A Rite from the Stars review
Rites of passage have been common practice in civilizations throughout recorded history. They typically signify a transition between social statuses within a given society, such as defining the point when a youth has matured into an adult. Such rites are often designed to prove the worth of an individual by challenging traits valued by that culture such as strength, agility or endurance. Throughout the many various regions of the world, these rites have taken a multitude of forms and included such diverse endeavors as making a pilgrimage to a sacred temple in order to receive a spiritual awakening, jumping from clifftops at dizzying heights, or even having to endure being impaled by shafts of wood without crying out in agony. Success in completing the rites often means the initiate can take their place alongside other adults and participate in issues that affect the society as a whole.
A Rite from the Stars is a 3D point and click action-adventure game that takes place on the fictional island of Kaikala, where the elders of the Makoa tribe rely on a series of rites in order to pass on the mantle of leadership. A youth selected for the rites receives the blessing and assistance of a guiding star, and only by surpassing trials of Wisdom, Courage and Spirit do they demonstrate their worthiness to lead. Over the past several years, wave after wave of hopeful challengers have mysteriously failed, and now generational renewal is imperiled. As Kirm, a Makoan youngling and son of the tribe’s chieftain, you have been chosen as the next participant. Over the course of approximately 10-15 hours, you will explore a series of imaginative environments as your quest carries you from caverns deep below ground to the surface of the moon itself. Along the way, your deftness at point-and-click puzzle solving will unfortunately be challenged by action segments hindered to the point of frustration by a control scheme not designed to handle them.
At the outset, your guiding star Hoku (represented as a little blue orb of light) descends from the firmament and wakes you from your slumber, urging you to seek out the tribe’s three elders to begin your voyage. Each of the elders represents one of the traits that will be assessed. Ailani is the tribe chief who governs the Rite of Wisdom, an adventure-laden trek through a mysterious temple where your wits are tried by a series of puzzles and mazes. Kekoa is the First Hunter and directs the Rite of Courage, a journey that will carry you through the shadows of a forbidding forest and plunge you into a deadly cavern where your bravery and dexterity will be tested. Waha Nui is the shaman who administers the Rite of Spirit, where you will be forced to walk the paths of the dead and convene with the whimsical denizens of an alternate reality.
Once the introduction has finished and the player assumes control, Kirm steps forth into a hushed nighttime island scene. The art and sound blend immediately to set the mood. An exaggerated moon glows full and bright in a tropical sky surrounded by stars that wink in and out of sight. Torches and mystical glowing tribal markings push back the night and create pockets of light. A volcano towers over all, its crown wreathed in lava and spewing darkness and ash. Crickets call, night birds sing and you can almost feel the warmth of the mild breeze as it meanders over the ancient stones of the ritual site. Meanwhile, an exotic theme plays, intertwining flutes and drums, lending you courage as you set forth upon your path.
All of the environments in the game are charmingly rendered in this way, evoking an appropriate sense of adventure, wonder or dread as the situation merits. They have a closed-in feel that creates a notion of intimacy which marries well with the stylized art design. Confronted with such an appealing aesthetic, you immediately want to jump in and explore everything the scenery has to offer. Unfortunately, interactive elements are fairly sparse, existing primarily to advance the story with little extra to flesh out the game world or reward the inquisitive player.
The island serves as a primary hub, with access to each of the trials branching outward through their own gates. Kirm can undertake the rites in any order he chooses. The game will record your progress at predetermined checkpoints, and you are free to leave one path to pursue another, going back and forth as you see fit. Once you have completed all three, you are given the choice of which attribute to test in a final, ultimate challenge of your worth. Your decision here changes the ending, so choose carefully!
Exploration occurs through 3D environments with a fixed camera. Movement is executed by pointing and clicking with the left mouse button, which sadly is extremely slow and taxing. Kirm moves like a somnambulistic tortoise dreaming of molasses in winter. Double-clicking causes Kirm to ‘run’, upgrading him to actual, wide-awake tortoise speed. This can be endured when simply traversing the landscape, but the game employs many action sequences that require dexterity and timing to overcome, particularly during the Rite of Courage. The combination of an unresponsive control scheme and action segments demanding precision and speed causes the gameplay experience to suffer critically at times.
One interesting and positive aspect of the control system is how it integrates the oft-overlooked right mouse button in unique and creative ways. The right button performs a different function during each of the three rites. Using it at various points in the game, you can pick up and drop objects, control the behavior of a soul-bound animal partner, or transition instantaneously between two parallel dimensions. Other interface elements of note include the lack of both an inventory system (Kirm can hold one item in his hands at a time, and will trade it for another if he picks up something else) and a manual save feature. Upon your ‘death’ you will be returned to the most recent auto-save.
After exploring the island hub, you will need to select one of the three rites to begin your adventure in earnest. Each has its own feel and delivers a different experience. The Rite of Wisdom is a traditional Indiana Jones-style adventure, in which you must plumb the depths of a long-abandoned temple in search of a masked idol. The challenges in this segment are designed to test your reasoning abilities, and of the three paths, this one will feel the most familiar to veteran adventure gamers thanks to a reliance on logic and item-based puzzles.
To advance through the musty halls of this holy site, you will need to solve the obligatory light room puzzle using mirrors to redirect beams of sunlight to create a pattern of colors in a specific order. Later, you will travel down dark corridors in a sprawling labyrinth, moving ever closer to the watery heart of the temple where sinister things lurk in the deep. The puzzles here provide a good sense of challenge, without trading fun for difficulty. The ambience is executed artfully throughout, but really peaks during the maze segments which are as dark as night and seemingly endless, until you stumble upon an enchanted orb that causes arcane runes to weave along the floors in intricate glow-in-the-dark patterns, revealing the way forward.
