[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t seems like the developers behind Secrets of Raetikon–an Indiegogo campaign which failed its flexible funding goal but released eventually nevertheless–aimed to marry geometric visuals, strong sound design, and tactile gameplay into a tribal, edgy experience that both entertains players and sparks deeper thoughts, especially about our relationship with nature. An appealing package, to say the least.
Upon startup, the game immediately recommends using a gamepad (the convoluted kb+m keybindings back this up). It’s unclear why a game made for PC can’t cough up a reasonable control scheme, but I’ll admit the game feels fantastic on a controller. Players control a bird which swoops, dives, chirps, and grabs items in a series of fluid, organic movements. Just messing around in the game world is definitely a highlight.
Next comes one of the game’s big selling points: visuals. To be honest, building everything out of triangles strikes a confusing note as often as a beautiful one. I initially thought that eggs were supposed to be gems of some sort, while small animals like squirrels just look like blobs. Combined with a strong use of color, however, the game does achieve a rich, primitive feel. A surprise winner was sound design. Gamers are treated to a rich combination of natural sounds and a delicate soundtrack.
While not revolutionary, the Secrets of Raetikon succeeds at creating an atmosphere that is simultaneously unique, ominous, comforting, and enjoyable to explore. Unfortunately, a myriad of bugs and poorly-designed gameplay and story hobbles what might have been an excellent indie game.
On a purely fundamental level, the game was fairly confusing to learn and gameplay quickly became tedious. Minimalistic tutorials that are cleverly integrated into gameplay work well for this kind of game, but Secrets of Raetikon doesn’t quite seem to understand what players need to know. Frustrating gameplay doesn’t reward the steep learning curve, either. Forcing players to backtrack endlessly through the same maps is a recipe for losing interest. In another frustrating design choice, secret areas are hidden in places that can only be found by randomly colliding with every available game wall. And lastly, while I didn’t encounter any bugs during my time with the game, the forums are overflowing with tips for dealing with getting stuck in the environment and cheat-coding missing collectibles into existence that are vital to finishing the game. For such a tiny, repetitive game, I felt that Secrets of Raetikon should have been airtight–if it’s only going to do two or three things, it should do them just about perfectly. And it doesn’t.
But the most devastating issues of all are the problematic plot and theme that the devs–based on their responses to forum posts–seem to stand behind wholeheartedly. The mysticism Secrets of Raetikon tries so hard to achieve bends towards destruction and confusion, rather than beauty or transcendence, which seems fundamentally at odds with the game’s visual design and even gameplay style. I felt confused when I realized that the game wanted me to uproot trees and kill other animals for health. To me, the Venn Diagram of “People who will be drawn to this game’s style” and “People who enjoy killing hawks and lynxes by smashing them repeatedly against spiky objects” has no overlap. After coming to this conclusion, I proceeded to obey their “game rules” against my better judgment, hoping for ultimate success.
The ending, however, yanks the cover off a huge simmering cauldron of bitterness. It punishes you for engaging in the very behavior it coerced out of you to finish the game. The devs were most definitely “making a point”–I saw a dev on a forum confirm that the ending was intended to make you feel bad about the very way you played the game.
The only way to avoid participating in the behavior Secrets of Raetikon vilifies is by not playing the game. It feels like the Funny Games of gaming–a piece of media that mocks you for participating, but still hopes to pull you in through sheer charisma. But with weak gameplay and an only moderately successful visual style, in my opinion there isn’t enough excellence in this game to redeem the dirty tricks it plays. I would only recommend this game to those who are so deeply interested that they willing to push through the game, ignore the ending, and get some enjoyment out of the innovative control scheme and soundtrack.