Tutto le strade portano al circo. In Italian this phrase means “All roads lead to the circus,” and you'll find it scrawled on a wall, in a spot impossible to miss, during your playthrough of Rain. As the nameless protagonist runs past it, you can't help but think: what could it possibly mean? Its placement implied it had meaning, that it contained some poignant message--but as you continue through the game, you'll only get a vague understanding of the phrase's significance. Its presence turns out to be a fantastically apt metaphor for Rain: an oddly mysterious, charming, and aesthetically pleasing indie adventure game that ultimately leaves you frustratingly confused as to its true meaning.
You’ll play the role of a young boy who's drawn out of his bed one morning and into the raining and eternal night of another world. There he briefly encounters the two other main characters of the game: a young girl who is also stuck in this world, and “The Unknown,” a voiceless, shadowy form whose only goal is to hunt and kill you and the girl. Unable to get home, you must find her and together discover a way out of the ever-changing, always raining city.
While this sounds like a beautiful setup to a subtle and quiet game, there are unfortunate issues in the themeing that diminishes the game's impact. Take, for instance, the changing visual representation of the protagonist's home world. Prior to being whisked away into the dream world, the boy's environment is rich and vibrant, cast in watercolors splashed across a cream pallet. You're then transported to the dank and dark other world, and while there, you'll occasionally catch glimpses of the world you left behind. But each time you see it, the old world is cast in a different hue. The developer seems to want to convey some meaning through this technique, but the effect is scattershot, haphazard almost,and the point ultimately never comes through.
Then there's the concept of The Unknown and the changing city. It feels like you’re supposed to find meaning here, but a shortcoming of the game is that the authorial intent just doesn’t shine through. Rain falls into the issue of telling a broad and vague narrative and assuming the player will create the intended meaning. Yes, you'll be able to retrofit meaning at the end, but you'll have no evidential support for anything you come up with. At the finale, the city begins to warp and change. Instead of pushing you towards an emotional climax and resolution, you'll be frustrated at the inability to artistically understand where this metamorphosis was coming from. Only in your second playthrough do you unlock “memories,” little orbs that give you glimpses into the world that the boy and girl belong to. It seems a bit unfair to the player to have to finish the game before giving them such a crucial piece of the narrative.
The point of Rain clearly is to tell a story, and where it falls in the narrative sense, it comes back strong in the gameplay sense. Because you are an invisible boy, you can only be seen when you're out in the rain, with droplets cascading down on you. This is the foundation of Rain's gameplay, which will have you hiding under awnings, pipes, and other creatures in order to evade detection. Best of all, this game of cat and mouse will teach you more about the characters than the story will.
For instance, the running animation of the two children does an excellent job in capturing the feeling of trying to get out of freezing rain and under dry cover, and the entire time you’re moving, you’ll feel just awful for their hunched shoulders and balled fists. You'll never reach an "Aha” moment with this mechanic, though, as each chapter introduces a different iteration of it. Once a chapter is completed, its gameplay element is rarely (if ever) revisited. Because of that, it feels as though you’re in a tutorial for most of the game, and are never given a chance to flex the cat/mouse mechanical skills you were practicing.
Rain is packed full of interesting ideas and themes: the visual aesthetics, the characters, the metaphors being woven, the mechanics. All of these are pleasing in their own right and could have warranted their own small title, but ultimately their sheer number overwhelms and muddles the delicate nature of the story trying to be told. You’ll likely enjoy playing Rain if you're one for ambience over narrative, a moving vignette over a driving plot, or crafting your own meaning out of a game rather than discovering the true meaning of it all along. Because, as they say, all roads lead to the circus.
This game was reviewed on PS3.