To this point, I've been fairly lukewarm on the idea of virtual reality. As with the now-failed 3D television concept (the most recent technological "innovation" manufacturers attempted to push on us in order to sell new equipment prior to 4K and VR), I'm old enough that I can't help but see it as a new sale pitch for an idea that already imploded on us once during its first run, decades ago.
I am willing to admit that much of my ambivalence has been the result of never having seen a truly compelling VR experience. Sure, EVE Valkyrie's cockpit view is cool and all, but every VR demo I've taken has transpired in a crowded auditorium where outside noise and light bleed in, or during a rushed demo session with PR folks impatiently eyeballing their watches. Plus, in all honesty, those early demos for PlayStation VR — back when it was called Morpheus — weren't all that interesting.
Last week, though, I enjoyed a quiet, casual demo session with Oasis Games' PSVR launch lineup (launch window, that is, meaning the games will become available before Jan. 13, 2017). Oasis' four projects account for, the company claims, the largest lineup of first-wave PSVR titles from a single publishers. I wouldn't say these games turned my opinion of VR around, exactly, but I did find myself far more engaged than I had expected. More importantly, though, Oasis' four creations impressed on me the potential inherent in VR for different interpretations of game concepts.
Rather than going for a broad range of game types, Oasis has instead opted to focus in on two genres: Shooting gallery and horror. In doing so, the publisher has created a lineup that (perhaps unintentionally) demonstrates the different ways in which creators can approach similar concepts within VR. I don't know that any of the games I demoed would stand alone as full retail releases, but as downloadable titles or as part of a suite, they feel neatly complementary.
The two shooting game Oasis has on tap both work more or less the same way: As target galleries rather than free-roaming first-person shooters. Both work entirely with Move controllers, and (at least in their demo forms) offer little more than the pursuit of high scores.
I found Pixel Gear to be the more enjoyable of the two Oasis shooters — mainly because it uses such a direct, straightforward interface. Players hold a single Move controller upright and treat the trigger button as a gun trigger; you can also use the Circle button to activate a brief rapid-fire/bullet-time mode, and swap to alternate weapons with the menu button. That's as complex as it gets, though, and that works to the game's favor.
It would be easy to describe Pixel Gear as "a Minecraft shooting gallery," since everything in the game has the chunky voxel-like look of Mojang's blockbuster. That concept already sort of exists in the form of Epic's Fortnight, but this rendition centers on the look and the shooting elements of the concept rather than the construction and defense. The targeting works well, with opportunities for headshots and critical hits (some enemies, such as the shield-toting knights, require headshots, while bats flapping around with pumpkin bombs in their claws can be turned into explosive opportunities to destroy nearby enemies if you target the bombs rather than the bats). Larger foes appear from time to time, soaking up more hits and potentially inflicting greater damage.
Pixel Gear's demo had me staking out a single in-game location, with a roughly 180-degree area to defend. After a few rounds, enemies became much more aggressive about attacking from the flanks, necessitating constant head sweeps to keep tabs on everything. Bonus rounds in which players can gun down ghosts carrying coins (while trying not to hit angels) net cash to use for purchasing special weapons with limited ammunition between rounds. These secondary weapons can be quite useful, such as the powerful grenade launcher whose splash damage can take out groups of giant foes in a single shot, but they're not so good at managing more immediate threats such as shooting enemy projectiles out of the air. So, it's a simple game — simpler than Time Crisis, really — but it plays well and offers just enough substance to demand practice and mastery.
On the other hand, Ace Banana adds a little more complexity to the mix and doesn't feel quite as engrossing as a result. Seemingly inspired by Ape Escape, Ace Banana tasks you with fending off waves of monkeys who advance on the player's position in order to swipe bunches of bananas. Run out of bananas and the game ends. Rather than simply shooting monkeys, however, you use a pair of Move controllers to emulate being an archer: Your left hand holds the bow, while your right plucks and fires arrows (well, toilet plungers, actually). You can adjust the trajectory of your plungers by pulling back your right arm further, and your projectiles have a somewhat slow rate of movement that demands you account for the movement of your targets and lead your shots somewhat, especially at a distance.
