This review was written after playing a copy of Rive on PlayStation 4 provided by Two Tribes.
Shootin’, Jumpin’, Dyin’, Lovin’!
About a year ago, I played a demo of Rive as it was circulating the digital storefronts and had an absolute ball with it. An intense arcade-style twin stick shooter was a pleasant surprise amongst the other works in progress I played. Fast-forward to the present and developer Two Tribes should be proud of what they created. But it cannot be understated that while Rive is great in small doses, there are some issues that hold it back from being a bona fide classic.
The game opens with the blue-collar protagonist, a thick-bearded southern type commanding a dinky salvage vessel, getting pulled through a meteor storm. After a solid gameplay tutorial resembling a much faster version of Asteroids, you are pulled into a large derelict ship full of precious materials and parts the hero wants to salvage. Except that the seemingly abandoned vessel has an untold amount of automated defenses and is about half the size of a Death Star, which leads to things getting complicated in no time. What started as a salvage job becomes a dire struggle for survival as you shoot and navigate your way through the ship trying to find a way to escape.
All told, the story of Rive isn’t exactly amazing. True to a more arcade structure, the plot is in service to the gameplay and the simple set-up of a space redneck junker getting in way over his head with the mega ship’s autonomous systems is a perfectly serviceable vehicle for some old-school shooting action. There is a more elaborate plot going around concerning what exactly happened to the ship and its crew, which is explained to the player by a Human Resources drone that pops up in between battles and close calls. However, much like the recent Doom, you can completely ignore this plot and even shoot the robot to shut him up. He won’t be happy about it but the fact Two Tribes included the option shows that they are playing to the game’s strengths.
Rive’s controls are highly responsive. You move with the left stick, fire with the right stick, and there’s a boost and double jump mapped to the right trigger. The left trigger is used to activate a special super attack, which can be alternated with any of the four face buttons and is recharged by picking up ammo crates that appear in the world. As for the combat, it’s hectic and chaotic but with just enough consistency for the player to plan around. With swarms of enemies pouring in and dangerous laser grid entrapment, there isn’t a single trick Rive won’t pile on to keep you on your toes, and if you don’t pump enough rounds into a particular robotic jellyfish, you will regret it.
At the same time, Rive strikes a great balance of being challenging but fair. Checkpoints are plentiful, so even if a particularly hairy encounter takes you to pieces, you aren’t far off from where you last died. It also helps that enemy attack patterns are reliably predictable, and in terms of short iteration cycles, that downtime between dying and waiting for another try is nearly instantaneous, matched only by Super Meat Boy. You messed up? Hit continue and get back in there. It’s only a game over if you give up.
Rive has a healthy sense of humor to it. It isn’t a full-blown comedy game like Deadpool or Sunset Overdrive, where jokes are either hit and miss or driven into the ground, but there are small retorts here and there, one or two minor fourth wall breaking gags between levels, a particular jab at a blatantly gamified upgrade, and just enough novel variations on the “You Died” failure screen to keep me from getting salty. It’s a proper use of levity in what is an otherwise relentless experience.
Of course, Rive has a novel unique selling point that helps it stand out from the crowd and it can be found in the level presentation. Since the game is treating the ship as one big sprawling complex, the level structure is closer to a Metroidvania experience where you find upgrades to help you progress, albeit with a more linear focus. The upgrades allow you to hack certain robots and items, all of which is a mere button press away. These serve as the game’s power-ups as well as giving each gun battle a tactical wrinkle. Do you need more firepower? Hack a drone and he’ll pump some more bullets into whatever’s giving you trouble. Low on health? Hack a medical drone and get some healing for as long as it survives. What helps things from getting out of hand is that the hacked allies only stick around for a limited amount of time until they explode. The hacking is also used for assistance in Rive’s intense platforming sections, where you access anything as simple as a door-locking mechanism to activating a bunch of zero-gravity bubbles to carry you across dangerous terrain.
There’s even a simple RPG mechanic used to upgrade weapons and armor. You collect scrap you picked up from enemies and spend them at certain points to get anything as simple as a new alternative special attack to getting more health. It’s simple but it gets the job done.
There’s a lot of good here but the bad mostly comes in encounter design and some odd UI choices. The first big problem is in the game’s menu. Instead of a simple New Game option or even different difficulty settings, Rive simply opens with just Hard Mode available, which might as well be normal because there is no point of comparison, with a titled Speed Run and One-Credit Mode grayed out. It’s obvious the developer is trying to court a more hardcore audience. Also, while
Also, while Rive does a decent job of mixing up its various encounters and set pieces – a little chaotic shooting here, a platforming challenge there, a few escape sequences sprinkled throughout – enemy encounters enjoy ambush tactics a little too much. You go into a new location, a swarm of enemies comes, the battle begins with you getting into the game’s rhythm and then another swarm of enemies appears right behind you thanks to a conveniently hidden secret room. It’s an antiquated method of difficulty spiking from the old days, but it noticeably makes each encounter feel artificially stretched out and taxing.
But if that doesn’t bother you and a return to a game experience with high scores, entertaining encounters and brutal boss battles sounds like fun, there’s a lot to enjoy in Rive. The gameplay is solid, its unique hacking mechanic adds enough depth to keep the whole from turning into just shooting everything, the painted 2D presentation manages to make the environments look both gorgeous as well as threatening, and overall it just works. Good luck scavenging.