound for ourselves, we're simply told how to do everything and left to just move onto the next tutorial. There's an awful lot of telling and nowhere near enough showing.
And that's before you get to the storyline. Rain's heartfelt and simple story is perfectly captured by the art and music, yet the text constantly interferes, constantly harangues you, describing everything that happens in the most unsubtle matter-of-fact way possible. "The boy saw the girl on the bridge," it says, as the boy sees the girl on the bridge. Shockingly, Rain literally tells you what characters are feeling ('the boy was confused,' 'the boy was scared') instead of conveying it visually, and by extension, what you should be feeling. I'm convinced that Rain will be cited as a case study in game design courses as an experience that relies far too heavily on directly telling players what to think and do as opposed to letting them interpret it for themselves. It's like watching an arthouse film while an idiot in the row behind you commentates on literally everything on-screen and explains what every piece of symbolism means.
We don't even get the joy of working out the twist or ending for ourselves, rather it's explained in the most insultingly simple and up-front way imaginable. There's a truly lovely little tale here, only terribly told, like reading a book report written by a nine year-old instead of a timeless work of fiction. A braver game would have told its story through visuals, sound and gameplay (see also: Journey, Papo & Yo), not lay it out in front of you in patronising fashion. Rain doesn't trust its players to think for themselves, and is too cowardly to let go of our hands for even a single second.
Worst of all, though, you can say goodbye to any sense of loneliness and isolation, the whole point of the proceedings. You're never alone. The text is always there, following you, harassing you; telling you what's happening, what's about to happen and what you should do to progress. It kills your immersion and crushes the atmosphere, keeping you at arm's length when the gorgeous visuals and music tries so desperately to pull you in.
Would the Mona Lisa have been improved if Da Vinci wrote "the girl smiled because she saw a dog falling over" at the bottom? Rain seems to think so.
- Sumptuous and cohesive art design creates a hauntingly beautiful world
- Masterful sound design hits all the right notes
- There's a lovely little story here...
- ... but it's horribly delivered by awful, ever-present, patronising and unecessary writing
- Limp, brainless and linear non-puzzles waste interesting invisibility mechanics, rely on trial and error or basic platforming
- Floating text solves puzzles for you, explains the story to you and destroys the atmosphere
- All telling, no showing
The Short Version: Rain's outstanding art direction and masterful soundtrack are totally wasted on a simperingly simplistic selection of execution challenges... and ruined by obtrusively patronising text narration that explains how to solve every puzzle, what the characters are feeling and leaves nothing to the imagination.
Rain could have been good - if not great - if only we could just turn those damn subtitles off and think for ourselves. It's upsetting to see a game squander so much of its own hard work, and do so willingly. Some profoundly haunting moments are small comfort in what is otherwise a crushing disappointment.