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RIVE /15th of October 2016

Blaster Master is a platform gunner that was developed by Sunsoft back in 1988 where you played as a boy named Jason and a tank named Sophia the 3rd as you gunned down radioactive mutants to save Jason’s pet frog Fred in a hole in the Earth. It was a rather well acclaimed NES title that, despite numerous other games of its time getting spiritual and direct sequels (for better or for worse), seemed to be neglected...at least until some cigar smoking treasure hunter decided to sneak around a spaceship in the middle of an asteroid belt.

Enter RIVE, a game where the player adopts the role of Roughshot, a rather chatty operator of his walking space tank as it flies to a ship for the pursuit of some valuables, only to effectively find himself at the mercy of an A.I. named D.L.L. who has toys to test on your fleshy rear! The core gameplay is a 2D platformer reminiscent of the prior mentioned Blaster Master what with the tank operated platforming and gunplay, however, the similarities beyond that are as non-existent as the references in RIVE are plenty.

The first distinction is zero gravity, Roughshot’s spider tank when in space or in zero gravity areas can move freely across the X and Y axes adding the occasional gameplay shift when the developers want to design a shmup level or toy with the game’s navigation between enemy swarms. Then there is the hacking mechanic, whereby Roughshot’s SpiderOS utilises hacking software found around the ship in order to hack particular robots and switches throughout the level with the tank’s hacking beam and slowdown that occurs during said process. Both these mechanics are mixed together for use both in platforming and in combat with some mixed results in both counts.
The biggest problem with the hacking is that its availability is kept limited, starting as only to open doors before rather slowly expanding to hacking nurses, turrets, zero gravity generators, ONE bullet train and a charging robot as of the writing of this sentence. While that sounds expansive, the game often hides away a majority of these hackables during combat, throwing tens of high-speed hack-free targets at you forcing you to either hack the nurse to heal back damage hopefully quick enough to not die or the turret to hopefully kill more drones before they hit you. This is especially a shame given that even something as simple as allowing Roughshot to open up environmental hazards that damaged the opponent as well as Roughshot could have created some more options in gameplay than just spray and pray! I mean it’s not like the game has to worry about you getting overpowered seeing as you only can hack one drone at a time, the risk-reward you could have thrown in to include “environmental hazard switches” to that list writes itself. The gravity meanwhile initially suffered indirectly from the control setup with making the up input and the jump input the same button. This caused a problem of not knowing how many times I actually jumped when jumping from the top of the zero gravity fields when you are holding up to keep on top of it so as to make for effective platforming. Admittedly, I understand that this was likely made to keep a consistent set of controls between flight and ground modes of the tank so it was simpler to switch between them on the fly as becomes necessary during some platforming segments, however the initial introduction from mission three was still rather frustrating with a lack of clarity.

There is also the game’s difficulty, which I suppose is a key selling point for RIVE given its main game mode is called “Hard Mode”, with the option to increase damage output from your end and drop enemy count and other such variable tweaks by the switching of the “Soft Mode” option in the pause menu. I never did use “Soft Mode” though I admit I probably should have, as the cost of less score does not seem all that bad compared to having drawn out swarms of nonsense try to consume you whole as they juggle you about with the game’s knockback recoil from damage. If you are not given swarms of hard-hitting bots pursuing you through tight corridors of walking landmines with one second of respite at best between waves, you are bouncing into death traps from recoil or even into the same giant enemy/swarm over and over again. Even when you are doing the game right, you are probably stuck with a boss that hides away from you like a shy schoolgirl every time you barely chip damage from its gargantuan health bar, then having a swarm up your ass while the boss is hiding away. The game does have a mechanic where dying too many times makes the game stop you and ask “are you really sure you don’t want “Soft Mode” on?” To which the answer is “no”. I don’t care if I die fifteen times in Super Mario Bros or however many more times here, I am committed to beating the level, your condescension does not help. If I am supposed to reap happiness from finally slaying a boss then why would you try taking that away from me by rubbing in the fact that you find me pitiful?
Checkpoints in this game are rather irregular. From what I can gather, they seem to operate in a manner similar to an emulator save state minus the fact you didn’t trigger it. This sadly causes the odd occasion where you can reload a save moments before taking a potshot to the face or, worse still, dying at the last moment of some giant chaotic sequence of automated death and madness (there are plenty of chase sequences in the game) or a boss, only to reload back to the start of that sequence/boss, especially the latter in spite of them often taking longer that the former!

Another difference of RIVE is the references and Roughshot’s commentary throughout the game. RIVE is clearly a game developed by those that, well, love video games and are willing to take some light-hearted pokes at the medium, and a bunch of other media too! The references and word play are fun if at times a tad too on the nose (“It’s like one of those Japanese shooters!”, “I haven’t seen squids since Parodius!” “I wish I could shoot you, you Metal Slug!” to paraphrase a few groaners) and occasionally, mechanically frustrating. Question Two Tribes, if I was kicked into space with my space tank perpetually moving on its own, do you think I should lock my gun permanently to the right? No? Then why did Roughshot? And don’t tell me that it’s because he’s an idiot because up to this point, Roughshot shows no signs of such stupidity, leading to a case of dissonance for me. A nitpick I suppose but that nit was too big to my eye to ignore! The voice acting is really good but beyond the rare enquiry towards how to progress or the less rare video game reference, it honestly feels underutilised, which I suppose makes sense as dialogue is typically only used for exposition that this game really seems to not require given its basic premise and story, even conversations between D.L.L. and Roughshot felt trivial to the game, especially as it lets you skip it by blowing D.L.L. to pieces with your weapons. A cool idea to circumvent the “unskippable interact but not really play” scenes that has plagued games big and small since the last console generation? Certainly, shame that it is so inconsistently applied as some such conversations feature D.L.L. sporting an invulnerable shield or in one case, having your guns disabled.
All these mis-steps aside, I want to lean back and ask myself a basic question, “Did Two Tribes achieve their goal?” which I will say, given its advertised as a spectacle of set pieces and “dances of destruction”, is a definite “yes”. Just about every mission has a crazy set-piece or three for the player to power through, most of which is fully controlled by the player adding to the thrill, said pieces tried and often succeeded with variety from getting chased by lava through tunnels, playing bull-fighter with a charging beast of a machine, fending off bombing runs as you wade above water, the set-pieces are great. Visuals are also a big one, while its more hectic moments had myself having to turn off “screen shake” just so I knew where I was relative to the speeding masses of Death, the game is a beauty to see with all kinds of eye-candy to whet the appetite of some graphical snob that has finally pulled themselves off of the triangles in Venom Snake’s groin bulge. Of course, it also feels wonderful to play when you are not teeth shatteringly angry with satisfying sounds and visuals for weapons and movement. There’s even details to the game that while not gameplay reliant, add to its charm, most notably the reflection of Roughshot on the menus or the rather aesthetic statistics that appear on the bottom right when you have the hacking beam active. All these touches lend well to the game giving it a feeling of Roughshot and yourself being one of the same.

RIVE is like the film “Hardcore Henry” in a sense. It is an independent piece that knew what its creators loved and wanted to highlight with the best of those elements and make no mistake, where the designers had focused their development is where the game kicks ass and takes all the names. Alas, the foibles of man shine elsewhere, overlooked points are clearly snags. If you are here for hard as hard may permit platform twin-stick hybrids with replayable game modes no doubt made for bragging rights (“one credit mode” and “speedrun mode”) with a love for a medium it wears on its sleeve then RIVE is a glorious addition for your game library, otherwise, you may not fully get the intended experience, but instead find hissing and growling noises rising from your cake hole.
Greg Baxter
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