In its first hour alone, RiME achieves everything that The Last Guardian strived for but failed to attain. The comparison of these two recent games is pertinent. Both revolve around a young boy in a mysterious world, both feature platforming elements, and both use puzzles to foster progress - the difference is found in the execution. While Sony took ten years to release a clunky, frustrating mess, Tequila Works has delivered a meticulously designed and profoundly beautiful experience in half the time.
Awakening on a shore as the victim of a shipwreck, a boy named Enu comes to terms with his new surroundings. Mysterious structures tower above him and wild animals block his path, but he - and you - have no idea what you’re supposed to do or where you need to go. The most crucial element of RiME is its visual identity, which is used not only to separate it from its inspirations such as Ico and Zelda, but to help point you in the right direction. There is no HUD, no energy meter, no clutter at all - just a clean, expansive view of Enu and his immediate environment. As with Ico and the incredible Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the absence of screen furniture serves to pull you further in, making you forget that this is a game rather than an interactive story. The late-development decision to drop stamina and health bars along with other survival game aspects was to the game’s benefit.
As you become accustomed to the landscape, you’ll begin to realise how well the designers have signposted each area. The faded white edges of accessible buildings and ledges indicate a means of traversal, blue beacons reach skyward to guide you towards your next location, and paths allow you to wander off to explore without ever making you feel that you’re overreaching. There’s a comfort to your search when you know you can try and track down collectibles without the risk of straying too far from your ultimate destination. It’s worth doing, too, since the fragments of medallions, hidden keyholes and conch shells all expand the story’s lore and go some way to explaining your situation.
Enu can jump, roll, and pick up items, though the rolling seems to have been included for the sake of variety, as it wasn’t required at any point of our playthrough. A more powerful ability is shouting, which is used to activate or destroy objects in your way. In a practically wordless game, the boy’s humming, singing and fretful sighs add a dash of humanity to a huge, otherworldly realm. You’ll be accompanied early on by a spirit fox whose barks and striking orange fur stand out from the landscape, providing another marker for you to pursue should you lose your way. A taller red-cloaked figure is also never far from your periphery in the first stage, and although you are pursuing them, you won’t find out why until much later.
There are five distinct areas in RiME, each taking a couple of hours to work through. From the verdant initial setting filled with fruit-hungry boar, through to a bleak desert and a rain-battered expanse of ruins, each area combines a series of navigational tasks with some truly sumptuous puzzles. You’ll progress from moving blocks in the early stages to manipulating light sources, activating robots and creating doorways via a wonderful use of perspective. Light and darkness play a huge role in the game, and their tangibility - whether in the form of objects you make, or the shadowy floating creatures which flee, attack or ignore you - is fluid. Gaps become keys, walls become entrances, and the clever use of a day-night cycle contributes to some lovely shadow-based brainteasers. Even swimming sections, the bane of almost every gaming fan, manage to be enjoyable. A rare feat, indeed.
It’s entirely possible to die, whether by falling too far or succumbing to the nameless spirits, but you’ll respawn in a safe place nearby, leaving you to focus on whatever obstacle you need to find your way past, rather than traipsing for five minutes back to your previous location. And while the boy will indicate his pain if you fall a fair distance, you won’t be hampered with the equivalent of The Last Guardian’s annoying limp. This isn’t a title that wants to punish you at the expense of its gameplay.
If the distinct aesthetic pays tribute to the likes of Wind Waker and Journey, the puzzles are in an entirely different league. Indeed, it has been some time since a game’s challenges enchanted me as much as RiME’s did. There is a true sense of wonder in discovering how a doorway is framed and then opened by using merely light and the objects around you. The nearest comparison I can think of is The Room, though here the manipulation of your surroundings is less fiendish and far more intuitive. As such, there’s a justifiable feeling of satisfaction when the camera pans out to reveal what you’ve unlocked, and the rewards never feel unearned, even in the game’s earlier stages.
The completion of each area rewards you with a vignette which builds a picture of the boy’s journey up until the game’s starting point - though, as you will discover, the perspective of these cutscenes shifts as much as the game’s environment. When the end is reached and the true nature of the tale is finally revealed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the bravura of Raúl Rubio and his team. This is a personal journey, right down to the appearance of the chapter select option, whose very nature gave me an even greater respect for the experience.
All of this is tied together with a tremendous soundtrack, encompassing sweeping arias, mournful cellos, tender piano work and upbeat violins. Every completed puzzle provides an aural reward to accompany the visuals, and each new architectural wonder you uncover simply wouldn’t be the same without David Garcia’s supporting cues.
I came into RiME knowing almost nothing about it, and my ignorance paid dividends. To learn more would be to spoil the journey, and when every aspect of the game rings true as it does here, it feels like a remarkable achievement. There is very little to criticise; the platforming elements work well, the puzzle elements will tax you on occasion but never feel unsolvable, and while the camera can hinder you and the lack of light in some areas might feel somewhat unfair, these are miniscule niggles on the rarest of occasions, and are easily overcome. The poetry of RiME propels you forward across mountains, caverns, oceans and deserts, and captivates you until the final stanza, after which you’ll want to play it all again. Metaphor has never been so tenderly portrayed.