VR

Review: To the Top

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It’s fun to be a frog.  Hopping everywhere on land while your sticky hands cling to surfaces makes for a great mode of locomotion.  While technically To the Top features a limbless body with a floating mask and disembodied hands, looking far cooler than a green amphibian could hope to, about the only non-froggy aspect of the movement is that you can’t swim.  Or catch flies with your tongue, for that matter, but there are crystalline geoms to collect so close enough.  To the Top is a VR game where you hop from one grippable surface to another in a race through a vertiginous obstacle course, using the momentum of chained leaps to pick up speed and reach truly incredible heights.

The basics are pretty simple-  Blue surfaces can be grasped, and you can either pull yourself along hand-over-hand or hold with both hands and let go to fling yourself in the direction you’re looking.  Chain jumps together in quick succession to build up momentum and soon you’ll be reaching handholds that initially seemed like you’d need wings to reach.  To the Top wouldn’t work without the sense of depth and space that comes with VR, but once you’ve got in a little practice and can build up a good head of steam you can chain jumps together effortlessly to race towards the end of the course.  Three of the five medals in each of the thirty levels are for good, better, and best times, and once you’ve got the movement system down it’s hard not to try for each one.  The other medals are for turning up all the geoms scattered through each area and finding the secret one hidden on a more difficult path, making for a nice division between speed running and exploration.  Progression is gated by the number of medals you’ve earned, but even if you don’t like being rushed by the timer the minimum medal-count to beat the game is 75, which is a pretty reasonable quest.

With different goals requiring different approaches, the levels in To the Top are designed with replayability in mind.  Aside from different themes, such as city, child’s room, techno-artistic, etc, each level also has different ways to shave time off the run.  Whether that be gaining enough speed to cut corners in the shorter, earlier areas, or entirely different paths with their own checkpoints in the more complicated ones, there are plenty of ways to experiment.

The first tentative steps into the earliest levels only show one simple path, but once you wrap your head around “stare at thing to move towards it” all sorts of options open up.  In my playtime I found the first run through a level was for sightseeing and collecting as many geoms as possible, taking in the scenery and enjoying the incredible feeling of harmless vertigo when dangling off a crane hook hundreds of feet in the sky.  There’s no fall damage, and the penalty for missing a jump is either landing on a spot with nothing to grab, requiring a manual instant-reset to the last checkpoint, or the game auto-resetting back there by itself.  While intellectually you know there’s no harm from falling, though, it’s still easy to look down from the highest areas and feel a bit wobbly.  And then jump off anyway, because there’s a platform down there you know you can reach.

It’s very important while playing, though, to have a well-defined physical area to do it in.  While your disembodied hands have a good reach it’s not infinite, but leaning or stepping forward is a great way to get that little extra distance needed to prevent a fall into the depths.  The levels extend all around you and you’ll frequently go around corners or turn every which way in the course of navigating them.  There’s no Recenter View button so untangling from the headset wire is a regular occurrence, and this is particularly weird when you need to do it gripping a spot hundreds of feet above the ground.  The game is forgiving of this, and once you’ve latched on your hand won’t let go until you release the trigger, but I still found myself keeping my hands together and spinning underneath them as if they were locked in a death-grip to the wall.  Once you’re in the level the illusion is strong, and the real-world intrusion of a stray cable merely disturbs rather than breaks it.  Accidentally punching my monitor or the ceiling was another matter, though.

While that’s not the fault of To the Top, the bugs in the game definitely are.  Loading a level and being taken to the endless VR plain of Steam VR is pretty weak, but dying because of questionable collision physics broke one of the levels and was deeply annoying on many others.  The Giant Robot level starts off like most, with a series of platforms and pads to get through, but you’re going down instead of up.  This is because there’s an enormous robot at the bottom waiting for you, and once you start climbing its sides it starts walking.  It’s a wonderful moment that lasts right until you don’t quite hit a jump fly into a moving part instead, the screen goes black, and you’ve reset back to the bottom again.  Clipping into a wall and back to the checkpoint isn’t fun when it happens on a regular level, and even less so when each attempt at Giant Robot resulted in the same thing happening again and again in different places.

