For a game that relies so heavily on perspective-based puzzles that require players to look at things in new ways, it’s more than a little frustrating that Rime so unmistakably resembles so many games before it. Because there’s no dialogue to offer another interpretation, players are initially forced to rely on visual cues that make it difficult to settle into what Rime’s really about. The game’s nonviolent, young protagonist feels overshadowed by his close-cousin similarity to the playable main characters from Ico and Ni No Kuni, while the boy’s red scarf, upon which so much hangs, cannot help but distractingly call Journey to mind. It doesn’t help that Rime is also inseparably bound up in an increasingly heavy-handed metaphor, one that threatens to reduce the game’s inestimable beauty to pretty points on the Kübler-Ross model.
While Rime remains beholden to its grief-based theme, it does find room to move beyond its visual and mechanical inspirations. By intentionally shifting from the familiar to the uncanny, waxing and waning between the two, it’s better able to keep you on your toes. The circumstances that force your playable child protagonist to explore a magical, essentially abandoned island are the most basic of tropes. Early puzzles revolve around simplistic mechanics like diving underwater to find a hidden path or tricking animal NPCs into clearing a path through brambles. In both cases, this presentation helps to mask what’s really going on, even as glimpses of a mysterious figure in red on the horizon and cryptic pictographs engraved on the walls spell things out. The real meat of the game lies in perspective-based puzzles, all of which involve manipulating objects so as to progress through Rime’s metaphoric landscape. The more the game tricks players into recognizing the physical elements, the better its emotional payoff becomes.
Other games that have succeeded at making feelings manifest have often done so by tackling such matters in a more straightforward fashion, like The Phantom Tollbooth’s Milo being mired in the Doldrums. Rime, though, spends so much of its energy trying to creatively avoid labeling anything that there isn’t always enough left for gameplay. Sometimes this pushes the game’s developers to find an uncanny representation of a theme, as with the elliptical ball-and-groove contraption that players can push, like Sisyphus, to temporarily turn back time along the jagged shores of Denial. But the more explicit Rime’s metaphors become, the more restrictive the gameplay gets, with the sadness of the story all but choking the life out of the experience.
Rime’s first half takes place in somewhat open areas, and is filled with a sense of mystery and freedom. On the initial island, the game doesn’t pressure itself to physically represent the idea of Denial. But in the sun-scorched second stage, the avian antagonist that represents Anger forces players to hide in shaded areas or to swim underwater. Later, the mechanical companion that demonstrates the principle of Bargaining requires players to guide it down a specific path. Depression, a bleak and crippling feeling, is literally (and lazily) portrayed as a numbing labyrinth of rain-soaked, black-rocked corridors.
There’s an effective and unexpected twist in the final level, Acceptance, that justifies these aesthetic choices (including all of the seemingly random object-collecting), but it does so only by stripping out all of the puzzles and exploration from the gameplay, suggesting that Rime wants to be more of a three-dimensional museum, one that carefully categorizes emotions, than an actual game. This final, souring moment, the most linear and least creative the five-hour game gets, celebrates sorrow, not freedom, and is far from the best way to emphasize the importance of letting go of the past.