Adventure games used to be about actual adventuring. Before Nathan Drake’s struggles with his fragile masculinity turned the genre into glorified corridor shooters, the likes of Lara Croft traipsed mysterious ruins and solved elaborate puzzles in the name of exploration. Those sorts of third-person adventure games, like those early Tomb Raider titles, are all but dead in this day and age. Thankfully, Tequila Works seems to hold a reverence for big rooms loaded with oblique puzzles and minimal handholding. This influence shines through in the exceptional RiME, a long-gestating title that oozes charm and personality throughout its heart-wrenching yarn.
That is, I thought the main narrative was a bummer. Others might find it hopeful, cathartic, or uplifting—it really depends on the player. It depends because RiME is the rare game that doesn’t tell players how they’re supposed to feel about the narrative. There are no cheap tugs at the heartstrings, no dirty shots in the old feels box. Told entirely without dialogue, the story is a surreal journey told out of sequence, one that makes liberal use of deceptive magical realism imagery. Like the fickleness of human memory, the young protagonist’s journey around a mysterious island and scaling of a foreboding tower plays around with time and perspective. While the sombre conclusion is pretty cut and dry, what comes before it makes players question the context of the narrative and the emotional states of the two major characters. The entirety of the plot and the intended emotional impact are both ambiguous and it will undoubtedly be interesting to see different players’ reactions to it. I, for one, was weeping throughout the ending credits—it’s been a little bit since a game hit me quite that hard.
It’s also been a while since a game of this variety was willing to give players room to breathe. Despite its linear nature, RiME is a game full of sprawls that are chock-full of puzzles. Much like this year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or last year’s Obduction, these puzzles aren’t the post-Assassin’s Creed fluff that spoons them baby food and pats them on the back for gulping it down. Outside of the occasional obvious camera pan, players have to stumble around in the dark (sometimes quite literally) and come to their own conclusions in order to solve most of the puzzles. Some of them, with the third major area coming to mind, are real headscratchers without coming across as tedious. RiME finds that delicate sweet spot between exploration and frustration in terms of its puzzles, evoking the classic Core Software Tomb Raider games and pretty much anything Rand Miller’s done after Myst.
There are more than puzzles here, too. RiME flirts with Ueda-esque setpieces and Uncharted-style platforming, with results that mostly work. Tequila Works has demonstrated their expertise in unique art direction and gameplay combos before with Deadlight and The Sexy Brutale, but I’d say that RiME is their crowning achievement thus far when it comes to that balance of form and functionality. When players aren’t freewheeling around puzzle rooms, the game sets up a series of visual spectacles that work in favour of the gameplay. The platforming, which generally consists of shimmying from ledge to ledge, always feels perfectly framed in the moment and never comes across as forced mechanics for the sake of padding. When the genderless player-character scales a wall, jumps from platform to platform, or simply runs across a large stretch of land, it’s perfectly in sync with all the audio-visual aspects of the game. It produces a sublime sensation of cohesiveness and congruity that’s hard to describe, but easy to understand when it’s being experienced. Simply put, RiME is a game that balances accessibility and spectacle quite well, while never sacrificing its heart.
That said, there are some technical warts that occasionally threatened to take me out of the experience. The protagonist can sometimes get very confused about which direction they ought to be going while climbing, which in turn led to me carefully finagle the analogue stick in weird directions to get off a ledge. This was a rare occurrence, and one that’s an anomaly amidst gameplay that is otherwise buttery smooth, but definitely one that irked me whenever it reared its head. Also worth noting is that the PS4 version suffers from occasional dips in framerate, with an occasional stutter or two. It’s nothing too bad, really, and nowhere nearly as awful as the framerate drops in something like, say, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it does happen.
But no occasional control hiccup or dip in framerate can undo how sublime RiME is when all is said and done. From sombre moments of exploring ruins infested with creepy ghosts to tense encounters with giant winged beasts, Tequila Works’ latest manages to balance its penchant for whimsy and spectacle with a tangible humanity that most games lack. There’s a potent infusion of quiet introspection into this fantastical adventure, and coupled with gameplay that doesn’t treat the player like an infant, that goes a long way into putting it head and shoulders above anything the genre’s produced in quite some time. The gorgeous, evocative score helps with that, as do the lush and unique visuals.
While, yes, comparisons to other games can be made, there is ultimately nothing else out there quite like RiME. I suspect there won’t be for quite a while. And I suspect that when it’s time to look back on 2017’s best, Tequila Works’ magical, humanistic opus will be at the top of many lists.