While To the Top may be a bit short on polish its sense of movement is fantastic.  Once you’ve got the hang of managing your momentum you can practically fly through the levels, springing from point to point like a hypercaffeinated frog.  Every level offers something different, whether that be new scenery, air-vortex jump pads, special surfaces that let you skate over them and even one memorable level that gives you jetpack hands.  (That particular level made me glad to play at night when nobody was watching so they couldn’t see me with arms pointed back, leaning forward to get just the right angle to skim ahead at top speed.)  The multiple routes and hidden challenges make each area highly replayable, and while some levels aren’t quite as good as others, at least they’re different enough so if you don’t like one there’s a complete change of pace coming right up.  To the Top is a fantastically creative first-person VR platformer, filled with great challenges and giving the player the tools to handle them if only they can master the techniques.

Review: Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Virtual reality gaming is still in its infancy, but so far, the impressive technology has been defined by indie offerings. Few major publishers have released one major title, let alone several, for the exciting new devices. The exception has been Ubisoft, whose habit of supporting new hardware is alive and well. The French publisher has put out some of the best games for the medium, including the fantastic Eagle Flight, and have now released their most ambitious game yet—Star Trek: Bridge Crew.

The premise behind the game is one that will immediately intrigue any fan of Gene Roddenberry’s monumental sci-fi series, as it allows players to operate a space ship. This is a team effort, as the bridge is separated into four different roles: the captain, engineer, helmsman and tactical. With each position comes different responsibilities (such as the helmsman piloting the ship) that must be accomplished in order for the ship to run correctly. The actual interactions are simple, as players use PlayStation Move controllers to mimic their arms, and then choose what buttons they want to press on the monitor in front of them.

Like the iOS hit Spaceteam, this results in a co-op focused experience that relies on proper communication. I spent most of my time as the ship’s captain. This gave me access to an objective list that only I could see, and it was up to me to make sure the team was working together in unison. So, if the game wanted my team to warp from one part of space to another area so we could fix a damaged ally, I had to tell my helmsman what direction to point the ship in. If an enemy ship was attacking, it was on me to make the tough decision to either fight it out or evade combat. Every small task in the game requires cooperation, and this leads to some memorable exchanges.

The gameplay eventually becomes the backdrop of something much more interesting, which is getting to watch people interact. I haven’t used voice chat in a multiplayer game this much in years, and it was refreshing to spend an online experience laughing with others as we either accomplished or failed our goals, rather than muting a Call of Duty lobby filled with vulgarity. Maybe it’s due to VR’s smaller install base, and that the only people who can afford expensive headsets tend to be working adults, but I rarely have had such a positive experience online. It also helped that the game didn’t just encourage us to work together, but demanded it. That’s not to say that there weren’t bumps in the road, as frantic sequences often resulted in some yelling between players, but I was lucky enough to never run into someone that took the game overly serious. After all, our real lives weren’t in danger if we did poorly, just our virtual caricatures.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew can also be played solo, and while I feel like this is clearly an inferior experience, it’s still a pretty good time. I mostly did this when I was getting up to speed with the gameplay, as it allowed me to switch from the captain’s chair to any of the other positions. This allowed me to better understand each of the character’s specific tasks, and choosing to do everything by yourself shows how helpful your teammates are when playing online. Still, nothing beats playing with other players, and I lost all desire to play by myself as soon as I hopped online.

One of the coolest parts about Bridge Crew is that the player does have some agency over how a mission plays out. It doesn’t mirror the television series that inspired it, as you won’t be talking your way out of potential conflicts, but my actions impacted how missions played out. One of the most memorable moments I had was actually an act of cowardice, as I commanded my crew to immediately warp out of an area after a Klingon ship threatened to fire upon us if we stayed in the area. This meant that my crew was unable to save some stranded allies, but by taking my ball and going home, I was able to ensure my crew’s safety. I didn’t feel good about this decision, but I was able to make a few trophies pop due to my pacifist ways. In the end, it was a worthy sacrifice.

