Monday, October 21, 2013

Dazed and Confused: Gravity Rush

A young girl wakes up in the gutters of Hekseville, a towering city in the sky, with no memory of her past or her own identity. Accompanied by a black, star-speckled cat, she's immediately thrust into action to save the life of a young boy whose house is being ripped from the city structure by a gravity storm. It's then that she becomes aware of her powers -- or rather, those of the cat who follows her -- to shift gravity. With this ability she runs along walls and even flies through the sky, but despite rescuing the boy, she's unable to save the house, and is met with contempt by the townsfolk who still look down on her and her kind; gravity shifters.

Gravity Rush, a PlayStation Vita exclusive (and one of the most compelling reasons to own a Vita), tells the story of Kat and her gravity-shifting companion Dusty as she attempts to adjust to life in Hekseville while putting her superpowers to good use. Initially, this means finding a place to live and furnishing it, but she quickly becomes a key figure in fending off the monstrous "nevi" afflicting the city, and in restoring sections of the town lost to the gravity storms. It's basically a superhero origin story with lots of deep, subtle storytelling and tons of mind-bending, gravity-altering physics bent around platforming, combat, and exploration.

In a market saturated by sequels and franchise spin-offs, it's always refreshing to play a completely original game with its own unique identity. Gravity Rush is a solid new entry from Project Siren (makers of the Siren series), but as with basically all new games, there are a few kinks holding it back from reaching its full potential. It's a diamond in the rough -- fun to play and pretty to witness, but rough nonetheless.

The majority of gameplay takes place in the city streets of Hekseville, which serves as your basic hub for the game. Like many sandbox games, you're free to roam about and do your own things, like talking to NPCs, picking up side-quests, completing optional challenges, and collecting gems to upgrade your abilities. Every so often, though, you're forced to advance the story by taking on a main mission. Many of these take place within the confines of the city, but the more interesting ones take place in rift planes -- ethereal realms that link different dimensions of spacetime.

Controlling gravity in outer space.

Your overarching goal is to restore the lost parts of the town by freeing them from gravity storms, with each lost district featuring its own self-contained "level" within the rift planes. The whole game feels kind of like a Mario game, except obviously dressed up in a completely different skin; you wander the hub city and choose missions that send you into uniquely themed areas (one modeled after a ruined city, another a fiery inferno, another a cosmic space theme) that emphasize exploration, platforming, and item collecting. This is where the gameplay really shines, with each rift plane offering unique ways to play with gravity, along with concrete goals to accomplish as you progress towards a final boss fight.

In the rift planes, you navigate a mostly linear course from beginning to end. Along the way you have to use your gravity powers to navigate the course (or sometimes due to plot reasons, you're left without your powers and have to rely on basic jumping and moving platforms), which sometimes function a little like a puzzle. At other times, you have to stop and fight a series of enemies to advance to the next area. All the while you're free to venture off the beaten path a little to explore for gems, to find special hidden powers, and to face rare nevi sub-bosses. While the actual gameplay feels reminiscent of a Mario game, the premise of each rift plane in the greater context makes it feel kind of like going into a dungeon in a Zelda game.

The hub city Hekseville is full of its own splendor and enjoyment as well. Hekseville is itself a majestic sight to behold, with its quasi-steampunk architecture jutting into the sky and its detailed infrastructure. Should you venture underneath the city, you're treated to an equally beautiful-in-its-griminess depiction of the city's industrial underbelly and supporting system. The visual design mixed with some wonderfully inspired music makes traversing the city a whimsical pleasure in its own right, but the gravity system also promotes a lot of fun and rewarding exploration. Littered about Hekseville are precious gems, the currency used to upgrade your abilities; I was pleased at how often I'd jump off the side of the city and find a wealth of gems hidden along support beams, since the gravity control lets you reach all kinds of places you'd never reach in other games.

Just hanging out in Hekseville

But as marvelous as the city is to behold, the whole thing unfortunately comes up feeling hollow and lifeless because of how little interactivity there actually is within this world. It presents you with this rather large city with hundreds of people roaming its streets, and yet you can only talk to three or four NPCs that are marked on your map. There are houses and buildings all over the place, and yet you can't set foot in any of them. There are shops set up on the streets, and yet you can't buy anything from them. There's hardly anything to actually do in this place besides collecting gems and completing optional challenges.

When entering a new chapter (by completing a main mission), gameplay is basically as follows: you open your map to see what new icons have popped up for NPCs with whom you can talk, or pieces of the city that you can repair by spending gems. You then click on the icon to set up a waypoint and then zoom past everything to get to the waypoint, because literally nothing in-between actually matters. Whenever you repair a part of the city, you unlock a challenge that dumps you into an isolated instance with varying goals (defeat as many nevi within the time limit, race to the finish line as fast as possible); this is the most substantial thing for you to do in the game besides hunting for gems and going through main missions, and yet they feel wholly out of place and basically unnecessary.

The challenges are there seemingly just to provide a challenge (hence the name) for completionists striving for bragging rights and trophies (ie, achievements). The problem is they don't feel very well-integrated with the gamespace because they're separate from everything else and break the game's continuity when you enter one. Other than that, it's basically impossible to achieve a gold medal in any of them until you've upgraded all of your abilities -- in other words, they're impossibly challenging when you first unlock them, and then a complete breeze if you wait and just come back to them later. And yet, the gems they award you are basically useless since you can acquire more than enough gems to max out all of your skills just by exploring the world, which I found much more enjoyable anyway.

