The best way to describe my experience with Ayo is a bell curve of enjoyment, where the middle part was incredibly enjoyable and full of character, but the beginning (where you’re going “huh, I wonder if this is going to get more interesting before the end”) and end (where you’re going “please let this be over with soon”) ranged from underwhelming to painful. A slow beginning is completely understandable since games rarely put their best foot forward, having to first establish and set up things for later, but the problems with the end come down to the game introducing more and more gameplay twists to spice things up, and only about half of the things added in around this point actually pan out. It feels like Ayo was so concerned with establishing itself as a game and gradually ramping up the difficulty that it forgot to ensure that all of the things it does to those ends are fun and fair.
A journey for water
Ayo: A Rain Tale’s store page describes it as a game shedding light on the struggles of women and children in Sub-Saharan Africa who live in communities without access to clean water, forcing them to trek long distances in order to fetch it from elsewhere. Main character Ayo’s journey mirrors this to a certain extent, though the trek is obviously highly fictionalized in order to have a game. Either that, or Africa really needs to do something about their lava spouts and toxic waste geysers.
The most obvious comparison is Never Alone
Comparing this game to Never Alone does it a disservice, as Ayo is a single-player game and Never Alone is very much focused on co-op (even its single-player feels like playing co-op with an idiot CPU character). Besides which, the bugginess that I was forced to deal with at the end of Ayo still doesn’t come close to the level of buggy stupidity in Never Alone. Despite all of that, however, the comparison is a good starting point for explaining just what this game actually is, because the two are both slightly awkward puzzle-platformers (with only a token focus on the “puzzle” portion of that equation) that exist to highlight something about the real world using a story infused with mythology. And of course, both tell their stories more through the journey itself than overtly. Still, I’d take Ayo over Never Alone any day of the week.
Jumping, pushing, switching
Early on, all you’re doing in Ayo: A Rain Tale is simple platforming. First you learn that brambles are dangerous (though some kill you and others merely stun you, and I’m not 100% sure on why they’re treated differently), and then you start to deal with platforms that crumble shortly after you land on them. This part of the game feels a bit awkward to play through, as many of the jumps are long enough that Ayo barely makes it, slowly climbing up the side of most platforms she jumps to. Besides which, her running speed is slightly slower than her leg animation suggests she should be moving, which is one of those strange disconnects that takes some getting used to.
It’s not long before the game introduces yellow and blue mists that allow Ayo to switch between two different set of platforms, however. Then lava and movable blocks are introduced, and the game becomes all about switching between blue and yellow platforms so that you can push blocks into the lava and use them as stepping stones. Unbeatable enemies show up around this time and are best avoided, and this is where the game really starts to shine. Eventually you get a double-jump and the ability to manually switch between yellow and blue platforms without having to touch the corresponding mists, and this is probably my favorite part of the game.
There are some problems, though
The camera can become a bit of an issue in this game. It doesn’t always center Ayo, often remaining fixed in place until she reaches a certain threshold, at which point it awkwardly jerks over to reveal more of the screen. This isn’t a problem exclusive to left-right movement, either. A lot of jumps that should be easy become a problem because you’re leaping blindly, unable to see the ground (or any enemies crawling along it) while the camera is stuck focusing on other things. Then there’s the fact that you can die from falling, but the distance and specific circumstances that actually lead to this seem arbitrary; at one point I was running from a boulder, only to fall from a platform and die. When I ended up doing the exact same thing a second time, however, I landed safely below. It’s hard to get a sense for the rules here when the game itself doesn’t seem to be entirely consistent about enforcing them.
(Just a heads up: the video below has a lot of flashing, enough that I eventually got a migraine playing through it, so don’t click on the video if you’re sensitive to that.)
That’s nothing compared to the end, though
My enjoyment of the game was at a high when the lightning and mosquitoes started showing up. The mosquitoes were harmless enough at first, though it was frustrating to be touched by them because they paralyze you for a moment (which can be a problem when you’re on a crumbling platform), but the lightning was another matter entirely. This is one of those games where the lightning effect is emphasized by a full-screen flash of white, and having several of these chained together was really distracting. Then it started to give me a migraine. It’s used pretty consistently from the moment it’s introduced all the way to the end of the second (and final) boss fight, too, so there’s no escaping it until you’ve basically finished the game. And even the mosquitoes started being used in ways that proved more annoying than difficult (that video also has lightning, so the same warning as earlier applies here).
The final boss is in a league all its own, though. The entire fight is an overlong chase sequence fraught with annoyances. The boss can flip between blue and yellow platforms just like you can, so it can screw you right as you’re about to land. There are foreground elements that block a pit at one point, causing Ayo to slowly pull herself up while the boss catches up and almost gets her. Screen flashing is everywhere. The boss has an attack with so little warning that you can be screwed for arbitrarily choosing between the high path and low path, unable to switch before it insta-kills you. This whole sequence is painful, long, and more responsible for ruining my overall impression of the game than everything else combined.
But it looks and sounds nice
What hurts the most about this chase is that it’s followed up by one of the most interesting sections, one that lives up to the game’s stated goal of shedding light on the perils of water-fetching. In it, you control Ayo as she’s weighed down by water and forced to walk back (not across the entire game, of course, but some early areas) while dealing with the sun’s heat and the desert’s savage winds. The art is great, the execution is great, and while the platforming is slow and there’s not much happening, that’s also kind of the point. This would have been a home run if it hadn’t been proceeded by a section so awful, and the great art and music in this game are a large part of why it works. Ayo: A Rain Tale’s art is very colorful and distinct, and its music, while often understated, helps reinforce the game’s unique setting. Then there are the little artistic touches that add a lot; in an earlier nighttime stage, I noticed shooting stars in the background. Before that, I couldn’t help but appreciate that Ayo’s clothes changed depending on which set of blocks was active. There’s a lot of love put into this game, and it shows. It just doesn’t quite stick the landing.
*A review key for Ayo: A Rain Tale was provided for the purpose of this review