It’s a good thing that missions have variations to them, as there isn’t a ton of content here. There’s only a handful of missions for the core campaign, and there’s not a great story to go with it, so them being replayable is a big deal. Beyond these structured levels, players can also go on “ongoing voyages,” which are randomized missions that fall into a few different categories (rescue, defend, etc.). Since the objectives are always secondary to the interaction between teammates, there is just enough content to keep Star Trek: Bridge Crew feeling fresh enough to warrant regular sessions. Players can even choose to use the USS Enterprise, the ship from the original show, on these missions, which makes even the smallest of adjustments a process of clicking a ton of different knobs and buttons. It was simply too complex for me to deal with, but it’s something I’ll try to figure out if Bridge Crew ever becomes too easy for my regular playing group.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew feels like the next step for cooperative gaming. It builds upon the core concept that made Spaceteam and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes so much fun to play, and adds an extra layer on top of it that makes it feel more like a traditional game. It might not offer as much freedom as players would like, and there’s not a ton of content, but it still manages to be one of the most captivating titles for VR.

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.

Review: GNOG

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GNOG is fantastic. It doesn’t have any real purpose or reason to exist, and that’s exactly why it’s such an experience; it’s an acid trip given form and a playful bit of nothingness that’s really quite hard to put down.

Each level of GNOG starts life as a little parcel that unravels to reveal a box puzzle underneath. In very basic principle these are like those Japanese puzzle boxes, where you need to poke and prod different bits and pieces of the box in a specific order in order to open them up, but in GNOG they’re nothing so dry as that. One puzzle box might be a submarine that needs its eyes replaced (hey, I did say it was an acid trip of a game). Another is a space ship that needs to be repaired in order to visit a number of planets.

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You’re thrown into each and every box with absolutely no instruction as to what you need to do. As such, the first couple of seconds on each level will be a process of orientation as you come to grips with what you’re seeing in front of you. There’s no time limits, nor any consequence in being “wrong,” so you’re encouraged to simply poke and prod around to see what you can do in each puzzle box. Only once you’ve got an idea of what can be poked and prodded can you start to figure out the order in which you need to actually do things in order to complete the puzzle and open that box.

Noodling around is a delight because each environment is just so charming. Each box is distinctive, colourful, and filled with character. It’s abstract or surrealistic to the nth degree, especially when you complete a level and the box starts singing at you while rings of colour (that would make the music video clips of stoner bands of the 60s proud) dance around in the background, but all that gaudiness is done with just the slightest hint of restraint that it needs to in order to work as an aesthetic. And this is important, because once you stick the VR headset on and play it that way, the colours and energy could have easily become overbearing to the point of being sickening. But GNOG is never sickening, and the raw escapism that it offers in VR makes it one of the most effective uses of the technology that we’ve seen to date.

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None of the puzzle boxes are so difficult that they become frustrating. There are moments where you’ll simply have no idea what you need to do, but the no-stress environment means that by poking around long enough something will happen that will set you on the right track. Where some puzzle games are designed around conflict with the player; the idea that it’s a battle of wits between player and designer to see whether the player can come out on top, GNOG feels more collaborative. In this one, it feels like the designers wanted the players to succeed at each and every puzzle, and will gently nudge players towards the solution when they need it. Equally importantly, the game is never condescending. At no stage will you feel like the game design is dictating or talking “down” to you, either. Ultimately, solving each puzzle is on you, and it feels rewarding when you finally get there.

Having played a lot of puzzle games in my time, I can honestly say that I’ve never quite come across one like GNOG for these reasons. I was mentally engaged and stimulated, but not challenged. Challenge is a fine thing to offer players, of course. Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is one of the most challenging games you’ll ever experience, and it’s a puzzler (its challenge comes from more than the puzzles themselves, of course, but those alone can easily stump even the most experienced puzzle game fan). The Witness is a masterpiece, but it’s heartening to see that even in genres as staid as the humble puzzler, there are developers that are looking for different approaches to the very core fundamentals of the genre, too. I found myself drawn back to this game every time that I turned the PlayStation 4 on, because I knew it was going to put me under no stress at any point, and that’s rare indeed.

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I have no idea how people will respond to the game. “Trippy” simply isn’t for everyone, and even if you’ve developed enough of an appreciation for acid of the years that you quite enjoy the psychedelic aesthetics (I’m not saying how I got there), then you’ll need to deal with the way GNOG actively rejects so much about how we play games.