Grabbing and throwing objects as per the challenge

So Gravity Rush is a game that doesn't really give you many ways in which to interact with its world, and yet it also rarely ever lets go of your hand. From the constant waypoint markers to the constant tutorial messages all telling you exactly what to do, even reminding you how to do things it already told you a few hours ago, my experience with Gravity Rush left me begging to be let go to do things on my own. At one point you're given a quest from a fortune teller to follow a set of obscure clues to a destination, and yet the game pops waypoint markers telling you exactly where to go while Kat figures out the interpretation, rather than letting you figure out the puzzle for yourself. At one point you're sent to flip a switch somewhere, and when you approach the device you don't even get to press a button to flip the switch -- the screen fades out and back in with a sound effect, further exemplifying the relative lack of interactivity in this game.

Besides that, the game tends to over-emphasize its combat, which proves ultimately dull and repetitive.The town is besieged by gravity storms, which bring with them monstrous foes known as the nevi. The nevi take on various forms throughout the game, ranging from simple, small blobs that crawl along the ground to huge, flying insect-like creatures. The game gives you various ways to fight enemies, including basic grounded kicks, roll dodges, sliding kicks, aerial kicks, objecting flinging, and various special attacks, but throughout most of the game you're forced into situations where your only option is to gravity kick targets because you can't reach them with a regular kick, or because there aren't any objects around to throw at your targets.

A somewhat tedious boss battle exemplifying the monotonous combat

It's all the same basic strategy no matter what enemy you're fighting, since literally every enemy has the same weakness. Every single nevi has one or more red spherical cores that protrude somewhere from its body, and for every single nevi, defeating them is just a matter of hitting each core enough for it to break. So for every single enemy in every single fight, you just target the core. Factor in that many enemies leave you no choice but to use the gravity kick, which sends you flying across the screen like a bullet towards your target, wherein you simply point and click to execute your attack, and you have a combat system that proves really simplistic and repetitive. It got to a point where I simply dreaded fighting more enemies just because of how monotonous it had become.

What makes Gravity Rush worth playing, though, is the simple fun to be had from controlling gravity. By pressing the R button you become weightless and float in the air. From here, you can aim anywhere you want, press R again, and go flying to that surface. If you aim at a wall, your feet will gravitate to the wall and you'll be able to run along it. If you jump off the side of the building, you'll start falling parallel to the ground, because your gravity is still oriented sideways, until you land on the side of another building or press R to shift back into weightlessness. Or you can just fly through the city like Superman (Supergirl?) by changing velocity with the R button.

There are two very important things that make gravity shifting so much fun. First of all is that it's easy to control; the beginning of the game serves as an introduction to the story and world while also being a tutorial for the various game mechanics. The tutorial does a fine job of teaching you how things work and letting you get the hang of everything so that by the time you're done you're ready to fling yourself all over town with impeccable accuracy and control. Second is that the camera does a pretty good job of keeping up with your rapid movement. With the frequent shifts in orientation, it'd be all too easy for the gameplay to become a disorienting, bumbling mess, but the camera adjusts fluidly to the changes and was usually good about pointing the way I expected. Failing that, you can press down on the plus pad to revert the camera back to a standard "up is up" orientation.

Gravity sliding in the Inferno rift plane.

Words can't do the flying or gravity shifting sufficient justice. It just feels so natural in this game, and it offers a whole lot of freedom for creative exploration (going underneath the city, flying over rooftops, etc). Earlier in this review I mentioned being disappointed by how little there is to do when you're just roaming about the city between missions, but flying around the city is so much fun that you almost don't even notice in actual gameplay.

The bulk of the game is controlled with the two joysticks, with the left dominating movement and the right dominating camera control; the four face buttons are used for basic actions like jump, attack, and so on. Where Gravity Rush throws in some unique twists is with the touchscreen; by pressing and holding both edges of the screen, you can make Kat slide forward along the ground at high speeds. By tilting the device, you can make her turn; removing one thumb from the touchscreen makes her drift mid-turn. You can also tilt the device to aim yourself during gravity shifts. As gimmicky as it would seem to add touch and motion controls to a third-person action-adventure game like this, they feel pretty good and add quite a bit to the game's appeal.

The story, meanwhile, is fairly engaging to follow and offers a lot of subtle depth, depending on far you want to dig. If you really pay attention, you might notice that a lot of seemingly trivial and incidental comments are actually connected to things you discover later, and it's the sort of game that can make you ask a lot of questions. The questions aren't always answered, unfortunately, leaving many elements of the game's backstory and lore open to interpretation, but as with any good game, it's the sort of subject matter that can make you think, while making it clear that there's more to the lore than just what you see on the surface. It's just disappointing that the game's final stretch comes off feeling so anti-climactic, and that the game ends so abruptly with zero resolution after the final boss fight.

Kat as she gains consciousness at the start of the game.

Kat is a likable protagonist -- ambitious and enthusiastic with the plausible character flaw of sometimes being a little naive -- but her characterization wavers at a few points in the story. For starters, she doesn't seem concerned at all about her amnesia and just contentedly goes along with everything, which made accepting her as a character a bit jarring at first. Then later, after being established as a strong, independent young woman coming to terms with her powers, she begins to mope inexplicably about not having a boyfriend and fawns over the prospect of meeting a handsome guy. That moment of emotional weakness came out of nowhere and seemed to conflict with her established personality.

With Gravity Rush being my first experience playing a Vita-exclusive game, I can't say how well it stacks up to other Vita games. Glancing over the library of available and upcoming games, it's clear that Gravity Rush is a must-have for any Vita owner; it's fun, it's engaging, and it offers a fairly unique experience in a completely original, upstart game series that you simply can't find elsewhere. But it's not without its problems, and its announced sequel could benefit from a few crucial refinements. If you don't own a Vita and are looking for the killer app to justify the investment, Gravity Rush is probably not it, but it's a satisfying experience nonetheless. 

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