Fumito Ueda sits at the bottom of a long list of names picked out for special thanks during Rain’s closing credits, and given Acquire’s evident infatuation with the Ico creator’s work it’s surprising he isn’t afforded greater prominence. Judging by the storyline, the studio is clearly enchanted by the whimsy of Sony stablemates Flower and The Unfinished Swan, too, but even as it lets them saturate its game, Acquire fails to understand what makes its influences tick.
For all its aspirations, the studio has built Rain around a gimmick that is very much its own. You play a boy drawn into a world of spectral beings and a never-ending rainstorm, in an effort to save a girl from a mysterious pursuer known simply as the Unknown. In this non-corporeal place, you are only visible onscreen and to enemies when in the rain, the falling droplets outlining your damp silhouette. Duck under an awning or move indoors, though, and you’ll disappear from sight, only picked out by splashes in puddles, the physics-enabled objects you disturb, or the little puffs of dust that rise from your lingering footprints.
It’s a beautiful artistic conceit, full of mechanical promise that sadly goes largely unfulfilled. While Rain makes every effort to telegraph your position onscreen, distant footfalls can be difficult to distinguish against the attractive but uniformly desaturated colour schemes of its Franco-Italian setting, especially when the fixed camera switches between perspectives.
Perhaps that’s why Rain is so profoundly linear. Acquire repeatedly teases you with large, open-looking spaces through which, you soon discover, there is only one route. The solution to every blockage or puzzle is placed directly in your path, and then highlighted by the camera and narration just in case you missed the cart with a handle sitting a few feet from that ledge you can’t quite reach. These moments are punctuated by a series of chase sequences that funnel you down set routes as the Unknown closes in, usually thwarted at the last moment by a gap that only a child can squeeze through.
For the first few chapters it’s easy to put this excessive hand-holding down to the desire to ease you into its intriguing premise, but by the end of the final chapter Acquire still hasn’t loosened its grip. Coming from the studio that made its name with the freeform Tenchu: Stealth Assassin, this is especially surprising. As a result, potentially interesting ideas – muddy puddles that leave residue on you, for instance, or turning enemies against each other – are never fully explored.
This heavy-handed nannying leads to inconsistencies. Platform edges are a lottery, with some surrounded by invisible walls and others letting you fall to your death. A wall of a certain height may be scalable or impassible depending on its relation to the critical path. Given how prescribed your route through the game is, these issues never confuse or impede, but they do serve to highlight your lack of agency. And such inconsistency afflicts the small cast of enemies you’ll face along the way too.
They’re a fearsome bunch on first sight, gnarled skeletons with willowy tendons stretched taut between bones, and just as capable of disappearing under shelter as you are. All, bar one docile creature, are capable of killing you instantly too – not least the Unknown, which stalks you relentlessly. But any threat is undermined when you realise that it’s possible to run within inches of the dog-like creatures, across metal gratings or even clattering through tables and chairs, without alerting them to your presence. Splash in a puddle a few feet away, however, and they’ll come running.
It’s a promising setup, using the invisibility proffered by cover and sound cues for distraction to sneak your way past enemies, but you’re never given the opportunity to improvise. One encounter with the Unknown requires you to find a key to unlock a door in a ruined church. The task is superficially complicated by a fallen roof, which allows the rain in, and the fact that carried objects are always visible even when you aren’t. But all you need do is move back along the only available (and entirely covered) pathway, play the church organ to distract the Unknown, then walk back to retrieve the key after it leaves.
While you spend the first portion of the game trying to catch up with the girl, when you eventually do, the two children help each other to progress, with simple puzzles involving both of them – using a clown doll to attract the attention of enemies while the other sneaks past, for example. The relationship between them is portrayed sweetly through subtle animations, and the way that the boy looks up and reaches out to catch the droplets before he moves from shelter back into the rain is heartwarming.
But in keeping with other areas of the game, Acquire insists on labouring the point with overbearing narration where a gesture would have sufficed. Rain still manages to engender a real sense of childlike wonder and isolation, but it always feels like a hollow facsimile of the games it aspires to. That feeling is reinforced by the absence of names for anyone, or anything, in the game: the boy, the girl, the Unknown. There’s a fine line between being enigmatic and coming up empty.
Acquire has crafted a beautiful world, and set up some fascinating concepts, but its unwillingness to trust players to find their own way through them strangles much of the life out of its game. The dangers of a developer following fashion rather than its heart when it comes to imbuing a game with emotional depth – faux or otherwise – are laid bare here. Rain’s core ideas remain frustratingly underdeveloped throughout, and it comes off more like a watercolour sketch than the oil painting that was promised.
Rain is out now on PS3.