When a game’s very first sequence has you reaching for the ibuprofen after a few worrying deaths without making much progress, you know you may be in for a rough ride. This harsh beginning might turn a lot of people off of Rive, but it really shouldn’t. With some perseverance, you might find that it’s one of the essential indie games of 2016 in what has been an exceptional year for them.
Playing as a bearded, gruff, nameless space salvager (who we’ll call Duck McDynasty from here on out), you are tasked with hunting down precious cargo and bringing home the bacon all from the comfort of your spider tank. When I say comfort, I mean the comforting embrace of death after the fourth naive attempt at avoiding a turret or a salvo of kamikaze enemies. The guardians of the spaceships you explore will not go quietly. How you deal with them becomes more and more an intricate game of weaponised chess as you progress.
Starting off with nothing but a simple machine gun, you will gradually come across new weapons such as a shotgun that would make Evil Dead’s Ash cry with joy as well as new armour that offers some respite from the sarcastic game over. The sense of humour is a particular strength of Rive’s, elevating what could have been just a neat little space platformer to another level. It’s meta, offensive to the player, and effortlessly self-aware, which is something that’s hard to pull of without seeming like you’re forcing it. Although it does sometimes fall flat due to the constant barrage of humour, Duck’s quips do a lot to distract from the inevitably of yet another failure.
The deeper the game takes you, the more you’re going to have to rely on your whole arsenal. Some of them are limited use, meaning that they’re best saved for emergencies. As crazy as it might be to say, Rive isn’t too dissimilar from being a rhythm game and reminds me, in a very strange way, of Furi – you have to learn the patterns and hope that your body is able to follow your brain. It’s frenetic, challenging and never a bore – if Rive doesn’t get your heart pumping at least once per session, it might be a good idea to visit your local doctor.
That being said, Rive isn’t difficult to the point of mental capitulation. You don’t lose much progress after every death and, like every rhythm game, the secret to success lies in the pattern. After being stuck on one area for what felt like half an hour, I decided to study how the enemies operated; where they moved, how they moved, and how to avoid them, getting closer and closer each time until I eventually won the day. The cycle then goes again and is far more inviting than it sounds. Higher difficulty does not mean a better game, but Rive actually has a smarter difficulty, requiring you to stop, think, and execute with precision. It’s a thrilling game that ends far too abruptly.
Rive can be completed within a couple of short sittings, which is a shame. A game that’s as fluid and responsive as this deserves more. The game is densely packed and a sense of burnout could have been possible if it was extended much further, but for its price and all that can be enjoyed in such a short time, it shouldn’t impact your decision to check out of the best games to come out of this congested release season.