Review: Secrets of Raetikon

Secrets of Raetikon is a single-player-only pseudo-sequel to the Wii U exclusive party game Chasing Aurora. That game was an odd little number about bird-people chasing each other through the sky above the Alps, playing variants of freeze tag, hide and seek, and keep away. The overall goals of the game didn’t really matter, they just gave you something to do with its unique physics-based fight mechanics. The real draw of the game was its colorful vector-based art style, reminiscent of living origami. In theory, such dynamic visuals and movement mechanics would translate well to a metroidvania-style adventure.

I say “in theory” because in practice you would need a team that actually knows how to design a side-scrolling explore-em-up. Broken Rules is clearly not such a team. Secrets of Raetikon commits a number of fundamental design sins, and manages to invent a few new ones along the way. There are few games so ceaselessly tiring to play, and that’s when it works at all.

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The game’s very first screen helpfully informs you that it is best experienced with a gamepad. Raetikon’s first secret is that this is a bald-faced lie. I tried three different controllers and two different software suites, and no combination got the game running properly. The best option turned out to be a wired Xbox 360 controller (the default input for the game), since only two of the buttons failed to work. The grab button (which is the most important in the game next to flap button) did go so far as allowing me me to grab onto objects in the environment, but a bug made it impossible to let go of anything. I ended up having to reach over and hit Q on my keyboard every time I wanted to drop an object or detach myself from a runestone. On top of that, the “dive” button (vital for making complex maneuvers in the air) did not want to work at all.

Raetikon is  also riddled with physics glitches. More than once I found myself getting randomly wedged between rocks. On one occasion, I kept taking random damage (despite not touching anything) until I died. Even with these problems the game was still playable, but just barely. It certainly didn’t need the added frustrations.

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Like most Metroidvania games, Secrets of Raetikon is heavily focused on exploration and puzzle-solving. There’s hardly any combat at all, save for the ability to pick up objects and swing them into predators like ocelots and hawks (I suppose you could also drop things on them if that button worked). In fact, grabbing and carrying things is pretty much the core of the gameplay. You have to fix statues by finding puzzle pieces scattered throughout the world and stacking them on top of each other, open pathways by pulling out rocks, and yank trees out of the ground in order to recover health.

You can only carry one object at a time, dangling it precariously from your claws as you fly around the levels. As you can probably guess, this results in a lot of backtracking, but that’s not the worst of it. The goal of the game is to collect eight glowing relics from machines hidden throughout the map. To activate the machines, you need to collect an arbitrary number of“shards,” glowing yellow triangles scattered around the levels like Jiggies in the Banjo games. Once the machine is activated, you have to grab the relic (sometimes wresting it from an animal, like an asshole deer who gets one caught in its horns) and take it back to the level hub.

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But of course, it can’t be that easy. On top of hawks, ravens, and ocelots constantly trying to murder you as you make your way back, there are the goddamn magpies and squirrels. Most of the time these creatures just hang about the world, doing their thing, but when you have a shiny relic they will actively try to steal it from you. If they do, they will then fly around aimlessly while you chase them. Sometimes they’ll get caught in a loop of stealing it from each other, which makes grabbing it back a nightmare. There’s no real point to any of this. It’s just busywork.

Amid this frustrating nonsense, you have to navigate the mazelike tunnels and forests of the alps and find all eight relics without the use of a map. I can understand that they were going for minimalism, but this sort of oversight is just straight up discourteous to the player. For a genre built around the idea of twisting, interconnected environments, the absence of basic navigation tools is absolutely inexcusable.

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Despite how distinctive it looks, Raetikon’s Alpine setting is clichéd and predictable. The titular secret-holders are an ancient, technologically advanced civilization that disappeared eons ago. Now their derelict machines lie scattered throughout the world, waiting for you to restore their power. This story’s been told a thousand times before, and telling it wordlessly doesn’t make it any fresher (especially not when the art already draws parallels to Journey).

Well, “wordless” is only mostly true. To add another inexplicable level of obfuscation to the proceedings, the game is filled with signposts that explain the world’s backstory and give clues to the puzzles. The signs are written in “Raetic runes,” which are just nonsense symbols that have been swapped with English letters. The runes can be found floating in random corners of the world, and collecting them lets you see what letter they correspond to. Once you find a few, it’s easy enough to decode the rest – in fact, the runes are so half-assed that you can probably figure them out by guessing what letter they most resemble – but it’s not worth the effort. The signs make “remember to drink your ovaltine” sound earth-shattering.

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Closing Comments:

Good looks and smooth movement mechanics can’t cover for a shallow game. On almost every level, Secrets of Raetikon is a disappointment. It bumbles through design basics and actively hamstrings itself with pointless irritation. Worst of all, it’s just not very interesting. Once you get past the pretty pictures, there’s nothing to drive you forward. For a game driven by exploration, that’s absolutely fatal.
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Platform: PC