"What is that you're playing there? ICO?", "Is that Shadow of the Colossus Remastered?", "Is that some weird Journey clone?". There were many guesses coming in from those watching us play Rime. And we totally understand where they were coming from. Rime has no problem in walking in the footsteps of some of the greats of the genre. The pacing is slow, the music enigmatic and beautiful, and the secrets on the island are numerous. Rime, however, is not content with simply retreading these footsteps, but also takes great pride in pushing itself beyond the known boundaries of the expected, because above all else, Rime wants to be special. It wants to tug at your heartstrings, and remain within your memory and your thoughts days after completion. In many ways, it does exactly that, but an overly bloated and melodramatic third act keeps it from standing side by side with the giants.
Like a modern Crash Bandicoot, the main character in Rime wakes, washed up on the beach. He gets up, and brushes the wet sand off his clothes. But whereas Crash subsequently starts spinning, having fun and not paying all that much attention to his surroundings, except for the occasional rolling boulder, our main character slowly leaves the beach, looking curiously at this new domain. The game does not tell you where to go, rather it facilities common sense, which leads you towards the centre of the island. And then you're on your way. Mere minutes pass before you glimpse a gigantic tower in the distance like the mysterious mountain in Journey, and this is instantly recognisable as your goal because if there's one thing players are drawn to like moths to a flame, it's a vantage point. Now, all we needed to know was how to get there.
The island is large without ever being unmanageable. On paper, it would seem difficult to navigate through the terrain, and knowing which way was the correct one, but developer Tequila Works is one step ahead of such concerns and is quick to introduce a small fox-like creature, which more often than not will guide you in the right general direction. It's not that large, but often you'll hear it's lighthearted bark, and use that as an audio-based compass. We ended up with an ambivalent relationship to the creature; it was pleasant when it appeared to guide us towards our goal, but standing directly facing us and barking its brains out was pretty frustrating, and ruined the stillness and calmness of the island. The main character appears to love the innocent guide, but as a player, we didn't share those feelings.
And here, early on, we stumble upon the main problems of Rime: emotion. The games we compared to Rime in the opening paragraph understand how to conjure up an emotional response from the player. ICO is a study in minimalism and asks you to firmly grasp the hand of Yorda, as you lead her on. Journey is minimalistic in its limited use of language and communication, as you rise higher up the mountain with a nameless ally. Shadow of the Colossus is obscure and enigmatic with its vast, empty areas.
Rime attempts this minimalistic approach to design and storytelling, but towards the end, it becomes so forced, that it ends being quite... funny. How many times have you fallen to your knees, screaming furiously at the sky for the unfair situation fate has placed you in? You haven't really, have you? That's because people don't react the way that some bad Hollywood movies depict, and Rime uses this bloated interpretation of human emotion, and it feels uncalled for every time it happens.
It's such a shame that the game loses its footing like this, particularly in the third act, when it's so close to hammering home the experience. There were a few instances of a shaky frame rate, and at one specific point we were forced to reboot the game, but technically speaking these were small, isolated cases and the game shines otherwise. The first time we visited the mysterious island it kept us curious for hours straight as we looked to discover the secrets the next area held. The game has borrowed a lot of its visual appeal from The Witness and creates an island that looks like a moving painting. It's constantly beautiful, and the diversity of the environments creates a constant need to explore further.
The difficulty also works to the game's advantage, because it's always interested in piquing your interest with its puzzles and ambiguity, but never interested in frustrating you with them. In Rime you're not meant to be stuck anywhere, but you're always encouraged to think a little before it rewards you with access to the next riddle. Sadly, the game also stumbles a few times in this regard. The solution is, in a few instances, so illogical in relation to the rules the game sets up, that you don't feel the necessary satisfaction when you solve a puzzle. You only feel a little irritated, and a sense of relief of finally being able to move on.
For example, about halfway through you'll need to press a button. You can't get to the button because a monster guards it. Every time you get near the monster, it bellows and you fall through a hole to the floor below. The solution? To get even nearer to it so that it can grab you, and that way you don't fall. It's in no way logical to get even nearer to the monster, and the game is very clear in telling you that this is not the way to approach this problem, yet therein lies the solution. The only reason we ended up trying it was that we were completely out of ideas.
Luckily, the puzzles are more often intricately designed and able to cater to all types of players. In many cases it plays around with player perspective, for instance, creating a door by looking at several objects from a certain angle. It's accessible yet endearing, easy yet challenging, and discovering the island is a special experience.
And that's what Rime ultimately is: special. The sources of inspiration are many and clear, but throughout the experience, a certain identity of its own emerges. The backstory of the island's many lives and many perished civilisations makes the surroundings feel meaningful and magical, and that is, ultimately, the greatest compliment you can give a fantasy universe. It feels magical and real at the same time. The game stumbles a couple of times, but when it stands proud on its two feet, it's as sure of itself as the staples of the genre. So no, we're not playing either ICO nor Journey, we're playing Rime, and it fully deserves our attention.