By John Walker on January 9th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
Ignore the terrible name – Secrets Of Raetikon is absolutely lovely. From And Yet It Moves developers Broken Rules, this serene action explorer gives you wings and lets you fly. Because you play a bird, see. Sorry metaphors. Just out on Steam’s Early Access, I’ve been having a splendid time. Here are my impressions so far.
Why aren’t all games about being a bird? Having spent a couple of days playing The Secrets Of Raetikon, it doesn’t make sense that there’s any other sort of game. Playing as a bird is best. It’s decided. We can stop arguing. Playing as a bird in this beautiful, calming and engrossing game is a proper, actual pleasure.
There’s not a great deal to explain about Raetikon. You’re a bird, you fly about collecting “slivers” – glowing collectables – that open up doorways and release shards. Shards are your main goal, taken back to the central hub, for… well, the alpha version of the game isn’t revealing that just yet. As you move around there are obstacles to pass, simple puzzles to solve, and animals with which to interact, or evade. Explaining it isn’t the interesting part – it’s how it goes about it that makes it feel so special.
The flying mechanic is the most crucial aspect, and it gets it spot on. Only taking a few minutes to master, you move with the left stick (a double-sticked gamepad is strongly recommended, although there are PC controls), and flap your wings with a button press. Timing this well creates smooth, slick movement, furthered by mastering riding the wind currents. There’s also a dive button that lets you plummet fast, ideal for getting through strong winds, and all combined creates some really very satisfying movement. You flit, swoop and dive, grabbing hold of rocks in your talons, or even better, bunny rabbits. (Help unite a male and female rabbit and they do as rabbits are wont to do, creating not only baby bunnies, but also more collectables for you to sweep up.)
Animal behaviour is another huge strength. Near the start you encounter lollopping rabits and tiny little birds, and it all seems so lovely. And I met my first bigger bird, and – OW! – it pecked me. In fact, some will grab you in their talons and ram you into spikey bushes. They’re absolute bastards. The jackal-like creatures that do you a lot more harm still seem less threatening, less malevolent, than those mean, horrid birds. It really feels as though they’re picking on me. My cries aloud tend toward, “OI! STOP IT! YOU’RE SO NASTY!”
It took me ages to realise I could fight back. It’s not simple, by any means. You are not equipped with any combative abilities, so defending yourself takes imagination. Which you can figure out for yourself, but it’s worth noting you can carry rocks, even design clumsy traps. In fact, a lot of the game is about that feeling of clumsiness, that feeling of being relatively helpless because you are, after all, just a bird. When manoeuvring objects, perhaps trying to rebuild a fallen statue, they swing heavily from beneath you, pulling your down as you frantically flap upward, forcing you to bump them off things to flip them about, roll them into place. And while I appreciate that might sound frustrating, it really does work here.
The farther you progress – and this first chapter isn’t enormous – the more tricky the game becomes. Where you go next is up to you, the game surprisingly open, but the farthest points from the hub are the toughest. Trying to do something about the many birds and beasts that wish to thwart your progress isn’t always the best bet – you’re fragile, and while they’re not strong, they’re equipped with offensive moves you lack. Sometimes rushing past, or dodging out the way, is the best bet. Actually taking them on can be surprisingly brutal too – while you’ll inevitably accidentally squish a rabbit by rolling a giant rock, and feel tremendously guilty for it, that’s nothing compared to seeing the wild, desperate flight of a half-dead enemy bird, as it wheels and spins, blood spurting. Nature, as we all know, is a dickhead. Raetikon wishes to make that clear.
There are many other surprises from the creatures, and I don’t wish to spoil them. Much of the game is really just about flying around, exploring, and looking for well-hidden slivers. Yellows for unlocking things, blues for gaining extra lives. And yes, in marked contrast to almost all of gaming now, there are lives. It’s odd. I’m not sure how I feel about it. You have plenty of them – you start with three, and gain three or four more very easily. Losing one sees you drop all the yellow slivers you were holding and returned to the hub, which means flying back to where you were to regather. It’s a chore, but then, it’s a punishment for death. But lose all the lives and that’s it – game over. Literally, those words on the screen like non-Rogue-like/lite games haven’t done for ages. I think games have evolved past this, it’s an anachronistic notion – why would anyone want to repeat progress from scratch, when they’ve 47 other unplayed games in their Steam library? Saying that, I lost all my lives because I’m RUBBISH, and immediately started playing again and doing a much better job of it.
My other major criticism, at this point in its development, is the lack of a map. It’s utter madness. It’s a large, sprawling world, with multiple secret tunnels and complex pathways to reach many different areas. It’s so simple to forget whether you finished collecting enough slivers to collect a shard in one area, when you’ve been distracted by something else far away, and there are so many directions to go in that retracing steps is a real chore. Just a simple map with a blip for discovered but uncollected shards seems so obvious, and it’s just plain weird that it’s absent. Especially for a directionless dullard like me.
But this really still is in development. While the team doesn’t plan to make this first chapter (of a planned three, if the first is successful enough to fund them) longer, they do plan to make it deeper. More involved, more to do in there, more animals, and perhaps a couple of new caves. But in its current form, it’s complete enough to provide some very entertaining play. And for just over a fiver, that’s the perfect price to forgive where it’s incomplete. It really is a tremendously joyful thing. When I first played it in the IGF first round judging I was immediately firing off IMs to any other gaming hack online, insisting that they give it a try. Now I’m doing the same to you – this is really rather lovely, and its simplicity, lack of overwhelming threat or massive difficulty levels, is a huge part of that loveliness.