Review: Polybius (PSVR)

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When you first start Polybius there’s no explanation of what the game’s about or what the controls are. It just tells you to, ‘Do what feels natural’. And since this is a video game, and you’re flying a spaceship, the obvious thing is to find the fire button and shoot anything that comes near you. And by anything we mean weird geometric shapes, drug capsules, Amiga demo balls, and lots and lots of cows. And yet we didn’t find any of this is in the least bit strange, because this is a Jeff Minter game and that’s the kind of thing you expect from him. That and old school shooter action of the highest calibre.

Minter has been working in the video games industry almost since its inception. So you might know him for 8-bit classics such as Gridrunner and Attack Of The Mutant Camels, early shareware game Llamatron, or the peerless Tempest 2000 and its derivatives. Many of his games are variations – some might say clones – of golden age coin-ops such as Defender and Robotron.

There is a lot of Tempest in Polybius but there’s a laundry list of other influences, including the original Atari Star Wars coin-op, S.T.U.N. Runner, and Space Harrier. As a result, Polybius feels like the culmination of all Minter’s work over the last several decades, as he uses everything he’s learnt to create one of the definitive arcade experiences.

The first level of the game takes place on a flat plane, as you zoom towards the horizon in your spaceship that can only move left and right. This is where the Space Harrier comparisons are most obvious, as you zip between towers and mow down enemies as they fly in above you. Your only goal is to reach the end of the stage, and your only aid is a set of shields which you lose whenever you hit something – and which are partially regenerated if you complete the level.

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To be fair, there is a bit more advice in the game’s first stage than we originally implied. You’re told you can pass through gates shaped like a bull’s horns for a speed boost and shoot cows for a bonus. For reasons that are probably best not gone into Minter is obsessed with ungulates, and his games are always filled with cows, goats, giraffes, and other hairy beasts (his company is called Llamasoft).

But combined with all the other, equally weird, enemies Polybius presents a uniquely baffling spectacle to anyone not familiar with his previous work. The sound effects are just as odd, full of semi-appropriate snippets of dialogue and borrowed sound effects from old arcade games. As well as a lot of mooing.

The end result will be just too much for some people, and the repeated warnings before you start the game, about flashing lights and psychedelic imagery, are clearly not a marketing gimmick. Especially not if you’re playing the game with PlayStation VR. It’s already become a cliché to compare VR games to the stargate sequence in 2001, but it’s impossible not to make the comparison with Polybius. Not only because of the equally trippy use of light and colour, but the dazzling speed at which you seem to be travelling.

Polybius can be played without PlayStation VR, and it also has a 3D option, but it’s in VR mode where the game is at its very best. Like Rez Infinite and Thumper before it, not only is the sense of immersion incredible but it genuinely helps to focus your mind and make aiming easier to judge. Because you’re always travelling straight forward there’s also zero problem with nausea, despite that seeming impossible given the speed and bizarre visuals.

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We’re hesitating to describe the later levels in detail because one of the great things about Polybius is how much variation there is between each stage. The basics are always the same, but soon you’re travelling along, or inside, tubes and other more complex shapes that you can move around. The controls don’t change though, and so when you’re rocketing upside down it takes considerable sangfroid to remember exactly what pushing left or right on the analogue stick will actually do.

Concentration is not only the key to success, but one of the main reasons Minter made the game. He wanted to create something that encourages you to get ‘in the zone’. That zen like state of consciousness that only the most intense action games can induce. Although the classic gaming phrase that came most readily to our minds while playing was ‘just one more go’. Polybius’ levels not only put stress on you in terms of your reactions but in working out what you’re actually supposed to do. And yet no matter how many times we failed we always wanted to jump straight back in and try again.

From the level with giant flags indicating a special rule for how to survive, to working out how to use updrafts to fly over deadly obstacles, or getting your speed high enough so you can smash through others, you’re never sure what you’re going to get in any given level. And that’s on top of power-ups like the slow-mo Time Warp effect that’s triggered by perfect accuracy or the invincibility-endowing fried eggs.

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There’s almost 50 levels in total, and the only downside to the way the game’s set-up is that if you get stuck on one there’s nothing else to do but tough it out or go back to an earlier level and earn more shields. Our only other complaint is that while the soundtrack is often excellent it rarely seems to synch with the action, and often ends up inappropriately quiet when the rest of the game is anything but.

If you have PlayStation VR then this is a must-have title, but even if you don’t it’s still one of the best arcade games we’ve ever played. It may seem off-puttingly weird to some but ignore all the florescent cows and 8-bit sound effects and you have one of the purest action experiences of the modern age. Or don’t ignore them, and revel in one of the most gloriously strange, constantly inventive, shooters available on any platform.

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