Rive is hostile towards its players. Beneath its somewhat cute, quirky exterior is an experience that punishes players over and over again, openly mocking them with every single death – of which, my god, there are many. Two Tribes’ swan song is relentless, though it’s arguable whether or not that summation is a net positive.
Rive is a hybrid concept, a twin-stick shooter/sidescrolling platformer that demands everything. Players without split-second timing, immaculate object recognition and instantaneous reflexes will get nowhere on Rive‘s default difficulty, hard – seriously, ‘Hard Mode’ is the only option to play the game from the get go, though a ‘Soft Mode’ is offered after numerous back-to-back deaths during any single sequence. However, even with the requisite skills, players should expect to die repeatedly, splitting their time between modest moments of success (read: relief) and soul crushing frustration.
What makes Rive so challenging is its fusion of genres. A hallmark of the twin-stick shooting genre is arena combat. Rive takes this concept and pushes it well beyond the extreme, using anti-gravity, moving platforms and underwater arenas to exhausting effect. In a standard twin-stick shooter your avatar is locked into a top-down view, where movement in any direction is definitive. In Rive you control a traditional sidescrolling avatar, meaning you can jump, and thus, fall back to earth after that jump. This seemingly minor detail makes Rive wildly different than other genre offerings.
In addition to standard platforming, Rive introduces arena after arena of preposterous platforming objectives. For example, there’s a sequence in the game where half of the arena is filled with water and the other half is open air. The Spidertank players control can swim underwater, however it cannot fire while submerged. The player must leap into the air to actually fire upon the legions of heat-seeking drones (standard enemy type) and large wall-mounted enemies that serve as the gatekeepers for the current area. If all that isn’t enough, there’s also a vertical field of lasers that moves horizontally above the water, from end-to-end, while an enormous buzz-saw does the same underwater, at a slightly different rate; both of these devices are essentially instant deaths. The player must swim back and forth underneath the laser array, yet in front of the buzz-saw, simultaneously leaping out of the water to avoid the buzz-saw when it catches up and fire on the drones and gatekeepers.
Fortunately, Rive is not explicitly a one hit death kind of shoot ’em up, thanks to a sizable health meter. However, given the way a single hit will often lead to countless others, it often doesn’t feel that way. Nearly every enemy, projectile and environmental hazard in the game exerts force on the Spidertank, in addition to damage. What this effectively means is anything, and everything, will push players into other hazards, creating a rage-inducing pinball effect of carnage. Near victories are routinely ruined by a rogue missile or drone that approaches from the opposite side of the Spidertank’s main cannon fire, leading to quick, unforeseen deaths.
When Rive is working it provides the sort of “ballet of destruction” it bills itself as. To see someone else play the game effectively is a work of art, as they must duck, dodge and weave their way through the onslaught of increasingly complex and sadistic arenas/platforming sequences. Health, hacked robots and secondary ammo must be managed, crucial enemies must be eliminated and the next wrinkle must be anticipated. But even when players are running on all cylinders, death is inevitable, which leads to Rive‘s generous but broken checkpoint system.
Borrowing a page from Super Meat Boy’s playbook, Rive respawns players almost instantaneously upon death. This mechanic is essential to keep players invested in smashing their head through the brick wall that Two Tribes has erected in front of them, however, there’s a fundamental, infuriating flaw in the system. It’s not uncommon for checkpoints to be registered at inopportune moments, like right before an enemy clips the Spidertank, meaning each and every subsequent restart from that point will incur the same damage, unless the player can quicly escape at first opportunity. This quirk is especially egregious since Rive doesn’t refill the Spidertank’s health gauge much on death and your only other alternative is restart the entire mission, potentially wasting tens of minutes.
Rive has many issues, although it seems some of them are intentional. Its blend of disparate genres is at times exhilarating, and at most others, truly maddening. Players looking to walk that tightrope will find a game that pushes their skills to the very limit. For many others, the relief of simply quitting Rive altogether may be just as satisfying as surviving its next convoluted death trap; choose accordingly.