How Many Rounds Before I Have to Reload?
Above the waterline, four white lasers zipped back and forth between the walls. Below, a giant saw-blade spun left to right, its rhythm different than that of the lasers. Stuck in the water, I leapt out in short bursts, hoping to avoid the flying robots spawning endlessly above my head. Fighting the waves and unpredictability of the water, I timed my shots carefully, firing round after round at the giant enemy robot that was perched on the wall. It launched a couple homing rockets at me, but between all the other stuff, they were hard to notice.
Then… I died again. It was probably the lasers doubling back, but it could have been the saw blade. I’d died so many times that they were all blurring together, forming a collage of Game Over screens. Suddenly, the game asked me if I wanted to play on Soft Mode, which came complete with a cuddly little teddy bear face. That teddy bear looked inviting. It really did.
But then, what kind of a reviewer would I be if I didn’t turn up my nose at the easy way? No, that’s not for me! It was time to fill my veins with caffeine, roar like a lion, and press on the hard way! RIVE would not get the best of me; not now, not ever!
RIVE puts players behind the wheel of a futuristic walking-tank. There are twelve missions to blast through, all of which are heavy on action and supplemented with bits of story and dialogue. At a glance, RIVE’s levels are labyrinthine and interconnected; characteristics which scream “Metroidvania” to the uninitiated. However, RIVE’s design has a particularly linear focus. Players are steered towards specific goals, with minimal allowance for free exploration. Instead, levels are filled with big action set-pieces and hordes of hostile robots.
It doesn’t take long to realize that RIVE is an action game first and foremost. The main menu provides the first good clue. There’s only one difficulty level by default, and it’s Hard. But unlike many games that flaunt their challenge and exist to cause pain, RIVE’s difficulty is mostly reasonable, even if you take into account my opening anecdote. Your tank can take a few hits, and it’s loaded with firepower that can be upgraded with four different add-ons, including heat-seeking missiles and a short-range shotgun blast.
Most missions involve traveling from one region of the space station to the other, but there are also a handful of space shooter sections that function similarly to classics like R-Type and Life Force. Here, you can move around the entire screen, but can only fire to the right. During most of the game, you’re confined to the ground, using one stick to move left and right, and the other to both aim and shoot.
Occasionally, you will come across new hacks, which upgrade the types of devices you can manipulate through scanning. The first such upgrade allows you to open doors, but later upgrades let you control certain types of enemy robots, including droids that can heal you, turrets that double your fire power, and drill-equipped robots that can smash certain obstacles and brutalize enemies in combat. As fun as these hacks can be, they often don’t allow for the type of freedom-in-combat that you might expect. Hackable enemies appear uncommonly, and usually in scripted sections where you’re basically expected to use them. Only towards the end of the game do your options genuinely open up.
RIVE is a controlled experience from beginning to end. Though levels may look vast and explorable, they usually aren’t. Instead, the game filters you in a specific direction, during which time you face several challenges, from underwater tunnels to platforming sections to rising lava pits. Several times per mission, you enter closed rooms to do battle with increasingly difficult waves of enemies. These sections are often brilliantly designed, as different environments present different challenges that make every battle feel fresh. The late game introduces rotating lasers and saw-blades, which allow for some truly hellish battles during the last few missions. Sometimes you’ll do battle atop a runaway train, or while stuck in a gravitational bubble.
RIVE also boasts a handful of epic boss encounters, each of which is tough, satisfying, and a lot of fun. Bosses function similarly to the game’s regular arena fights, as each one summons enemies to battle alongside them. There are tricks to exploiting boss weaknesses, with the final boss requiring the best and most creative tricks in the game. It’s a satisfying last encounter, and a great way to end RIVE‘s six-hour adrenaline rush.
To be fair, RIVE does let you breathe a little, and it is during these times that you learn more about the tough-talkin’ protagonist Roughshod and the station’s architect, who is a hovering robot that likes to buzz around your ear from time to time. The two characters have opposite personalities, and the robot seems like a good foil for our hero, given his wimpy, C3PO-like affectation. Sadly, their interactions aren’t as enjoyable as they could be. There’s a lot of jokey fourth-wall breaking, and the conflict between the two characters lacks the appropriate tension and pay-off.
The voice actors themselves do a serviceable job with the material, and the rest of the sound design works well, giving plenty of weight to the pops and explosions that litter the battleground. The visual design is ablaze with lighting and particle effects; the screen is often a storm of shells and bullets. Rockets are trailed by thin blue fingers, while enemies explode violently, sending fire and shrapnel hurling across the screen. RIVE is a constant firework show, so much so that it’s easy to miss the otherwise dark and dreary landscape, firmly entrenched in the burned-out end of the color palette. It can be bleak; but hey, it works.
RIVE includes leaderboards and a few unlockable modes, including single-credit and the aforementioned softer difficulty, which is earned through the dubious accomplishment of dying a lot. The list of options is modest, and there are only a couple different control modes. This can be a slight nuisance because the left trigger is used to jump, which is one of the game’s frequent actions. Using the pressure-sensitive trigger to do fast sessions of rhythm-based jumping isn’t ideal. It’s functional, but it isn’t ideal.
Any and all gripes related to RIVE are minor, and none should obscure the fact that it’s a solid game filled to the brim with high-impact action. The game’s high points are thrilling enough to melt its flaws into a glowing hunk of molten metal. It’s a great little reference to the arcade shooters of yesteryear, recalling what was great about those games while firmly establishing an identity of its own. RIVE is not a game to miss.