But stuff ‘em, they’re wrong. I’ve rarely been as delighted in simply immersing myself into a game as I’ve been with GNOG. It’s weird, it’s colourful, it’s creative, and every time I completed a puzzle box, and was given another “parcel” to unwrap and unlock another puzzle, I couldn’t wait to tear the parcel open, if for no other reason than to see just what kind of beautiful lunacy I’d get to see next.

Review: Statik (PSVR)

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Statik is undeniably intriguing. Immediately as you start playing, you wonder why you’re there, who the mysterious man is with the blurred face, and why your hands are shoved into a complex puzzle box. What’s the point of it all?

The answers to those questions burned at me throughout my 3-4 hour playthrough. The quips from the scientist in each room had me chuckling, but his musings between levels had me wondering what the greater story was. I can’t speak too much to the structure of the story without spoiling it, but Statik is something you’ll want to play more than once.

A first playthrough is like a roller coaster. The puzzles are exhilarating and some of the dialogue may fly right past you because you’re too busy trying to solve the contraption on your hands. The ending may leave you scratching your head, but just like the puzzles within it, the pieces of the story are there.

Nothing is spoon-fed to you, and it goes by so quickly that I’m itching to play it again, just to see what else I can gather from a more methodical playthrough. It’s unique, interesting, and mysterious. At the same time, it’s quirky, funny, and full of charm.

Statik is nothing less than a labor of love, and that shows in the story through a confident style of writing and a healthy amount of holding back, so as not to force the story upon you. When it comes down to it, Statik’s story is just as much of an enigma as its puzzles, but I think that was the intention here.

If you want to piece it together, you can, but if you just want to enjoy the puzzles, you can do that too. Me personally, I’m itching to jump back in and see if I can learn more about its world and the mysterious reasons behind my tests. It doesn’t quite hit the same high notes as other puzzle games in its ilk, but it’s a very intriguing tale nonetheless.

Everything about Statik fits like a glove. We already talked about how the story confidently steps into its world and doesn’t apologize or compromise on its rules for the sake of making everything easier to understand, and the gameplay takes a similar approach.

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You’re given some basic controls when you first start, and that’s about it. The game doesn’t have any interest in providing hints or holding your hand. It’s a puzzle game that knows what it wants to be and knows that the design of its brain-twisters will speak for themselves.

While this was daunting at first, it provided some of the most cathartic “ah-ha!” moments I’ve felt since the release of the original Portal games. Every button on the controller, including L3/R3 does something in these puzzles.

Tilting the controller moves the box in real time, and while some people have said that the tracking can get thrown off here, I didn’t have any problems in my playthrough whatsoever, even when I passed the headset and controller around to other people in the room.

Each puzzle is meticulously crafted and tightly designed. The logic that governs each level doesn’t present itself right away, but when it does, the steps flow together. In the moment, you may feel like there’s no way forward, but when you finally crack the case, you’ll marvel at how incredible the logic and progression of each step feels in the grand scheme of the full puzzle.

Everything on the box fits into a larger process, and its a testament to the team’s skills that they were able to create such complex puzzles without the logic falling apart at a certain point. Much like puzzle darling The Witness, Statik manages to teach you an insane amount of information about its puzzles without ever saying a word.

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This extends beyond the contraptions on your the box, and into the environment itself. Oftentimes you’ll find hints or even entire steps hidden in the rooms around you, which are always furnished and given details to flesh out the game’s world.

It all just feels organic in the best way possible. There’s aren’t any gaps in the games logic or design, and given the complexity of the puzzles, that’s a tall order. While puzzle enthusiasts will gush over these teasers, casual players may find themselves spending a lot of time on some of these levels.

There’s also a multiplayer mode that can be triggered with the PlayStation App’s second screen on a smartphone. There are some separate levels here that involve working together, which is a nice addition.

For the price point, there’s a good amount of content here, and the puzzles are complicated enough that you won’t memorize them on one playthrough.

It’s not going to turn a non-puzzle lover into one, but Statik’s ingenious puzzles made my inner puzzle lover dance and cheer.

