In the year of our lord 2016, you would be hard pressed to find a new schmup (shoot-’em-up) targeted at the home console market. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a demand for the genre, because quite frankly there are plenty of PS4 owners out there that hate themselves. I, unfortunately, count myself among the depraved masses, just jonesing for our next trip into bullet hell. So you can only imagine how I, and many others, accepted the Two Tribes’ release of Rive with open arms and perverse glee. Does this schmup/platformer hybrid from the folks who brought you Toki Tori earn itself classification as a masochistic masterpiece or is it actually a minefield of mediocre mayhem?
Ever since the days of arcades, gamers have deriving immense amounts of pleasure from making things go boom. Whether it was the satisfying flashes of an on-screen explosion or the rumble of the speakers in the cabinet, games offered a visceral sensation that is satisfying on a molecular level. This euphoric feeling is what makes the breakneck action of a quality schmup so damn gratifying. Rive is keen to play on these emotions by providing one of the most quickest paced and action packed titles of 2016. But even for an explosion junkie like myself, there is a limit to my patience and attention span.
The game starts out as a beautifully imagined sci-fi schmup that mutates at several points in the campaign. At the end of its proverbial gaming puberty, what remains is a hard-as-nails action platformer. Though calling this a title a platformer doesn’t really feel fair, especially when you consider how sadistically frantic all of the action becomes. The closest comparison that you could draw on a moment’s notice would be to imagine this as Contra, only with bouts of zero G mixed in here and there. While players try to escape from an unexplained, gargantuan sized space vessel, there are plenty of adversaries that are more than happy to bring progression to a screeching halt.
When it comes to creative and manipulative ways administer death, it is hard to top Rive. It has a knack for playing mind games that border on trolling. Remember that new mechanic that you were just taught a few minutes back? Good. Now we are going to force you to apply it, at breakneck speed, and backwards. I genuinely wish that this example was an exaggeration. But alas, it is a cycle that repeated itself time after time. Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? Shame on me. Fool me for the eighth time? Shame on you again for being a merciless jerk.
Respawn Is Your Friend
Fortunately for all parties involved, there is no such thing as a game over. After accepting death’s cold embrace, players are tossed right back into the insanity with a single button press. This can be both a blessing and a curse at the same time. For one, not instituting any form of perma-death in the standard campaign essentially neuters all of the stakes. Sure, we all hate getting zapped back to the most recent checkpoint, but if that is the worst that happens, why bother plastering an insult across the game over screen too? Essentially it is just there to drive home the fact that you messed up… again…and again…and again.
In Rive, death occurs at a frequency that would give an auditor a visible twitch. Frequently players will find themselves backed into what appears to be an inescapable corner. The only way to fend of the incessant waves of bots is through never staying in one space for longer than a couple of seconds. To put it bluntly, lack of movement is analogous with a lack of life. Often, the scrapes that seem insurmountable aren’t nearly as bad as it initially appears. However, the only way to discover this fact is through a monotonous cycle of trial and error, punctuated by controller destructing frustration.
What would a shooter of this variety be without massive doses of venomous irritation, sprayed directly into the eyes of the consumer? These moments are what ultimately prove to be the most satisfying, when finally conquered. Over the span of the game’s surprisingly stout campaign, which clocks in at well north of five hours long, countless mind-numbing challenges will impede the process of escape. Only when armed with endless reserves of patience and the occasional salvaged power-up, is there any remote chance of success. Let’s just say that when the core campaign mode is only designated in the main menu as, “Hard Mode,” a certain level of challenge is implied. Don’t forget your helmet.
As Roughshod, the game’s primary narrator and ship captain, players are treated to endless pop-culture referencing quips, that almost feel as if they are painfully belched from the gullet of a space-trucker. Many of these groan-inducing lines are expressly used to curb the frustration of the difficulty curve, which becomes far more of an issue when restoring the same damn checkpoint for the umpteenth time.
Despite how often the difficulty gauge tends to lean towards the “give up,” side of the spectrum, after spending a few hours turning bots to slag, you will get unmistakably better. It is impossible not to, if players have any aspirations of completing the first couple of stages. These brief glimpses of skill can be legitimately addictive, especially when the action slows down enough to let players cultivate their abilities. Sadly, the only way the game seems to know how to do this effectively is through constructing another artificial challenge wall, just to restart the irritation iteration all over again.
While it is obvious that Rive was a well-crafted digital love letter to arcade classics of yesteryear, this is not a game that will be joining that pantheon of remarkable releases. Just because a game is hard, doesn’t mean it is gratifying. Though it certainly has moments of brilliance, these glimpses are few and far between. It also doesn’t help matters much when the borderline mean-natured presentation and combat mechanics continue to over-emphasize failures, instead of trumpeting successes. This will most likely find a small, loyal audience among the already converted and fairly neglected arcade shooter crowd. Ultimately, Rive lacks the approachability that would help it preach the shooter gospel to those not already singing in the choir.
Rive review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.