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Secrets of Raetikon review

Flappy birds.

Magpies and my family have a history. My mum, for some reason known only to her, my Catholic grandmother and, presumably, God, spits whenever she sees one. Apparently something terrible happens if she doesn't. This confusing childhood wound is opened every time my wife sees one, as she has to ritualistically greet them one by one - again, in order for something terrible not to happen. Also, a magpie once laughed at my new jumper when I was 4, but I'm told that was actually a seagull.

Mistaken identity or not, the magpies and I now have legitimate beef. After playing the curious flap-'em-up Secrets of Raetikon from Broken Rules (makers of And Yet It Moves), I will actively hate any magpie I see in the real world, as they're such an extraordinarily aggravating group of ornithological oiks in this game that any sense of pity I may have once had for them has gone forever.

In Secrets of Raetikon, you play as a flame-coloured bird in a beautifully drawn, angular 2D world, and are simply asked to discover said secrets of Raetikon. The game encourages players to plug in a controller and then lets them loose on the two-dimensional equivalent of an open world. Press a button to flap, hold another to grab onto things with your beak and tap a third to let out a few tweets (the games journo's favourite).

The angular art style is the same employed in Broken Rules' own Chasing Aurora on Wii U.

Beyond that, you're told very little. You flap towards a runic obelisk and are presented with a screen full of illegible text and a blue collectable shard. Flap a bit further and you pick up a shard of yellow light. A screen later, that light fits into a weird contraption, music swells, things feel important... but no explanation.

If you want a story, Secrets of Raetikon makes you work for it. Those rune-laden statues littered about the world can only be translated by finding alphabet pieces hidden amongst the shrubbery of Broken Rules' looping, intertwining 2D world. When you fly near one, the sides of the screen will flash up the English alphabet and its Raetic equivalent, and you'll only be able to uncover the mystery once you've got at least three-quarters of the letters. By then, you'll have finished the game. It takes a lot of balls to make players work to understand your story, and Broken Rules doesn't necessarily do enough to earn that effort.

I'll be deliberately vague about exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it so as not to spoil the secrets and the sense of discovery, but that shard you find early on is joined by six more, and it's up to you to work out how to find them and then how to take them back to that early contraption. Along the way, you'll meet an Attenborough's worth of wildlife. At first it's a few flocks of passive birds or hopping bunnies. A mischievous squirrel climbs a tree and you can grab him with your beak and toss him through the air for a laugh. Then come the magpies.

It's best to go in with a minimal amount of knowledge.

These guys are a mild annoyance at first, squawking at you and trying to drag you into spiky bushes. Flap past them with a precious shard in your talons, though, and they'll immediately chase you with all their two-tone tenacity and try to nick it from you. Swoop by a group of them and they'll pass your stolen shard around like bullies in the playground, laughing as you desperately tap and flap to reclaim your treasure.

The first time this happens is a delight, lending life and intelligence to Secrets of Raetikon's world. The second time, the joke wears a little thin. By the end of the game (an admittedly brief three hours or so), it's enough to make you want to chew a hole through your controller, or indeed, start a lifelong blood feud with an entire species.

They're not alone, either. As you fly further from your nest, nastier creatures rear their heads. Fox-like fellas leap between tree branches to take a chunk of flesh and a few feathers out of your side, nasty blue birds charge beak first and stab you, and don't even get me started on the flies. All of the animals interact with each other as well, so you can distract a fox's ferocity by dropping a hapless friendly bird in its path (or dropping a rock on its head).

In truth, defending yourself is extremely tricky. You're often attacked by animals off-screen, and when you lose all your health, you're sent back to the beginning of the game. Secrets of Raetikon is a leisurely breeze when it lets you explore its flat-pack flora at your own pace, but it's so often broken up by these extremely irritating conflicts.

Magpies are the worst creatures on earth.

It's doubly frustrating, as there's no justifiable reason for the game to be so awkward. The best moments come when the game's robust physics, gorgeous artwork and tight controls combine, when you finally figure out how to find that elusive shard or alphabet piece. It's clearly influenced by Fez, down to its 'collect the shinies' central conceit, but Polytron's game never felt the need to threaten the player. Secrets Of Raetikon gets stuck between ideologies.

There's another, more unusual influence, too. When you die, any blue shards (which remain unexplained for the game's duration) you had on you are left behind, only collectible if you manage to make it back to that exact point again - like souls in Dark Souls. Like its nods to Fez, though, Secrets Of Raekiton doesn't do enough to justify such an homage. It can be annoyingly hard, sure, but there's no rhyme or reason to it. It would be interesting to play the game without such harsh penalties (something industrious players could actually do, thanks to the full world editor it ships with), as Broken Rules has crafted a small but beautiful world and gifted the player with a very enjoyable way to navigate it.

Unlike those magpies, I wanted to love Secrets Of Raetikon. It's always intoxicating when you see a project so clearly fuelled by passion and vision - but its substance just doesn't live up to its style.

6 / 10

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