Statik is easily one of the best looking games in VR on PS4 Pro. It has a very clean art style that provides just enough detail to keep it from being bland. The puzzles themselves are extremely intricate, with plenty of moving parts and gadgets.

The visual quality on the social screen is almost entirely mirrored inside the headset, which is simply incredible for immersion and overall comfort. As I mentioned earlier, I had zero problems with tracking as well on the DualShock 4.

Put simply, Statik stands toe-to-toe with the best puzzle games that PlayStation VR has to offer. I would even place it above most of the puzzle games on the PS4 in general.

It’s unique story, incredible puzzles, and sharp visuals make it more than worth your time and money. Just don’t expect to breeze through these boxes unless you’re a seasoned puzzle veteran.

Review: Twisted Arrow (VR)

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With plenty of archery titles now available, it’s harder than ever to choose between the offerings. Twisted Arrow is the latest addition to the archery lineup on both platforms, but manages to stand out from the crowd with some interesting depth to its gameplay.

Being thrown into the role of a cybernetically enhanced soldier, Twisted Arrow tasks players with taking down a hostile paramilitary group currently occupying a futuristic city. Armed with an advanced bow equipped with a range of abilities, the game mostly centers its combat around maintaining accuracy and balancing your skills on the fly.

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Unlike a number of archery games currently available on VR platforms, Twisted Arrow provides the opportunity to move between pre-defined points to progress through the world. With this approach, the game strays away from the common on-rails ‘wave-based’ formula, instead opting for teleportation between clearly marked beacons on the map. While not the level of freedom I’d have personally liked to see, this provides a nice level of flexibility while keeping players on a set track.

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A huge effort to refine Twisted Arrow’s bow and arrow mechanics is also apparent, making for easy and intuitive interactions with the bow. The process of loading, preparing and aiming the bow feels natural at all times, followed up by satisfying feedback upon releasing the string. With sharp audible response after a successful hit on an enemy, landing a shot never fails to feel rewarding.

Between the five different types of arrows available from the outset, there’s a fair share of variety to be seen in Twisted Arrow’s combat scenarios. Switching up your arrows and combat style to adapt to a situation is key, with some portions of the game encouraging the use of certain abilities. Quickly toggled via a radial menu on the touchpad, switching arrow types is responsive enough to not negatively impact the flow of combat.

The bow comes with a range of additional abilities outside of its use as a weapon, making for a versatile piece of kit to use on the field. By pressing down the trigger on your left hand a handheld shield can be deployed, which deflects incoming projectiles for a short span of time. Being attached to the bow, this prevents the shield from being used alongside its offensive qualities, with a heavy requirement for timing and situational awareness. The bow can also be used as a simple hacking tool for in-game consoles, activated by simply placing the bow onto of a clearly marked surface.

Paired with the wide range of abilities and tools in combat, ‘energy’ restrictions place a limitation on the player’s efficacy in battle. With numerical values associated with various types of arrows, players must consider their arrow usage in accordance with available energy. While basic arrows consume no energy, those with more effective abilities come alongside heavier tolls.

However, without a compelling narrative or much of a reason to invest in its world, Twisted Arrow eventually leans too heavily on its unique combat systems. Although these are certainly interesting mechanics that stand on their own, they soon come to feel rather stale over time. By the time only a couple levels have passed, the same bow-drawing motion can begin to feel rather repetitive. Without any additional modes to spice up the package, the repetitive nature of Twisted Arrow can soon become apparent.

Twisted Arrow introduces interesting ideas to VR archery, managing to move away from some of the downfalls which have plagued the genre to date. With these enhancements, the game differentiates from a number of competitors and stands out as an immersive virtual reality experience. Although the game may be compelling to fans of archery titles, it fails to deliver the depth and variety I’d like to have seen in such a world.

 

Review: StarBlood Arena (PSVR)

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Set in a sci-fi death arena populated by robots, aliens and your garden variety homo-sapiens, StarBlood Arena’s maxim is simple; strap yourself into a ship, get points to win and then use those points to upgrade your craft. It’s a simple enough premise all told, but the fact that the whole thing takes place in a full six degrees of freedom means that StarBlood Arena is a little different from other similar PSVR titles already on the shelves.

