There's a moment early on in RIVE where our protagonist self-acknowledges that there may be "one level of Asteroids too many", and he's not far from the mark. Contextually speaking, RIVE is like a smorgasbord of borrowed elements: the nuts, bolts and upgrades from Ratchet & Clank; the typical double jump aspect of just about any PS2-era platformer; the overly fast-paced claustrophobic tunnels of Sonic the Hedgehog; the 2D side-scrolling action of pre-'97 Mega Man; and, of course, the 360 degree shooting of Asteroids in Zero-G space.
RIVE borrows so much from so many different outlets that this sense of awareness in how it fits into the oeuvre of gaming, through its often witty and self-deprecating dialogue, is like a pre-empted shield – a defence or admission, perhaps, that the developer knows full well what it's doing. It's like the naughty puppy that stole your food, left a trail, and has already punished itself by sitting in the corner of the room looking sheepish. Bad doggy knows it done bad. Likewise, Two Tribes is very much aware that it's taking plenty from others, but its brazen admission makes it feel more like an homage to gaming eras gone by than it does a team on the edge with nothing to lose.
That said, it could be forgiven for seeming like a last-ditch effort to see if something sticks. After all, this is the final game from Dutch developer Two Tribes – a team that has been making interesting, original, and thoughtful platformers for years, but which has never really gotten the acknowledgement in sales that it deserves. Maybe it played too safe, or maybe it was just saving the best until last, but RIVE feels like a game where every idea that was being locked away for the future has been chucked together in a cement mixer for one last hoo-ha. The most astonishing thing, though, is that a little diamond came flying back out.
A rough one, perhaps, with a few unpolished edges, but a diamond nonetheless, and it can be truly captivating when it's at its best, while being truly punishing at its worst. RIVE isn't a game for the easily frustrated, that's for sure. It funnels you through level after level of intense reflex-testing scenarios that work your fingers to the nub. Thankfully, the journey is more-or-less a pleasurable one through wonderfully designed environments that hold a real sense of attention to detail. It also has a visually pleasing industrial, cyberpunk-y style that's clearly identifiable while maintaining the charming cutesy look of some of the studio's prior work.
But don't be fooled by this lineage; unlike Toki Tori 2+ where you couldn't die even if you wanted to, lest you be saved at the very last moment, here you'll die often, and you'll die hard. You might even beg for those new-age mechanics which protect you and keep you on the straight and narrow like so many modern games. Here, you're often left feeling like a stuck record forever on repeat – a fitting analogy, maybe, for a game that repeats and relies on elements and feelings of so many aspects of gaming's past.
But it's the manner in which all of the different elements congregate together in harmony that's really something to behold here. It's like accidentally stepping into a convent where all the nuns are smoking pot; it shouldn't work, and almost certainly shouldn't happen, but the seemingly tranquil ease by which it's all merged into a single serene, nostalgia-fuming scene makes you want to partake in the festivities regardless of right or wrong.
And these diverse elements aren't just a ploy used to mask over an otherwise shallow experience, either. The game throws a terrific array of different scenarios at you – some which rely on typical 2D platforming elements, and others which demand quick reflexes and the ability to swerve your way through narrow tunnels of mines, electric beams, rocket launchers, and deadly sentient cubes. There's simply no way to get through this game without mastering the myriad of nostalgia-inducing styles that make it whole, and you'll forever be on the edge of your seat. Whether that be in genuine engagement or controller-snapping fury depends on the individual, but it's certainly a game that evokes an emotional response, for better or worse.
A little difficulty never hurt anyone, though, right? You don't want it to be handed to you on a plate, especially with a level-based high-score game such as this. No, you want to be that naughty puppy that steals the food, and RIVE is the sorry-faced self-punishment that you cast upon yourself. The payoff needs to be reasonable, though, and the sense of accomplishment paramount. It partially achieves this in that putting you in such seemingly impossible scenarios time after time and yet coming out the other end is a rewarding feeling – especially if your DualShock survives the ordeal. But, in the moment, it can sometimes feel a little too trial-and-error, rinse-and-repeat for its own good.
If this is indeed Two Tribes' swansong, then it's a goodbye wave accompanying tears and smiles. This is a fine way to leave, and it's pertinent to think that its final legacy is accomplished through the use of aspects which are, sadly, already in the rear-view mirror. It takes a lot of commitment for a relatively small game, and it's sometimes a little too eager for you to suffer its wrath. However, the charm, style, and sophistication by which it mixes up so many different styles successfully is a testament both to RIVE's great design and also some of the most beloved games of years gone by.