Rime feels a bit like someone telling you the only way you can see the Mona Lisa is by first having to unlock a heavy safe--the painting is beautiful, but my god, why did you make seeing it so bloody difficult? Although Rime looks and sounds gorgeous, its visual splendor is locked behind frustrating, shallow puzzles and an incomprehensible story, meaning you spend more time figuring out where to go than taking in the world around you.
Much like Journey or Ico, Rime features no text and only a basic, unfamiliar language--your blank-slate child character communicates through nondescript calls and facial expressions. Similarly, you're given no hints, there's no HUD, and in-game cues are portrayed through abstract audiovisual signals such as cave paintings and animal cries. When the game opens with your character waking up on an unfamiliar island, the absence of these typical gameplay themes lends Rime's environment a sense of mystery. You'll ponder where you are, how you got there, what you're supposed to be doing--and you'll want to explore the island to discover the answers.
This is Rime at its best: the first of its four worlds is a mini sandbox of places I wanted to go, animals I wanted to pet, and objects I wanted to touch. The wind in the trees and distant sound of wildlife, in addition to a slow, classical soundtrack and no enemies or time pressure makes it a pleasant, relaxing experience akin to taking a walk around a summer park. One beautiful sequence sees you illuminating a cave's darkened floor beneath you using your singing voice--at times, Rime is magical.
Before long you'll stumble across the game's first puzzles, which mostly involve shouting to release bursts of energy that activate platforms and doors. These puzzles are expanded upon later in the game as light manipulation and pressure plates are added into the mix. But while more mechanics are added, the puzzles remain simplistic to the point of being shallow. The majority involve figuring out the one action required to unlock whichever door is needed to progress. Maybe you missed a key item off the beaten track. Maybe it's a matter of trial and error. Or maybe you're overthinking it, and there's a much simpler solution that you just haven't seen. One example tasks you with manipulating a large stone pillar to cast light-sensitive switches in shadow to open a cave door. Once I'd triggered a mid-puzzle cutscene featuring a giant enemy bird, I spent a further 15 minutes fiddling with the pillar, only to realise I'd not seen a small ledge I could use to climb out of the cave. These tiny, often obfuscated solutions make the process of figuring out the puzzles frustrating--and the one-step victory hollow.
Rime's poor signposting carries through to its exploration segments, which often left me clueless as to where to head next. In comparison to Journey, which orientates the player superbly using a consistent goal--the shining mountain--Rime has no such targets. This is exacerbated by the repetitive world design. Each level has its own theme--the first is a sunny island, the second a sandy desert, the third an abandoned city, and the fourth a rainy abyss. But within each world, there is little architectural diversity and the game does little to explore each theme in interesting ways. Additionally, the lack of distinct, recognizable landmarks to draw the eye means it's very easy to get lost. I was constantly ambling forward, not really knowing where I was going or why.
And this is reflected in the emotional journey Rime has you follow. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, but the abstract nature of both the world and its lack of language meant it was never clear what my driving force was--I was playing for progress's sake, rather than because I was desperate to turn the next page of a story I was engaged in. Two threads Rime does lay down--a hooded figure dressed in red and a strange, magical fox--are never properly resolved, and the ending is as confusing as it is pretentious. The twist introduced at the story's close also comes far too late to inject the emotional weight the game sorely needed up until that point--there's no real struggle, little bonding time with other characters, no huge sense of loss, and few moments of elation, making this emotional rollercoaster more of a monotonous merry-go-round.
Rime's artistry is unquestionable. Each world is enchanting in its own way, from the naturalistic peace of the first to the abstract doom of the last. Its soundtrack is similarly beautiful, capable of evoking wonder, tension, and fear in equal measure. But when compared to its influences like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Journey, it doesn't hold up too well. Consistent navigation problems, some frustrating puzzles, fiddly platforming, and severe frame rate dips make Rime feel like a well-dressed tribute act.