|Two Tribes Publishing
|September 13, 2016
|Twin Stick Shooter/Action Platformer
|ESRB E for Everyone 10+
In video game development, mixing and matching traditional genres has become increasingly common, particularly with indie studios. A lot of this is in the effort to bring something new to the gaming scene and stand out among their peers. I generally am a fan of this trend, many of these efforts producing a peanut butter and chocolate combination, a match made in heaven. But these combinations do not all work out so well, and sometimes there ends up being a peanut butter and mayonnaise combination every now and again (some people like it, but I definitely do not count myself among them). For RIVE they combined the twin-stick shooter and action platformer genres (similar to a metroidvania, but without as much exploration or backtracking). To extend the metaphor, I would not exactly call this combination a heavenly one, but at a minimum I would suggest a peanut butter and banana rating.
Initially starting RIVE you will get the impression that it is a fairly standard twin-stick shooter. You start out in space firing on asteroids, like many of us have been doing since the very early 80’s. However, you do not even finish the first Stage before your craft enters a large spaceship that has artificial gravity. After a minor transformation you discover that you were not piloting a simple space ship, but a vessel that can also walk around like a small mech robot as well. Although you are given no entry story crawl, by the dialogue you find out that you are simply a junker that goes around repurposing derelict spacecrafts. That was also a refreshing change from your standard shooter, as your hero not only lacks any large purpose to save the world, but he even looks and acts just like someone who works at a junkyard. He’s a salty old dog, and he has a lot of personality along with his very large cigar.
In keeping with the smaller scope of this game, the big bad is really a series of robots that the ship’s AI has created, which have gone amok. There is no greater threat to the entire universe, nor is there any particular philosophical questions. In fact, almost any time the ship’s AI shows up to talk to you, you can just blast the little robot right out of the air to shut it up. This was a nice little touch in a game full of little charming bits. But shooting is not the only way you have to interact with your world—you also have a hacking interface that comes straight out of the stone age…the 1990s. When you go into hacking mode the entire screen turns into a green CRT monitor from the 1980s, and you also hear dial tones when you hack that are similar to the baud modems from the 90s. The first use of hacking you will need is to turn on switches while you are exploring, most importantly small pockets of AI gravity that look and behave like bubbles of water.
Because many of your hacking targets are midair, one of the most difficult mechanics to get used to is the timing of swiching into hacking mode that will let you jump up and lock onto a hackable object, since the mode has a very short range. Because you cannot fire while you are in hacking mode, you do need to use some strategy about when you enter the mode. This becomes an increasingly tight window as the game goes on, culminating in the final boss, where you are surrounded by things that want to kill you while you need to hack things to protect yourself, all while hacking trains to do the necessary damage to the boss himself. But it will be a while before you get there; first you need to struggle with hacking in the middle of a jump when a fiery death awaits you below if you miss that small window.
Hacking panels on the ship is but the first method of hacking—the other one was briefly mentioned, taking over other robots. This can extend to nurse robots, which will heal you for a while, defense gun turrets to fire with you and double your shot strength, and even trains that you take over. It was a very nice mechanic, but I felt it was a bit underutilized in the game since there is not a huge variety of different robots to take over. Nevertheless, whenever possible I would always have a nurse robot at my side. The Gun Turrets were only of minor use to me, and I preferred to just kill them instead of hacking them since their bullet supply was pretty low regardless. Hacking the trains was super useful for getting past a couple stages, and then they find their ultimate use on the last boss.
There are twelve stages in the game and three bosses in total. The good of that is that the bosses were the most fun for me of the whole game, and the bad that there were only three of them. There are many set piece sequences in the game where you are stuck in a room and have to kill a whole bunch of enemies before you progress, but mostly those sequences are just floods of smaller enemies that you see throughout the rest of the game and various environmental effects to avoid. So one of my few gripes about the game is the lack of enemy and boss variety. But at least all three of the bosses that are here are quite interesting fights and serve to break up the game into separate parts. The first boss was fairly easy, but the second boss was rather difficult, and the last boss was so difficult that they actually allow you to come back to life between phases of the boss and not back at the beginning of the fight. I’m sure the last boss only took me about 10-15 minutes to beat, but it felt like an hour by the time his energy bar met its end.
To assist you in both the platforming and the space shooter sections of the game, you can find a depot where you can upgrade your mech with new special abilities and power ups, such as strengthening your armor or the distance you can suck up the currency (which effectively is bolts, like in Ratchet and Clank). But not all these upgrades are created the same. The first time through the game I took the two armor upgrades first, and that turned out to be a huge mistake. The armor upgrades are almost worthless because you are never really attacked by one shot or one enemy at a time. So if you get hit, you are almost always bounced into another enemy, into lava, or some other environmental effect. Also, when it comes to a moving train, no amount of armor or health is going to save you from a head on collision. So realistically you are far better off unlocking all four of your special weapons first. They are single use each, but you do earn restocks of them quite frequently. The four different special weapons do behave quite differently, but I only really ever used two of them often. In the end, movement and learning enemy patterns is your best friend, as none of the upgrades are going to save your hide.
I have two real complaints about this game, a minor and a major. The minor complaint is that I wish this game was a bit more than what it was—more in almost every way. I wish there was more enemy variety, more bosses, more stages, more variety in the music, and that the levels were more exploratory instead of linear. But that is a minor complaint since I prefer to accept a game for what it is, instead of what I think it should be. The major complaint, however, is in the difficulty spikes. This should not be shocking news for anyone who has known about this game in the past year, as it’s rather infamous for the random difficulty spikes peppered throughout the game. I definitely don’t mind difficult games—I review many of them for the site—but most of the difficulty in this one is of the unfair kind. In other words, you would have no way of knowing what was going to happen until you saw it for the first time. Thankfully, some of this is mitigated by how close to where you died you respawn, but many people will be turned off by a game where you literally have to just memorize the patterns of where stuff is going to come at you. And this will just randomly happen in the middle of an easy sequence, and then go back to another easy sequence, hence the difficulty spikes. Honestly, to me the bosses were the best part because they were difficult, but they had a set pattern and therefore any death felt like my own fault instead of a vicious design.
Thankfully, there is enough charm in the style of the game to generally make up for the frustration of the difficulty, at least for me. I can definitely say that if you are turned off by having to repeat sequences of a game over and over again, this is not the game for you. The graphics style is charming, both the overall world design and also the retro menus. The music is good, but is mostly forgettable. It was never annoying enough for me to mute the game and turn on other music, and many other shooters cannot make that claim. The other modes are kind of interesting, but nothing to really recommend. Really the most replay you will get out of this game is in the friend and global leaderboards, which you can pit yourself against. Most games like this have global leaderboards now, so that is starting to become a necessary part of any space shooter. Is this game going to really light up the sales charts in any way? No, but it is a self published indie game that is really solid. And at $14.99 you cannot really claim that you are not getting your money’s worth—the twelve levels are rather short, but the difficulty makes you spend longer on them. All together I spent around three hours beating the main game, and an extra hour or two on the various other modes. In the end the mixture of twin stick shooter and action platformer did work out. But I think they could go even further with this and make a full on metroidvania in this style. If they go that direction for the sequel, they will find a fan in me.
Review copy provided by the developer.