Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Rive is an insanely challenging yet satisfying game that is mostly shoot-’em-up, but tosses in a few genre wrinkles as well. It is an unapologeticlly brutal game however, and it could use a handful tweaks here and there, but the overall experience is still a fantastic one.
Now, we are a little late to this particular party, with Rive having seen its release on PlayStation 4 last fall. However, the game has proven incredibly popular here in the US and it is now seeing release on the PlayStation Store in Asia (it came out on May 16th, 2017). This seemed like the perfect excuse to go back and play this title that we missed the first time around when it fully released (though we did get a chance to preview it).
So what is Rive? It is a bullet hell in every sense of the phrase. Explosive, destructive death is everywhere, but there are some interesting changes to the traditional formula as well. Most of the game is actually played like a shooting platformer, with only a handful of zero gravity, free-movement scenes. These zero gravity sections are more akin to a traditional bullet hell shooter, where you have to continually dodge incoming ships and projectiles from all directions, though one of the stages has an old Gradius/Life Force feel to it as you scroll from left to right and are only able to shoot in that direction.
The rest (well, almost all of the rest) of the time, you are playing a platforming twin stick shooter. The controls are smart, if not always natural. Using a trigger to jump and double jump can be a little weird because you are almost never using face buttons for anything but special weapon selection. Instead, your thumbs are planted right on the twin sticks. The trigger as a jump mechanism works well enough, though after having played for about five straight hours, one of the ending sequences was definitely starting to test my forearm muscles a bit as I was pulling the trigger over and over again during a ‘run from the rising lava’ sequence.
At its best, Rive is fast-paced and beautiful in that sort of throwback to classic shooters style. Characters and bullets animate well, environments are brightly colored and there is a ton of activity on the screen without any slowing down. If you catch your breath and look around – something I seldom felt like I had a chance to do – there are some cool things unfolding in the background as well. One particularly notable scene was a large robot that was animating to life in the distant background before moving off of the screen to join the fray a short time later.
The sound effects, music and limited voice work all get the job effectively as well. None of it is particularly memorable, but none of it is overly bad either. It finds the middle ground of offering auditory cues and trying to match the action with some thumping musical scores. The pilot is a bit of a character, having landed his spider-bot ship inside a much larger ship that he is now trying to escape. He’s a gruff and often ridiculous personality as Rive pokes fun at multiple games and genres along the way. At one point he even says that he has no idea how those ‘first person guys’ do it – in reference to how playing the game in 2D side mode allowed him to see both in front and behind himself.
There are quite a few moments like this, where the game is never taking itself all too seriously – at least in tone. However, as a shooter, Rive pulls very few punches. There is a single credit mode you can unlock, with the idea that you are going to try to beat the game in one life. If such a person is out there? Congrats, you are a far better gamer than I am. I died and died often – there are some elements of trial and error where I imagine you are almost expected to die during your first go. Thankfully the frequent checkpoints along the way help to ease the sting of defeat, but even these checkpoints can be something of a mixed blessing as they don’t necessarily start you with max health or a spare super attack. There were several sequences that tested my patience along the way, but one near the end really just about did me in. Let me paint the scenario for you.
Your tank is in the water, which you can float about akin to zero gravity – however when you are submerged you cannot fire any weapons. You can press up and/or use jump to propel out of the water – which then allows you to fire while you are still airborne. Of course, that jumping thing comes in doubly handy in this scenario, because there is a massive saw blade buzzing back and forth from side to side below you – so you need to continually jump over that. However, there is also a trio of electric beams coming from the ceiling. These beams slide from left to right at a different time than the saw blade, but mercifully don’t pierce the water. However, now you are left in a pattern of diving under the moving beams and jumping over the saw blade – all while fighting a variety of flying opponents and a pair of armored wall-walking turrets that launch homing missiles as well. If that sounds like a lot to juggle, I’m probably selling it short, because that is the most frustrated I have been with a video game in a very long time.
Still, a strong sense of satisfaction has always accompanied tough games, and that certainly resonates here with Rive as well. If it was just a shooter, or even just a platformer, Rive would probably grow a bit cumbersome, but there are elements of puzzle solving and even RPG upgrading here as well. You collect bolts from fallen enemies that you can then turn in at an upgrade station. This station allows you to buy a handful of different super attacks, better armor (get this pronto) and a magnet that makes it easier to harvest said bolts as it pulls them in from greater distances. There is also a ‘hacking’ mode your spider bot can enter. You click the L1 or R1 buttons and the screen takes on a greenish hue and you then direct a ray using your right stick (just like you would if you were shooting bullets), and if it comes into contact with specific devices for enough time, you hack them. Sometimes these hacks just open doors, and in other instances they can help you hijack opponents to do your bidding. All of these elements tie in together to make Rive a pretty unique experience, even if it is a relatively short one that can be beaten in about five or six hours.
There are some additional modes such as the aforementioned single credit play as well as speed running and mission replays. They all work well enough, but don’t really have enough variety to really match the coolness of the primary campaign. Where Rive has some room to improve is up to a matter of opinion, I suppose. I think the game is probably a smidge too hard for its own good at times. Also, while I appreciated the special weapons, more of them or modifications to your primary cannon would have gone a long ways towards creating some additional gameplay variety. Perhaps most frustrating of all is that Rive really wants to deliver traditional shoot-’em-up action, but sometimes lacks the precision to fully execute on those desires. Thankfully your tank can take a few hits before exploding, but there is a sharp bouncing / push-back that occurs when you are struck that makes some of the platforming stages (and that one scenario with the saw and the lasers I bemoaned earlier) feel hard and a little sloppy. The sloppy, non-precise start (and more importantly, stop) of zero gravity only makes this issue more pronounced. Also, Rive is trying to tell a story of sorts, and at times the game has characters speaking through lines. Well, some of these checkpoints occur right before these bits of spoken dialogue. If you die at these parts (especially if you die a lot), you will get to hear the same spoken lines over, and over, and over… and over again.