Review: Rive

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Today is a bittersweet date in independent game development history. After 15 years in the biz, a time spent bringing to the world wonderful indie gems like the Toki Tori series, Two Tribes is closing up shop with the launch of its latest–and last–game. It’s a sad occasion, but at least with Rive the Dutch indie studio is going out with a big ol’ bang.

One important thing Rive taught me is that the word rive is in fact an actual word. Forgive my ignorance, but until an in-game dialogue defined the term and I subsequently fed my curiosity by checking its veracity online, I’d honestly never seen or heard the word used before. So hurray–that’s one new word to add to the lexicon! Rive is a verb, meaning to rend, tear, or split apart forcibly or violently. Yup, that definition describes the explosive shoot ’em up action in Rive dead on the money, a hybrid 2D twin-stick shooter/platformer about gibbing an obscene quantity of robots–bat-bots, squid-bots, whale-bots, kamikaze-bots–into bits of scrap metal and cascades of nuts and bolts, the Ratchet & Clank-style loot used to purchase upgrades throughout the game.

From the cockpit of an adorable little spiderbot spacecraft, you play as Roughshot, a gruff, bearded, wise cracking hacker and space scavenger extraordinaire, aboard a starship chockablock with deadly robots and traps. On the hunt for loot, Roughshot encounters an AI service module operating the space station named Daryl Lloyd-Lancaster (or DLL for short), and who has a vast knowledge of video games. Their sort of adversarial companionship as the story’s only two characters really is the driving force behind the whole game. Voice actor Mark Dodson, who is best known as the voice of the Gremlins as well as various characters in the Star Wars movies, brings both roles to life with distinct personalities. The banter between the two always serves as delightful interlude between gameplay bits, after the bang and boom of the intense action has left you battered and bruised. It’s fun being able to shoot DLL to cut off his pesky ramblings and then watch as the AI replicates itself in another droid to continue its spiel, protected by a force field so he can no longer be silenced. The humorous writing is full of references and gags that break the fourth wall. Even though the story is kept very simple, there’s a spunk and spirit to the characters that makes them incredibly likeable co-stars.

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Exploring the starship spans 13 missions that flow together in a way that feels metroidvanian without actually being a metroidvania game, each mission ending with Roughshot’s spiderbot launching a fireworks display and shimmying to a celebratory jingle, followed by a score overlay screen showing your performance metrics and leaderboard ranking before transitioning right back into the game world where you left off. The game itself is remarkably simplistic in design, basically amounting to a long series of pitched survival arenas and boss battles, each set piece escalating in chaos and difficulty to the point you’ll often be left gasping for air and taking a momentary pause to catch your breath and settle the nerves before proceeding.

One moment you’re fleeing through a network of tubes as lava flows in pursuit. Then you’re diving underwater, weaving between mines and enemies without access to weapon fire while currents push you along. Then you’re riding atop a speeding bullet train while bots swarm from both sides and the electrified track waits to shock anything that goes overboard. Then you’re on a train platform sandwiched between tracks above and below, where speeding trains periodically whizz by to smash anything in their paths to instant death. Then you’re fending off waves of bots while trapped in an anti-gravity bubble floating between laser barriers above and below and a saw blade grinder whirring away to the side. Then you’re racing along a series of conveyor belts as a compactor gradually crushes down from above. And then you’re blasting through an asteroid field in true side-scrolling shooter scenes straight out of old classics like R-Type, Gradius, and Asteroids. There’s even a section that works a Tetris reference directly into the gameplay in a cool way. It’s just one pulse-pounding set piece after another–and it’s such a joy to play.

Through all of the bombast is an easy to learn, hard to master set of mechanics that rely on twitch, twin-stick reflexes, and put the emphasis on pulling off multi-kills and chaining together successive kills without letting the score multiplier lapse, either by taking damage or going too long between kills. Static breakables like crates, light fixtures, and security cameras allow for maintaining the multiplier when all enemies in the area are destroyed. Harvesting loot allows upgrades to be purchased for the spiderbot, including armor/health boosts, extended range for the loot magnet’s pull, and four different special weapons–homing missile swarm, shotgun, bouncy bombs, and electroshock–mapped to the number keys or controller face buttons for easy switching. Ammo capacity is limited to a single use across all four specials, so it becomes crucial to make every single shot count and always be on the lookout for the next ammo drop.

