I admit I am not the kind of person for which virtual reality is made. I became sick when I played the 1990s version of VR — in particular, an awful hang glider flying game. Yet I was completely enthralled by the Oculus Rift — the virtual reality headset which debuted earlier in 2016 — partially because the first time I used a prototype, I didn’t feel like puking. In fact, a jolting horror demonstration featuring evil trees really scared me — to the point I cried out. But the overall experience is a bit like your first experience with amusement park rides: a brand new, somehow familiar otherworld, real but not really, and one you don’t dare try too soon after eating fast food.
So, from the calming zen garden-feel of Oculus Home, the Rift’s VR base of operations, I chose the games that came with the system, and purchased some new ones. This time, I was prepared. I downed Dramamine to combat motion sickness and then went on a binge to find the Rift’s most promising games.
“Edge of Nowhere”
Developed by: Insomniac Games
Published by: Insomniac Games
The most effective VR games allow you to feel as though you are a Hollywood blockbuster’s lead actor. “Edge of Nowhere” begins like an expensive Steven Spielberg action film. A panther leaps at you just after you lose your life’s love in a lush, humid jungle. In the next scene, you’re in a twin-propeller plane that crashes, killing the pilot sitting next to you. When you awaken you’re in a stormy Antarctica, crafted with extraordinary ice mountains all around. As you nurse your concussed head, there are moments of joy. Playful penguins belly-slide on the ice and flop into the churning sea.
The artwork in this VR equivalent of a page-turner is almost phenomenal, but you do see very flat, one-dimensional ice floes below in the cold sea. While that discovery took me momentarily away from the mystery at hand, I soon found myself climbing massive ice walls. They crackled menacingly: I realized I could easily fall to my death if I lingered. I looked back to the stunning mountains, ocean and tundra, which settled me. It was beautiful, as if I were in an IMAX nature movie.
As the story unfolds, I find an insane man shoot at me. He’s been infected by a plant that looks like Sputnik with tendrils that rhythmically change into sharp, poisonous spikes. When a creeping, insect-like creature swiftly moves by, I get goosebumps. There’s no time for chills as there are many I have to fight off with rocks.
While the feeling of trying to find my Siren-like scientist/wife Eva can be downright eerie, the constant climbing of ice walls makes me think there should me more to “Edge of Nowhere.” It’s not a thin, tedious experience, but it is repetitive. Perhaps there should be some penguin-like belly slides in between the third or fourth ice climb to break things up. In other words, “Edge of Nowhere” could have benefited from a wider variety of ways to play.
Developed by: Playful
Published by: Playful
“Lucky’s Tale” is a happy, jaunty kids’ platformer inspired by Sony’s “Crash Bandicoot” and Nintendo’s “Mario “games. The anthropomorphic Lucky jumps, leaps and collects gold coins, all the while leaving a trail of dust behind him as he speeds forth in high-top sneakers. In this colorful world, the environment can encircle you and you sometimes feel like an omnipotent giant looking down and around. While it’s not very VR-heavy visually, there are some marvelous moments. You can look down into cavernous waterfalls. And fish from lakes leap out onto your face, er, your headset.
Lucky is a fluffy, tail-wagging fox but there’s nothing particularly new in this tale: He’s searching in every nook and cranny for a lost porcine friend. While there’s fun here, it’s a game that’s too short. Lucky has the potential to be a popular VR mascot, yet that won’t happen until there’s a second offering which adds inventive game play to Lucky’s sweet joie de vivre.
There’s an odd conundrum here. Though the game is non-violent and meant to be played by children, Oculus’ website bears a warning that the headset shouldn’t be donned by kids under 13. Extended play “could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance and multi-tasking ability.” The cautionary statement is fairly difficult to find on the site and it’s not displayed on the retail box, either. When asked, an Oculus representative said the company suggests that kids playing games like Lucky’s Tale should be supervised by adults.
“Albino Lullaby, Episode 1”
Developed by: Ape Law
Published by: Ape Law
There’s no doubt that horror is the most engrossing VR experience. While the best is yet to come (probably with Resident Evil 7 for Sony’s PSVR in January, 2017), “Albino Lullaby” is a reasonably terror-inducing effort. It prides itself on being a frightfest without the easy jump scares that can be so unsettling in VR. So it’s more Alfred Hitchcock than it is James Wan. Moments after you begin, an echoing, disembodied voice whispers pleadingly, “Remember us. Come back for us.” Ahead is a Jenny Holzer-like sign which reads, “All Prisoners Must Be Fully Sedated.”
Actually, you are a “worm,” a ragamuffin trying to escape a haunted orphanage populated by grim oddities with devilish, agonized faces. The game, with rooms you sometimes twist and turn like a Rubik’s Cube to solve puzzles and find your way out of, has all the non-linear logic of a Dali-esque nightmare. But the artwork, which at its weakest recalls the PlayStation 2 era, takes me out of the game.
Even with the Dramamine, I’m dizzied. Soldiering on, I become engaged as I meet The Grandchildren, phallic, flesh colored sticks onto which are drawn gross, giant faces. There are many of these and I must be stealthy to avoid them if I have any hope of escape. In the end, “Albino Lullaby” wins by creating a unique, frightening environment. But it’s set back by weak graphics and a rambling story.
The current batch of Rift games aren’t astounding from beginning to end, especially when compared to today’s console games. Some I didn’t review seemed more like tech demos than games.
If you delve into history, the first lot of PlayStation games back in 1995 weren’t perfect, either. Still, they showed promise and so do the Rift’s experiences. As the creators begin to understand more fully what the audience wants, you may well see a future bright with games that are more involving, more audacious — and less nausea-inducing, too.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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