Exploration, discovery, the joy of flight -- these are the concepts at the core of Secrets of Raetikon, the strikingly beautiful flap-em-up from Broken Rules that has finally enjoyed a full released on Steam after a lengthy early access period. As I noted in my Let's Play feature, Secrets of Raetikon is a game that unfolds at a leisurely pace, putting you in control of a flame-coloured bird and encouraging you to explore a wonderfully-drawn world made up of angular shapes and held together with papercraft whimsy.
The first couple of hours are an exploratory delight. Though you can take flight with mouse and keyboard, the game suggests that using a controller might prove more intuitive, and so it seems to be. The controls are simple: you press a button to flap your wings, press and hold a second button to grab onto objects with your beak, and nudge a third to warble away with a spot of birdsong.
Imagine if Flappy Bird was an open-world game, filled with other creatures, weird and wonderful totems, statues, and the other remnants of a lost civilisation, and it was your job to piece these snippets of historical curios together and uncover the secrets of the world around you. So nothing like Flappy Bird, then.
Secrets of Raetikon doesn't give you much to go on, and that's fine for a little while. The game does a good job of nudging you on towards the next shiny thing or puzzle. You flutter about, seeking out shiny shards to add to the enormous statue that forms the hub of this world, restoring totems to their former glory, helping out foxes, dodging wolves and magpies and eagles and other pests that'll try and harm you. To access new areas, you'll often need to fix smaller, broken statues. There's always a full one to give you some idea of what the end result should be, but it's up to you to scour the nearby area, pick up the pieces, and arrange them correctly.
Though little is explained outright -- there are plaques littered with hints and tips but these require translation via primers you'll find around the world -- there is a sense of progression to these events, a little pomp and circumstances that comes with opening another hallowed gateway to a new area. There's a spirit of reverence at work here, helped along by the serene soundscape and the clean-but-meticulously-detailed visual aesthetic. You feel a little like Nature's little angel at times, working away for some higher purpose that's never fully explained. The atmosphere the game creates is one of its best features, although one can't help but feel that it never quite capitalises on it fully.
Part of the issue with the game is the forced combat. There are plenty of things that want to kill you in this game -- eagles, magpies, tree-climbing lynx thingies -- and fighting them off is a clunky affair. That fending off predators is awkward in comparison to the simple joys of flying is somewhat understandable, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating. You can't attack directly, so you have to distract creatures with rocks or other critters. If you die, it's back to the start with you, and any blue shards you collect remain with your corpse, begging to be retrieved in Dark Souls-esque fashion.
Aside from making the game world seem more alive, these predatory creatures offer little to the overall experience. Secrets of Raetikon is clearly channelling Fez in its approach to exploratory puzzling, but Fez never had to resort to clunky combat to keep things fresh. Secrets of Raetikon is at its best when you stumble across a new set of creatures and you find yourself trying out ways of interacting with environment to try and uncover and obtain a new shard, leveraging the game's physics engine and visual signifiers to make further sense of the world. The predators often seem to be annoyances thrown in for the sake of filler more than anything else.
The game's pretence towards openness is problematic too. Without a map, veering off of the shiny breadcrumb trail of collectibles is rather unwise. More often than not, the game reverts to a "move right to progress" mentality, before seeing you backtrack time and time again to drop off treasure. If there were more alternate routes through the areas that might not be such a bad thing, but the game shows its hand at the start -- the simple joy of flying -- and then never really does anything with it. The levels aren't particularly thrilling to traverse, and the stratospheric altitude ceiling is under-developed and under-used. You can burst up through the clouds to see a beautiful, sun-shot vista, but that's about it.
So as much as Secrets of Raetikon has the power to make one's jaw drop with its striking visuals at the start, the moments of awe are swiftly tempered with moments of frustration. Moreover, once you're past that initial stage, the game does little to earn one's interest. It's much the same problem as I had with Betrayer: giving the player the opportunity to discover things for themselves is admirable, but there still needs to be an impetus -- something to spark curiosity and earn our interest. That can be a narrative element, it can be something mechanically interesting, it could be something that appeals to a sense of competition or skilful progression. But there's little of any of that here, and thus not much substance beyond the style.
- Fantastic art style
- Sense of flight is well-worked
- Pleasant, unique experience -- almost reverential
- One or two nicely arranged puzzles
- Physical world design often feels a bit undercooked
- It's pretty short and yet still manages to have too much repetition and backtracking
- Predator combat is awkward and ultimately annoying
- Never really earns player curiosity
The Short Version: Secrets of Raetikon is a soothing, unique little title that positively overflows with an almost spiritual atmosphere in thanks to its sumptuous visuals and soundscapes. But though it hits high notes with some of its physics-based puzzling and simple flight, level design and clunky combat elements ultimately confuse and derail a game with much promise.
Developers: Broken Rules