[23 April 2014]
Secrets of Raetikon is part platformer, part flight simulator, part Metroid-vania, part creation myth. It’s a lot of things without ever settling on what it wants to be most. Really that’s its strongest quality. It just sort of gracefully floats along boundaries. Secrets of Raetikon points to the value of exploration as an end in itself. The whole game is deliberately cryptic, even the name emphasizes secrets (and something unpronounceable). The appeal, though, isn’t in uncovering the game’s secrets, rather it is in being a part of them.
The opening title shows a colourful, humanoid bird plummeting through the sky and crashing into the earth. Immediately, the player takes control of said bird and learns the ins and outs of flying, collecting crystals, and installing them into a giant machine. Secrets doesn’t waste verbiage on anything that isn’t necessary to exploring the game, the impetus is to just explore.
It plays somewhere in between a slower version of Nights Into Dreams and a faster version of the squawk levels in the Donkey Kong Country series. A button press prompts the bird to flap its wings and gain more height and speed while wind currents help it glide. The background is lush and colourful, matching the polygonal visual style of the creatures frolicking across the landscape. Watching colors slip by while soaring to the tranquil music could almost be a kind of meditation, if it weren’t for the other animals that the player glides by.
Most are small, harmless things just bobbing around a tree or a nest, while larger birds of prey will dive at the player. There’s no attack button, so dealing with threats requires some inventiveness. The player can grab hold of rocks and fling them at their predators, or they can grab the predators themselves and hurl them into a bed of thorns or drag them into a lake and drown them. Alternatively, the player can distract their predator with a smaller, weaker animal and get away while the predator focuses on their new target. In any case, there’s something clumsy and horrifying about combating other creatures. Health is gained by collecting hearts from uprooted bushes and trees or from slain robins and rabbits. Maybe I’m a big softy, but the shrill squeal that living things give off when they’re killed never fails to make the hair on my neck stand up.
Still, it felt appropriate that fighting off other animals is so awkward and gruesome compared with the grace of just flying around. Fighting is such a small part of the game, but it is nonetheless significant. The player may control the apex of predatory beasts given that this creature is able to gain health from every other creature found in the game, but this animal isn’t given free reign over all other life. Other predators are dangerous, and it doesn’t feel good to feed on helpless creatures. It makes avoiding other creatures almost as important and endearing as observing them.
All this ties back to the game’s commitment to a sense of mystery. The player never really knows what’s going on until they explore a little further. He doesn’t know whether the animal chasing him is trying to eat him or is just tagging along for a ride. There are signs written in runes and runes that unlock letters to understand them. However, the player must keep their own separate notes and decode each sign with their collected runes on a separate page. I could easily have deciphered each message as each letter is unlocked, but the added, manual work needed to understand the world only improves its sense of mystery.
Each new area of the game contains a piece to retrieve and install in the machine in the game’s central hub but there’s never really an explanation for what it does or why the player should bother. Normally this would be a criticism, but since so much of Secrets is about motion and curiosity, the game is just more effective for not imposing a plot on its mystery.
Finally, it should be noted that at the time of writing this, Secrets of Raetikon was currently only in alpha testing on Steam, so at times, it really came across as a work in progress. There are levels with no backgrounds and some framerate issues, which I assume have been ironed out. What I did see during the alpha, though, was a game with a unique aesthetic and a fluid control scheme. It’s peaceful but not without an edge. It has layers, but they aren’t necessary to explore to enjoy the game. What I had the chance to experience was strange and stylish, fun and powerful. Secrets of Raetikon is an open playground, filled with actions and reactions, but it means so much more when the player has to solve that playground’s mysteries by himself.