Because you are able to swoop, strafe, spin and loop, often doing each of those things simultaneously, enemies can be found everywhere around you and so the challenge lay in being able to consistently orient yourself, whilst avoiding enemy fire and returning some of your own in return. If moving about in all directions wasn’t enough to contend with, StarBlood Arena’s aiming system is predominantly tied to PSVR’s head tracking which means that, unless you fancy spending your time as a turret (this will get you killed and quickly), you need to effectively synchronise your targeting reticule with the furious movements of your ship in order to pull off a successful kill.

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When coupled with the fact that you’ll be spending a lot of the time trying to prevent your lunch from re-emerging after the ten minute mark, you can begin to appreciate why combat in StarBlood Arena is actually, somewhat sadly, quite the chore to master and effectively practice at, leaving me less than convinced that six degrees of freedom style movement is suitable forPSVR gaming at this point in time.

Compounding these issues is the fact that the design of the twelve maps that you’ll be doing all of this swooping and shooting about in, is somewhat lacking to say the least. Much smaller than they need to be and bereft of any real environmental hazards or anything of the sort to make them stand out from one another, the dozen or so levels feel trite and uninspired with each one differing from the last in seemingly cosmetic terms only rather than in something meaningful in design and purpose.

Able to be played in either single-player or online multiplayer, StarBlood Arena lets players go at it in Standard Carnage (deathmatch), Team Carnage (team deathmatch), Invasion (a co-op mode where you fight off waves of enemies) or Gridiron game modes. Of the lot, Gridiron is the most refreshing as participants are divided into two teams with the objective of nabbing the ball and firing it into the goal of the opposing side; providing a nice counterpoint to the somewhat formulaic adversarial game types, since proceedings then revolve around control of the ball, rather than the typical kill-focused objectives of the Carnage modes.

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Whether you’re playing Gridiron or regular Carnage game types, StarBlood Arena can yield moments of legitimate elation as you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in close contests, or, finally do away with an adversary who had been getting the better of you for the whole game. Equally, StarBlood Arena does a commendable job of keeping players invested for the long-term with a progression system that lets the player buy gear upgrades (through randomised loot boxes no less), paint jobs and even new ships altogether with the hard won credits that they have earned. Medals are also awarded for particular feats, such as destroying a certain number of enemy craft for example, and tie directly into Trophies that are associated with them; providing yet further reasons to stick with StarBlood Arena beyond the first few hours of play.

Where StarBlood Arena does boast a surprising amount of depth however, is in the class-based system that exists. With a selection of characters to choose from, and each with their own strengths and weaknesses which in turn can be augmented by gear upgrades, StarBlood Arena boasts a fair amount of creative latitude for the player to engineer their own playstyle and combine that with other players on their team. It’s no Overwatch certainly, but such depth is arguably welcome all the same.

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Unfortunately when it comes to the visuals, StarBlood Arena isn’t much to write home about. With the best reserved for its tutorial and menu screens where decent visuals have been brought to bear on StarBlood’s wise-cracking robot/alien show host duo, the actual game itself looks like a early generation PS3 title, with low detail textures, poor effects and a general lack of ocular bombast that makes you question just how much of the PS4’s grunt is being used here.

An intriguing six degrees of freedom shooter, StarBlood Arena has its share of moments while a decent, if traditionally crafted progression system makes a fair attempt at securing the attention of the player for a longer term.

REVIEW: DARKNET (PSVR)

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Consisting of trite material and some sort of muddled political message, some projects only take a tertiary understanding of the practice and apply it over the course of an entire game. Most of us are familiar with hacking minigames that only take up a few seconds of our time, but when done right, it can make for an engaging puzzle experience. VR helps embolden that engagement for sure, and Darknet is a great little puzzler that never takes itself too seriously.

“Hacking” involves choosing nodes on a grid, with the goal of capturing the core, a giant sun-like shape on-screen. Selecting a node will slowly pulse outward, similar to the popular game “Lights Out,” until you either hit a core or another node.