For the Rite of Courage, you are paired up with a meerkat named Mirk in search of a guarded mask. Meerkats are sacred to the Makoa and each ritual contestant is soul-bound to a specific one that is believed to have been set apart for them by fate. If Mirk dies, so does your character. You tell Mirk where to go with the right mouse button while still moving yourself with the left. This rite challenges the dual control scheme by throwing all manner of environmental hazards your way. You will need to rapidly alternate between both characters to avoid inflating balloon plants that will bounce you from cliffside trails, deadly stones thrown from a maniacal monkey, falling stalactites, poisonous gas vents and even the fiery breath of an irritable dragon.
You often have several of these dangers bearing down on you at the same time, requiring quick reflexes and precise timing to avoid, and all of them result in instant death. The problem isn’t that the difficulty is too high, but rather the controls are simply not up to the task. Imagine playing a Mario-style game by pointing and clicking rather than through direct joystick control. Now imagine if Mario moved like he was sedated, and that touching even a single enemy meant being kicked back to the last checkpoint. It does not make for a fun time. It is truly unfortunate, because these sections could have worked (in fact, the whole game would have been better served) with a dual joystick setup.
In one particularly cruel sequence, you are caught in a tiny arena where the floor consists of four panels that drop open at random intervals for a few seconds before returning. If you are standing on a panel when it opens, you fall to your death. The stone-throwing monkey has trapped your meerkat friend within a cage and the dastardly villain dances atop the arena, taunting you and laughing at your misfortune. In order to save Mirk, you need to run around the four panels, harassing fireflies to activate balloon plants that will (hopefully) bounce the monkey off of his perch. The tiles rumble briefly to give some indication they are about to drop out, but Kirm moves so slowly that even if he is standing near the edge of a panel when it begins to shake, he may not make it to an adjacent square before the floor disappears beneath him. Sometimes the panels fail to rumble and simply open up unfairly with no warning. One time during my playthrough, all four panels opened up at the same time! Bye-bye Kirm!
After experiencing a hearty adventure in the Rite of Wisdom and a devilishly frustrating one in the Rite of Courage, it might be tempting to believe you have a solid understanding of all that A Rite from the Stars has to offer. However, it only takes a few moments of playing through the Rite of Spirit for those assumptions – and the game world itself – to be transformed. The test starts off simply enough. You follow the shaman Waha Nui to an old earthen shrine. The environment is consistent in design with everything else you have seen of the island so far, but when he opens your ‘eyes’ to the Spirit World (a realm that exists all around us but is normally obscured from human sight), everything changes. The game suddenly explodes in music and color as a wondrous, vibrant landscape is revealed. Backgrounds whirl with motion and hidden spirits populate crooked, star-laced pathways. Flick the right mouse button and it all disappears, returning to gray weathered stone and a normal night on your island home. Another click and you are instantly plunged back into glorious chaos.
You will need to alternate between both dimensions to avoid hazards or advance beyond obstacles that exist in one realm but not the other. Rivers of lava reverse course, becoming lambent conduits carrying you up toward the sky. Unassuming rock formations in our world become animated characters you can engage with in conversation. Moss growing on stones might really be chains preventing those characters from moving or speaking. In one scene, a series of worn boulders become a musical band that invite you to join their merry company. Elsewhere, you must navigate an M.C. Escher-like maze of knotted trails called ‘The Nameless Cavern’. The paths are lined with glowing crystals and a striking musical score pulses with rhythmic chants. Flip back to the real world and all light and color are drained away, replaced with a deadened landscape as the music fades to a lingering rhythm. The stark contrast between a world so playfully alive and this barren wasteland consistently perpetuates an astonishing sense of loss. I found myself flipping back and forth simply to explore that feeling, each time anxious to return to the warmth and color of the spirit realm.
Overall, the Rite of Spirit, with its intimate stages infused with so much color, motion and sound, creates a truly unique atmosphere. I felt like I was travelling along a dark ride at Disneyland, if that ride had been designed by Rare back in the late ‘90s on Nintendo. Think ‘It’s a Small World’ meets Banjo-Kazooie. It was definitely the highlight of my playthrough.
The designers at Risin’ Goat are very obviously fans of gaming, as there are many references to classic video games peppered throughout the adventure. The intro scene where Hoku wakes you from slumber is a direct nod to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Just like Navi does with Link in that game, Hoku hovers at your shoulder as a constant
annoyance companion during the journey, providing tidbits of guidance here and there as you go along. Where Navi would command you to “LISTEN!”, Hoku cries out in exasperation every time you die. (Prepare to hear her cry a lot!) The infamous Duck Hunt dog is mimicked by adversaries that laugh and mock you mercilessly when you fail a series of dexterity-based challenges. A sequence of navigating through space by harnessing the gravity of stars is reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy. Even the Steam Achievements harken back to a classic heritage with names like ‘Alone in the Dark’, ‘Star Citizen’ and ‘Super Kirmtendo’. Recognizing these allusions to gaming legends as they pop up unexpectedly provides an extra layer of fun to the experience.
Ultimately, A Rite from the Stars shines brightest when it embraces creativity and is allowed to be a point-and-click adventure focused on exploration and puzzle solving. It flounders as it veers toward an action game demanding that you wring precision and timing from a control scheme that will not allow it. Its characters and locations are charming, its music inspiring and its admiration for classic games is endearing, though it would have benefited from greater interactivity in the environments and either dropping the action sequences or abandoning point-and-click for straight joystick controls. As fun at times as it is frustrating at others, it may not be a diamond in the sky, but it does cast a soft glow and glitters with moments of brilliance in between the occasional period of darkness.