One of the best virtual reality games so far is an episodic adventure that puts you in the lead role of an ‘80s style movie mystery.
It shouldn’t seem like too much of a complaint that most of the virtual reality games so far are just glorified tech demos. After all, VR is a glorious technology and it’s completely understandable that it will take time to create more nuanced and satisfying experiences. Besides, many of the games are still far more entertaining than most console launch titles, and a few, such as The Gallery, are properly good games in the own right.
Like most VR games, The Gallery also has the limitation that it’s by an indie developer. One with no big money backing beyond what it could attract from Kickstarter. The upside of being an indie team though, is that Cloudhead Games can make whatever they want and not be beholden to boring publisher money men. And what they’ve chosen to make here is a puzzle adventure inspired by The Goonies and other ‘80s movies.
Although Hover Junkers makes a very good stab at things it’s now fairly clear that fast action shooters are not a good fit for VR, even though they’re the most popular style of first person game elsewhere. Not even walking simulators necessarily work that well, because there’s no way to walk that doesn’t involve using a controller and having yourself mysteriously float through the world when your body knows you’re actually standing or sitting still (which, again, is why Hover Junkers is so clever at getting around these problems).
A common, but inelegant, solution is to just teleport you from place to place by activating a hotspot, a bit like using Google Street View. Even Valve’s The Lab uses this method for one of its mini-games, and as jarring as it sounds, in person it doesn’t feel quite as strange as you’d think. Especially as The Gallery is basically a high tech point ‘n’ click adventure anyway.
The story revolves a search for your twin sister Elsie, who at the beginning of the game leaves a cryptic message that has you starting your adventure on a debris-filled beach and heading towards a meeting with a loony professor, a bit like a nuttier version of Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Unfortunately, a lot of the storytelling is told by the tiresomely old fashioned technique of audio logs (cassette tapes in this case, because it’s the ‘80s) but other information takes more effort to acquire.
One side benefit of the teleporting movement (called BLINK in this game) is that it tends to focus the game on using smaller but highly interactive areas. And although The Gallery is intended for all three major headsets this particularly benefits the Vive, as it means you can wander around each area physically – picking up objects with the bundled controllers and examining them simply by turning them around in your hand.
You’ve got a backpack to carry everything with you, which you access by putting the controller behind your back and clicking the trigger. There are actually few key items of any significance, but things like torches and lighters are a great thing to show off VR with when you’re creeping around a dimly lit sewer system. Even though it’s not particularly trying The Gallery is pretty scary simply because it’s set in in the dark and everything around you feels so real.
At first the puzzles feel quite obscure and difficult, until you realise that, despite some pretences to the contrary, this isn’t Myst and they’re not meant to be solved blind. The solution in each area actually become very obvious if you examine and read all the clues around you. Crawling around on your knees and peering at messages carved on walls is the real meat of the gameplay, and helps you become absolutely lost in the reality the game is spinning.
In fact the only thing that drags you out is that it’s all over far too soon – just a couple of hours at best. Of course we’ve no idea where the story is going at this point and, like many an episodic adventure, the final revelation may be a disappointment. But at the moment this is one of the most impressive Vive launch titles and an early standard by which any similar game will be judged by.
Not just the games in fact, but the headsets as well. And we’re curious to see if the PlayStation VR can match the same sense of realness without Vive’s gimmick of being able to walk around in the virtual space. And if it can’t whether the story and puzzles will prove strong enough to compensate on their own.
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