The former will result in a win, and the latter sends you back to your previous turn to try again. As you progress you’ll earn more viruses (read: tries) to inject into the grid, which eliminates security nodes and allows for an easier time getting to the core. As you start to earn upgrades and the like the solutions open up, and on my second playthrough I ended up tackling nearly everything from the midpoint on in a different way.

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This is Darknet’s biggest strength. Everything looks similar on an aesthetic level, but the “less is more” approach is really all you need. The puzzles themselves are well designed and hold up from start to finish, especially the bigger firewalls, which are almost boss levels that take place on a gigantic grid. Some stages you can just inject one well-placed virus and call it a day, but for others, you’ll need to think about which security nodes to disable first before you make your move on the core. If anything goes wrong you can just reset and be on your way again.

The most obvious hangup with Darknet is its muted tone. The world map is one giant jumble of clusters, so it’s tough to figure out where you want to head next, and more importantly, it seems so insurmountable that it’s not even worth conquering. But the more you play, the more upgrades and cash you’ll earn, and since you’ll basically skirt over the entire background story the entire time, the pacing never gets to the point where it feels bogged down by any baggage. Again, VR works to its advantage here.

Darknet takes the age-old idea of “Lights Out” and re-invents it on a whole new platform. It’s not one of those games that you’re going to use to show off the virtual reality medium in a way that will “wow” anyone, but the subtle use of perspective will help justify the decision to jump into the world of VR.

Review: Job Simulator (PSVR)

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Job simulator is probably not the first game you would consider for the new PlayStation VR. It isn’t an action, horror, or even a puzzle game, however unlike most of the other launch titles this one is actually good.

In my opinion the graphics are quite good. Everything has a cartoony 90’s feel to it. It all looks simplistic but works and when you add that to the immersion of the VR it really comes off looking great. When playing the game you really “feel” like you’re in an office or a convenience store. This is mostly due to the fact that you can interact with most of the objects in the environment.

There is a story but it is REALLY light. The general plot involves bots showcasing the player what it was like for humans to work. Each Job also has its own subplot, for instance, the office worker shows the growth of your character in the business eventually leading to you becoming the boss.

The overall sound design is good. For each job you will hear the familiar sounds that should accompany the job based on their location. For instance In the office you will hear phones ring, copy machines running, ect. This is for all the included jobs. It’s a nice touch to the immersion of the experience, it helps make you feel like you’re actually there.

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This is where Job Simulator succeeds the most. When you first start the game you will have a choice of four different jobs to take on; Mechanic, Chef, Office worker, and convenience store clerk. To start a job you select the cartridge of the job you want, put it in the “console” and pull the lever.

The store clerk has you run a local convenience store. You will do tasks such as; opening the store, taking care of customers, cleaning spills, ect. Before you begin each task you must pull a ticket to start the next “level”. When you begin a task you will hear a robot narrate the purpose of the task. This is often one of the most amusing parts of the game. Hearing the robots take on the day to day tasks that are to be done makes the experience so much better. To perform these tasks you need to use the move controllers to reach around in different environments, and grab various objects. The game will have you interact with various stereotypes of customers albeit in a fun way. The types of customers you will encounter play on tropes such as rude people, underage sales, all with their own gags to make the experience interesting. When playing the game you have a certain amount of freedom as to how you will handle each situation. You can give the bots the wrong type of product on certain occasions , you can overcharge them, and even miss treat them. This is a feature that carries over to the other job types as well.

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The office worker job has you create documents, power point presentations, and even hire and fire bots. Like the other jobs you will interact with various objects to get your “job” done. This sequence of tasks can be started by pulling a time card. Some of the in-game gags include things like; gossip by the water cooler , office pranks, ect. This set of jobs is really great especially if you don’t take the game serious. Try throwing different objects at bots in other cubicles and witness their reaction.

The mechanic has you tamper and/or fix various cars. This job can be a lot of fun to screw around in. Like for instance “fixing” a car by removing all the tires and returning it to the customer can be a joy to watch.

The Chef has one of the longer tasks lists but it can be fun too. You will prepare various orders for customers, some of which you are free to do what ever you want with. The highlight of this job is towards the end of the sequence. At the end of this job you will become a tv star chef and you will need to prepare orders for a knockoff Gordon Ramsay, which can be really funny.

