Friday, June 15, 2012

MINI-REVIEW: Rain, Sand, Stars; or Yaks may be cranky, but still cute

Rain, Sand, Stars Splash Screen
Format: iOS, Mac, Windows

Price: $0.99 iOS, Currently free for Mac/PC

Release Date: March 2012

Target Age Group: unspecified, appropriate for all audiences

Developer: Medusa

Genre: side scroller/platformer

Overflowing with cuteness and cranky yaks, Rain, Sand, Stars has a charm and simple elegance to it that should make it accessible to kids as well as being able to please more grown-up gamers. 

I'm often a sucker for blood and guts in my video games, but I'm also somewhat paradoxically a sucker for the unapologetically cute. When I first learned about Rain, Sand, Stars, I could feel myself instantly drawn to the colorful visual style and playfully drawn characters. That cute-but-not-cloying graphic style, combined with completely non-violent gameplay in the form of terraforming planets, told me that this was a game I wanted to know better.  So with nothing to lose, I took the plunge into the fictional Yakeraan planetoid system...

Dancing in the rain is more fun when you're wearing leaf pj's.
The game greets players with an imaginative and colorful universe in which they control some kind of small, pixie-like character with the power to make rain fall by doing a silly, wiggly dance. Although one might imagine that this power could come in handy in a lot of places, bringing rain is of particular value in the Yakeraan system. A mysterious drought has swept through this planetary system, leaving the planets therein sandy and bereft of vegetation.  You, as this adorably impish rain-bringer, are the system's sole hope for restoring lush plantlife to each of 16 worlds.

Of course, this mission of mercy is not without complications. On each planet are Yaks. Yaks who are apparently very, very cranky. Maybe it's the lack of rain, or maybe hunger has driven them to distraction, but these yaks don't take kindly to your presence, even if you are only trying to help their small worlds. Players have to avoid the dizzying headbutts of these temperamental Yaks and try to perform their rain dance long enough to make new trees sprout.  It's a task that's simple in theory, but proves increasingly challenging as the number and variety of Yaks changes with each level.

Move over, Angry Birds. These Angry Yaks mean business!
That's pretty much all there is to Rain, Sand, Stars: travel to barren world, avoid yaks, dance, rinse, repeat. I did find it rather disappointing that the game's initial premise suggests that a galactic mystery is afoot, but no headway is ever made toward solving it. Why the rains dried up is as much a mystery by the end of the game as it is when the game begins, and while a player's actions succeed in nourishing new plantlife in the Yakeraan system, player accomplishments don't really contribute to an overall narrative. If nothing else, it might also have been nice if the game narrative had explained just why the Yaks were so darn mean! After being headbutted mid-raindance for the umpteenth time, I found myself testily wondering who put the sand in their... uh, hooves. I suppose the Yaks are limited beings who cannot appreciate that I am the bringer of rain and foliage, but I won't deny that I did occasionally wish the game allowed me to punch them in their stubborn, fuzzy heads.

Those few frustrations aside, I still enjoyed the hour or so that I spent playing through Rain, Sand, Stars. The game is simple enough to have broad appeal, but manages to avoid seeming overly facile. Ultimately, reflexes are more important than strategy, but outmaneuvering the Yaks does require some element of planning. Fortunately, gameplay is both forgiving enough that even clumsy players should be able to progress through the levels without too much difficulty, while mastering some of the later levels presents enough of a challenge to keep more skilled players engaged. Moreover, it's a fun game with an entirely non-violent premise, which makes it great for younger gamers and serves as a nice palate-cleanser for those of us who spend too much time killing zombies as it is.

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