The titular sailor from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner was forced to wear a murdered albatross around his neck as an ever-present reminder of the sin we are all chained to. The unnamed hero of Rime, developer Tequila Works’ latest title, isn’t forced to do anything as literal as sport a dead sea bird around his shoulders as penance but is instead chained to a place that must be revealed in order to earn absolution. Whether it’s for yourself or another is unclear.
You wash ashore on an island dominated by a single massive tower bearing a keyhole design at its center. The whole place is a puzzle then, the key to unlocking that massive edifice. As you wander around, you’ll stumble across a whole range of items to collect, all seemingly related to childhood: snippets of lullabies, small toys, pieces of trinkets bearing images of brightly colored icons. Early on, a story of a royal family and a troubled pregnancy that your character witnessed begins to emerge, but it’s told sparsely and only through images, leaving it up to you to assemble how this narrative, glimpsed through keyholes that mirror the one on the tower, relates to your exiled young prince.
The game’s story is mostly a backdrop—and occasional motivation—to enjoy its main draw, which is simply experiencing the island. Rime is billed as a puzzle game, but that’s seemingly more from an obligation for categorization than anything else. Rime’s puzzles are easy and will do little to thwart the player. Instead, they act as textural experiences, providing the opportunity to gain perspective (often literally) and better understand the shape of the island on which you are stranded. You move monuments, shape doors, and carve unseen paths along forgotten temples that remain pristine, limestone white like Grecian homes along the Mediterranean despite obvious abandonment.
The major influences of this place are clear. Along with The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s bright, cel-shaded island aesthetic, Rime owes much of its art to Eyvind Earle, the illustrator responsible for the background paintings in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Its color palette is rich and varied, as each point during the day and night cycle will produce bright and unexpected combinations of light and shadow. When the colors lie against each other by the game’s flattened, design-heavy environments, they create stunning patterns of hue and shape. Rime is so visually evocative that you become immersed in the space, enough to almost smell the heat of the sweet grass under the full light of the noonday sun or the faint dust that drifts off the plaster walls when you climb into a shaded tower chamber. It’s a sensory, tactile game.
But there are two mechanical aspects that hinder the experience. Firstly, your character moves in a clumsy half jog, as though he were afflicted with a perpetual side stitch. There’s no dedicated run button—your guy will reluctantly pick up the pace if you continue along in the same direction for long enough—but given Rime’s focus on indulging in every secret and forgotten corner of the island, leaden movement is a mild but persistent impediment to getting the most out of exploration. One section of the island’s puzzles revolve entirely on how economically your character can move from one protected oasis to another before disaster strikes. Perhaps your sluggish movement is calibrated to imbue these sections with more tension, but it would feel more empowering if you could just book it from the start.
Then there’s your guide. Designing a helpful yet unobtrusive helper for your journey remains one of video games’ most elusive problems. Here, it’s an adorable little fox who hops around and generally directs you where you should go next. But should you stray and go meandering about for some of the game’s many, many collectible tchotchkes, it will yip after you incessantly. At its worst, composer David Garcia’s calm, measured score gets swallowed up by a steady, needling stream of vulpine barks. Still, neither of these nits ruin the experience.
In Coleridge’s poem, the cursed mariner is finally absolved when he finds the beauty in the luminescent sea creatures he had found repulsive before. The creatures remained the same, but the mariner’s perspective shifted to uncover something previously hidden to him. And so it is with Rime. It is an instillation, an interactive sculpture that gives you the tools and just enough of a mystery to fully see what surrounds you. We must understand exactly where we are before we can move forward. Rime may be the most recent in the now well-established genre of “kind of pretty, conflict-light adventures,” but such a beautiful, intimate experience remains something to be excited about.