While I really enjoyed this game, it can get repetitive and it is linear. Overall this game can be completed in about 4 hours and that’s doing everything including getting the platinum trophy. So there is not much of a reason to keep coming back to this.

I really enjoyed this game. It was personally one of the better VR experiences I have had. It is fun and provides a few laughs along the way. My only gripes with this game would be its replay value and its price. Even though it does have those drawbacks I would still recommend this game especially if you’re new to VR. It is a great way to get used to the effects of VR before jumping into more demanding games.

Review: Downward Spiral: Prologue (VR)

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Downward Spiral: Prologue is a VR adventure game that takes you into a beautiful recreated 1970s retro future of CRT monitors and space stations abound. Featuring a single-player and coop mission, and multiplayer deathmatch mode Downward Spiral: Prologue feels like the creators have torn out the first few pages of an Arthur C. Clarke novel and realized it in virtual reality.

You’re tossed in with little back story, but it’s clear what you have to do aboard what appears to be an abandoned space station orbiting Earth. Get systems back online and see what happens.

Grabbing the railing you propel yourself to the nearest airlock and enter the station. Because you’re in a microgravity environment, you have to stop yourself with your hand and navigate forward by pushing off walls, and using the world’s many hand railings and button-filled consoles for stability.

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There’s a lot to like about Downward Spiral: Prologue, from its well-polished interiors to its innovative locomotion scheme that has you free-floating in space.

But if the short single player/coop mission doesn’t deter you, you’re in for some very cohesive art, some interesting exploration in what feels like a real space station and a satisfying conclusion of the little level that will definitely leave you wanting for more of everything. Considering this is the first installment of the game, which hasn’t gone through any sort of pre-funding scheme like Steam Early Access program or Kickstarter, purchasing the game at $9.99 (€9,99 or £6,99) means you’re directly funding the second installment.

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There aren’t really any puzzles to speak of, as the action is mostly driven by a few neat little button-filled consoles that jump-start the station’s various processes. There are also a few enemies to dispatch with a pistol, but the world’s little electric robot enemies are laughably easy to kill. It seems the atmosphere around you is really the star of the show here.

Deathmatch allows up to eight players to experience the same zero gravity gunplay in “environments familiar to the story,” meaning the same map. I wasn’t able to get into a deathmatch during pre-release of the game, so I can’t speak to its entirety. This isn’t a “shooter” however, so I’m still mystified as to why there’s a deathmatch in the first place. I’ll be updating my impressions (and score if need be) as soon as I get into a match.

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At first it took me a few moments to get used to the locomotion style of floating around and pushing off the corridors of the space station, but after a little practice I was flying through the world with relative ease.

Shooting the game’s pistols wasn’t an entirely a hitch-free experience. Aiming felt a little unnatural, a possible tribute to realism as my space suit didn’t entirely allow for free movement with the pistol. I found myself being more deliberate in how I aimed because of it though as my bullets zinged through the vast expanse of the engine room.

Getting zapped by a robot feels right. Your sight is slightly more red-tinted every time you take a hit, and the sound mutes ever so slightly the worse the onslaught.

I played the game with both the Oculus Rift (with Touch) and the HTC Vive. The game is an open 360 environment, so a 3-sensor set-up is a must for Rift players if you want to forget the Touch version’s snap-turn. As per usual, the stock Vive setup provided for a flawless 360-tracking experience.

Floating in space can be stomach-turning, but it seems the developers have nailed the locomotion scheme in Downward Spiral: Prologue to a pretty fine degree.

Besides relying on an hand-held air compressor you find midway through that lets you bebop around with your own personal jet, you have to use a little physicality to push off and stop yourself with walls. Thankfully grabbing out for any and all parts of the ship lets you stop yourself, and you sort of settle into your forward motion after a while.

The HUD design also helps anchor you in the world, keeping nausea at bay. The video walk-through below (warning: the full game is completely spoiled below) shows a bit of the left side of helmet in the frame, but it’s really not so intrusive. The helmet design only slightly cuts off your horizontal field of view.

Despite having a temperamental belly when it comes to artificial locomotion, Downward Spiral seems to have done everything in its power to limit nausea, and I walked away feeling surprisingly normal.