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Secrets of Raetikon review: Learning to fly

S. Prell, @SamPrell

In Secrets of Raetikon, from developer Broken Rules, you play as a bird. Really, that about sums up most of the experience. You soar through the air, riding the wind like a bird. You swoop and dive, snatching up teeny bunnies and fallen tree fruit like a bird. You collect shiny slivers, using them to activate ancient ruins and power up a massive, ominous device like a bird.

Okay, so maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch. Indiana Jones-esque tomb raiding aside, Secrets of Raetikon is a simple game with a simple premise: You are a bird. Go forth and do bird stuff. Just, you know, don't forget to dig up a long-lost civilization while you're at it.

Gallery: Secrets of Raetikon | 6 Photos

While it's possible to play Secrets of Raetikon with a mouse and keyboard, the game advises you to use a more traditional controller. Pressing one button will cause your bird to flap its wings, giving you a slight boost forward and setting you in motion so you can glide effortlessly through the air. It takes some getting used to, but once you've found the right rhythm to flapping your wings, you'll feel an unrivaled sense of freedom in movement. The phrase "free as a bird" comes to mind.

Once you've mastered movement, it's time to uncover some secrets of Raetikon. The game is divided into several areas with unique climates – snowy mountains, mucky swamps, thorny brush, cool lagoons – and each has an altar waiting to give up a glowing relic. These relics are given up in exchange for the aforementioned glowing slivers found scattered throughout each environment, and must be carried back, through flocks of aggressive birds and winding caves, to power a giant device discovered near the beginning of the game; a device which gradually reveals itself to be something of a dark, sinister nature.

Secrets of Raetikon tells its story largely via the environment. When you find the device, you aren't told what it is, and the game doesn't hold your hand to guide you to an answer. Instead, it provokes questions. What is this device? Why is it here? What does it do? Should you even be interacting with it? The monolithic machine isn't the only mystery, however. The world of Raetikon is filled with such wonders.

For example, to access new areas, you'll need to reconstruct statues of various animals by finding the requisite pieces and flying them to the base, then dropping them on top of one another in the correct order. There's always one statue correctly assembled to give you a guide, and when you finally do piece together these miniature puzzles, some shift in the environment will occur; a door might open, or a cave might become accessible. No matter what happens, the shift feels like a rite of passage, as if the statues were guardians of some holy place. It's clear there's a conundrum to crack, and you've got just the talons for the job.

Visually, almost everything in Raetikon is constructed of 2D triangles of various size and color, and the stiff movement of the creatures that live in this place make them feel like papercraft creations, meticulously creased and folded as though intended for display in a diorama. These elements, combined with the world's mystifying history, give a sense of reverence and spirituality to Raetikon, which is far and away its best feature. It feels like Shadow of the Colossus, if the titular titans were made of colorful origami.

Unfortunately, Raetikon sometimes feel less like an adventure and more like a guided tour. Despite its emphasis on exploration, it's surprisingly restrictive. You'll often follow a trail of collectibles as though they were breadcrumbs, leading you from one area to the next. The result feels less like exploration and more like tracing an intended path. This is at odds with Raetikon's focus on flight, which feels great on the few occasions when you're allowed to ride the wind currents and soar in the open sky. It's the equivalent of taking on the role of the universe's best swordsman and then making him wield a shotgun.

While it's technically true that you don't have to complete puzzles or bring back relics in any specific order, the lack of a map or any sort of quest tracker makes moving from one area to another without first clearing the former unwise. You'll want to collect every sliver to complete the game, but without a way to reference where you've been or track your progress, the best way forward is to methodically make your way through each map, cave by cave. You're given a strange, exotic and beautiful world to explore, but the design teaches you to treat it like a grid that you walk back and forth, pace by pace.

Raetikon's physics can also cause problems. The first time I got stuck in the scenery, I restarted the game, hoping to load an earlier checkpoint. Instead, I was still stuck, and forced to start completely over. This happened to me on three different occasions. There is no manual saving, nor is there an option to load an earlier checkpoint.

You can collect runes to fill up a gauge which grants you an extra life, but should you die without enough runes, you'll be sent back to the beginning, though your progress remains – shrines stay unlocked, slivers stay collected. Even with such time-consuming setbacks, however, Raetikon only took roughly two hours to complete. Unfortunately, the brief, non sequitur ending hardly feels like a reward.

Secrets of Raetikon gets many things right, but they only briefly come together to form a coherent whole. Often, its qualities clash. It feels like it wants to be interactive art focused on nature and exploration, driven by its fresh visual style, its gratifying sense of flight and the mysteries its world contains – and yet, it undoes each of these by confining the player to restrictive pathways, encouraging an old-school "move right to progress" player mentality, and ending on the flattest of duds. It tries to combine artistic vision and depth with traditional game objectives, and ends up being weaker for it.

This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of Secrets of Raetikon, provided by Broken Rules. Images: Broken Rules.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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