‘Rain’ review: To master game, players face the unseen and the unknown

Oct. 10, 2013 | 5:00 a.m.

“Rain,” Sony’s download-only PlayStation 3 title released last week, plays with an idea central to many fairy tales. What monsters come out to play when the lights are turned off? But ultimately, it ends up dealing with a far darker question — is there any monster quite so scary as loneliness?

“Rain” puts players in control of an average young boy whom we know little about other than he was denied his wish of attending the circus and went off to bed in a sullen mood.

When he awakes, he is invisible to the world and to the game player. His silhouette is noticeable only when he is led into the rain or into the mud. The boy’s shouts for help go unheard and not a grown-up is to be found on the streets of this European-inspired town. It’s never quite scary, except to maybe the youngest of participants, but it is unsettling in that it removes any sense of power from the player.

Like this year’s earlier release “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” from Sweden’s Starbreeze Studios, “Rain” grabs players by letting them leisurely discover an unknown world. As the child walks, words appear on the screen as if player and character are unraveling a story together rather than mastering challenges.

With such an emphasis on text and narration, this could be considered an interactive book more than a game, but it’s not. It is instead a moderately paced exploration through a fantastically realized nighttime setting, where dashing through rain and narrowly escaping the clutches of pursuers rewards players with more pieces of the narrative rather than larger battles.

Hope arrives in the form of a little girl, her presence made known by a smattering of piano notes. For the first half of this game she is one step ahead of him, pursued by ghost-like hounds. When boy and girl do finally meet, they stand, face to face, unable to speak in this dreamlike, hand-drawn deserted world.

This challenge of connecting, first between boy and player and later between boy and girl, becomes the crux of this game.

A scene from the video game "Rain." (Sony)

A scene from the video game “Rain.” (Sony)

Will this boy simply wander aimlessly through life or, worse, disappear into anonymity? “He had come to associate invisibility with safety,” “Rain” tells us as the boy slinks under an awning, becoming near invisible, to avoid a wolf.

It is a fairy tale-like image at its most thoughtful and forlorn, where a boy and girl bang on the front doors of their homes in their suddenly barren town only to find no one’s there for them. A chilling moment arrives when a young girl comes face to face with her sleeping body. She tries to wake herself but isn’t sure if she should. Has she forever been abandoned? And what about the friend she’s made in this alternate reality? Does she want to return home if it means losing him?

This could be one more game where the boy will save the girl and then the answers will be unlocked, but “Rain” has the two working together as mystery solvers for much of the story. Yugo Kanno’s score takes on a more Disney-meets-“Amélie” quality in these moments, as boy and girl maneuver among streets and rooftops to ensure that one is always shielded from the rain and able to provide a decoy to distract would-be fiends.

As the game gradually introduces more evil — countless wolves, flesh-eating jellyfish-like creatures, a giant battering ram of a ghoulish dinosaur — invisibly hiding under a rooftop starts to become a rather comfortable place to stay. The boy and girl are trespassers in a land where the daylight has been locked out, and the main inhabitant is someone the narrator tells us is called “the unknown,” a tall, transparent being that has a weakness for classical music and seems to fear the children as much as they fear it (you may have correctly guessed that “the unknown” is a metaphorical grown-up).

A scene from the video game "Rain." (Sony)

A scene from the video game “Rain.” (Sony)

Escaping the clutches of “the unknown” is never difficult — challenges can usually be grasped within three or four tries — but creating places to hide does lead to inventively cinematic ways to explore the game world. When trapped in a roof-torn factory, for instance, the boy outwits his foe by jumping into the one locker that still has a ceiling, hence shielding the boy from the rain. Players sit back and watch as the pursuer opens and examines each locker one by one. Kanno’s classical score (often worked around pieces of “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy) gets ever-so-slightly more foreboding as the enemy zeros in, but brightens when the boy remains unseen.

Throughout its five or so hour story, “Rain” becomes an elaborately odd game of cat and mouse. Boy and girl are searching for a way out of this dark universe, and “the unknown” is hoping to preserve it. Ultimately, as “Rain” races to a heartwarming conclusion, it transitions from a game to a tale that explores the fears of solitude and the joys of friendship.

Todd Martens

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