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Another neat element to the game is hacking. Tapping the F key or the shoulder bumpers on a controller switches between action mode and hacking mode. During hacking mode the screen turns Matrix green while the sound of a dial-up connection buzzes in the background, and instead of firing bullets moving the mouse cursor or tilting the right analog stick aims a hacking beam, which functions as a tool to activate switches or turn certain types of droids into allies, such as healing nurse bots, turrets for extra firepower, and ramming smashbots.

The main story takes around four to six hours to beat, while hidden areas, secret collectibles, high score leaderboards for each mode and each mission, and a wide range of worthwhile and actually challenging achievement-linked side objectives provide ample incentive to replay levels multiple times over. Secondary unlocks include speedrun and single-credit modes, which offer different methods for attempting to play through the campaign missions. Getting through the full game on a single life seems damn near impossible to me (I’ve only made it four missions in so far), so whoever’s able to pull off that feat and claim the achievement has my undying respect and envy (the Steam achievement stats show a 0.1% rate, so someone out there’s already done it). Personally, I would prefer to have modes like boss rush and maybe some form of challenge room or survival mode with one-off high score challenges built around the game’s tougher set pieces. There is an empty Bonus Content heading in the main menu that hints at more to come, so perhaps some additional modes like this are a possibility.

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There isn’t much negative to say about Rive that’s of particularly grave concern, though certain aspects could use additional balancing or some extra spit polish. Moments throughout the game can feel a bit cheap in terms of sequences making sudden changes of direction or dropping some new insta-kill danger on your head without a fair opportunity to react. That can be frustrating when you have a long kill streak combo going, though in terms of progression the game auto-saves checkpoints regularly to put you right back in the action without having to make up a lot of lost ground. The frequency of those checkpoints can be problematic, though, as sometimes an auto-save will restart you with very low health or in a weird spot that gets you hit immediately upon entering the game. There’s so much action going on almost at all times that visibility occasionally becomes mucked up to where a lone enemy will disappear in the chaos and smack the multiplier back to zero before there’s any chance to evade. It can be annoying to have ammo or health pickups fall into hazards so they can’t actually be used. That’s always a frustrating way to die, when a pickup that is desperately needed drops out of reach. I’ve also encountered a few crashes as well as a couple glitches where the spiderbot became caught between moving parts in the environment, and at one of those times a checkpoint was auto-saved so that the character was permanently stuck every time I tried to reload the game. Fortunately this happened early on in a speedrun attempt after already beating the game, so scrapping the progress wasn’t too upsetting.

Two Tribes couldn’t have pulled off a more successful studio finale–Rive is without a doubt the studio’s best game, which is saying something because games like Edge and the two Toki Tori outings were great, too. It’s so obvious that the game’s creators put every last ounce of their collective passion and energy into its development as there is an undeniable love of video games that can be felt running through the whole experience. Even the end credits scroll and post-credits scene reinforce the finality of the studio’s existence in a charming way that’s sure to bring a smile to your face. Emotions aside, Rive is straight up a blast to play, easily packing some of the most enjoyable pure action gaming of any title released so far this year. Smooth, snappy controls combine with a satisfying high score system, smart, flowing level design, and pacing that never loses direction or focus.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Explosive, action-packed gameplay
+ Fun story and humor
+ Likeable characters with excellent voice acting by Mark Dodson
+ Beautifully detailed backgrounds and spectacular special effects

Cons:
– Occasional cheap deaths cause frustration
– A few crashes and glitches that need to be ironed out
– The last game Two Tribes will ever make

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also on PS4
Publisher: Two Tribes
Developer: Two Tribes
Release Date: 9/13/2016
Genre: Action/Platformer/Shooter
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: Steam, Humble Store, and PlayStation Store for $14.99

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!