While clever, the idea doesn't work quite as well as it could due to a bit of input lag on drawing arrows. The interface doesn't give a clear indication of when you can nock your next virtual arrow, and I found myself constantly clicking and lifting my arm uselessly after loosing a plunger. The boss battle at the end of the demo was particularly frustrating, as it moves in for unavoidable attacks and paralyzes the player with no tells or broadcasting; on the contrary, it seemed to be missing some animations, and its attacks would cause the screen to fade to black for a second. Maybe this is an artifact of being a pre-release game, but it felt unpolished and rough for something that should be launching within the next few months.
Despite these irritations, though, I did enjoy the mechanics of the game — the virtual archery needs refinement, but it has potential. And unlike Pixel Gear, it required players to relocate to different defensive points throughout the demo and introduced challenging foes in a more progressive fashion, adding greater variety to the action.
The Horror Games
Unlike the shooting games, Oasis two horror titles — Weeping Doll and Dying Reborn — dropped Move controls entirely for the DualShock pad. This took a little adjustment. Like most people, I'm used to controlling the in-game camera with the right analog stick. But that doesn't make sense for VR, and instead these games only allow you to reorient the camera with the controller by locking it 60 degrees or so in a lateral direction. In other words, the right stick in these games turns the world by switching between about six set camera orientations; to look up and down or make fine lateral movements, you track with your head. This makes sense, of course, but after more than a decade of standard controls, it took some getting used to.
Dying Reborn plays about like you'd expect, say, Silent Hill VR to work. You find yourself in a grotesque, Saw-like environment full of rusted medical supplies, mutilated mannequins, barely working electronics, and bugs galore. In this case, you play as a male character with a penchant for soliloquy as he struggles to make sense of his surroundings and a mysterious letter from a woman. I couldn't really get a proper feel for the quality of the narrative in my brief demo, though the voice acting is about on par with older Resident Evils... for better or for worse.
Once I adjusted to the control setup — you can move freely with the left analog stick but use head-tracking to orient the camera (rather than the right analog stick) — Dying Reborn played like your standard survival horror game, minus the conflict. It involves riffling through desks to find keys, solving esoteric puzzles, and poking around the environment in search of hot spots. The immersive element of the game does make it more claustrophobic than 32-bit horror adventures with their static visuals, or even more contemporary games like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Again, it's hard to judge the quality of Dying Reborn based on a 15-minute demo of the outset of the game, but assuming the quality of the puzzles improves over the course of the story it can probably overcome its somewhat rough visuals and voice acting to become something of a foundational work for future VR horror titles.
Finally, the most interesting and unique game in Oasis' lineup was the one with which I spent the most time. Where Dying Reborn takes its cues from gruesome horror adventures, with free movement in its world and an emphasis on the grotesque, Weeping Doll is very much a game in the spirit of graphical adventures from the PC CD-ROM boom era. Think Myst or 7th Guest, but in VR.
The most unusual quirk with Weeping Doll comes in its interface, which unlike Dying Reborn does not allow you to wander freely throughout the rooms of the haunted mansion. Instead, you play as the mansion's maid, and rather than stroll around with the left analogue stick you instead guide a translucent avatar icon to determine where you would like the maid to move to. Once you select a destination (which needs to be within about three meters of your current point of view), her perspective will shift to that spot. It's similar to the node-based movement of the older Myst games, but it offers complete freedom for the player to set their character's position anywhere in the fully rendered environments.
This, too, takes some getting used to — it creates even more of a mental disconnect than the stick-and-head-tracking design of Weeping Doll (which also comes into play here), and it's a strange choice for a VR demo, which is supposed to be all about immersion. Once you get a handle on it, though, it works remarkably well for puzzle-solving. And those puzzles are, well, about what you'd expect. Lots of solving oblique physical riddles, generally with the reward amounting to a key to the next room, where... another puzzle hiding a key awaits.
The most interesting interface element of Weeping Doll is its inventory system. Rather than simply giving you a menu or limiting you to carrying a single item a la Myst, the game instead brings up an array of virtual cubicles when you press the menu button. These cubes float in front of your face and allow you to carry more than a dozen items, which you place and select by simply looking at the corresponding block and pressing the action button. The potential of the menu interface really became clear as I tried to solve a jigsaw puzzle to reveal the secret of a trick chandelier: Rather than solve the puzzle in its tray, I used the menu grid to sort out of arrangement of the pieces in "virtual" space — surprisingly, something no one else who demoed the game before me had thought to do, I was told.
With its odd but effective avatar system, clever menu system, and ominously pristine environment, Weeping Doll is the kind of game I'd like to see more of in VR: A fresh, new take on a more or less forgotten genre.