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By Harold Goldberg, Special To The Washington Post
After all the hype and fanboy adulation, the time has come for virtual reality gaming to prove its staying power. That’s because PlayStation VR, now available for $400, has the chance to become the planet’s VR system of choice. Not as expensive as the Oculus Rift ($599), it attaches to any of 40 million PlayStation 4 systems already sitting in the living rooms of gamers around the world. The headset and wires do, however, require about an hour of fumbling, fiddling, fussing and adjusting to set up.
While the artwork and graphics aren’t quite as clear and detailed as the Oculus Rift’s, PS VR has something that’s perhaps more important: engaging game narrative. Currently, VR games are not subtle beasts (although judging from VR films like “Notes on Blindness,” games can and sometimes should be). But PS VR games hit you over the head with visceral thrills and non-stop action. The most compelling of these are horror games because at their best they come packed with heart-stoppingly ghastly, occasionally humorous narrative along with thoughtfully melodramatic game design. Since this is Halloween season, let’s focus on three chilling games.
“Until Dawn: Rush of Blood”
Developed by: Supermassive Games
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
I’m somewhat embarrassed to confess that I jumped, whimpered, swore and cringed in fear when playing “Until Dawn: Rush of Blood,” a game which takes you on a dark ride in shaky, roller-coaster fashion a la the Coney Island Cyclone. The seven, 15-minute levels of surreal insanity are hosted by acclaimed indie film director Larry Fessenden. Best known for Hitchcockian horror films, Fessenden does a turnabout here as he introduces bloody, insidious chapters of horror as a sardonic, straw-hatted, bow-tied circus carny.
Yes, the sudden in-your-face appearances of sullen ghouls, raving witches and stealthy demons become expected by the game’s finale. But prior to that, this arcade shooter is so imaginative, that it’s the ultimate dark ride, virtual or non-virtual. Giant creepy dolls with black pupils and bloody tears leer at you. Oversized pigs on meat hooks rock back and forth, threatening to knock you over. And multiple clowns with fiery eyes wield machetes aimed at your head. It’s all completely disquieting.
“Rush of Blood” didn’t make me dizzy, except in one instance. Trying to complete a portion featuring The Psycho, the game’s antagonist, I had to repeat a section that started just as the roller coaster sped up faster than ever before. I played for an hour and still couldn’t get through it. By then, my head was weary and I felt sick. Still, it’s the best of the horror bunch.
“Batman: Arkham VR”
Developed by: Rocksteady Studios
Published by: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Nothing proves both the brilliance and failure of these early experimental stages of virtual reality gaming more than the new Batman game. In “Batman: Arkham VR” you don the legendary suit, cowl mask and accoutrements to move by elevator far down into the Batcave. Here, you really feel like you are the Dark Knight, filled with a sense of strength, intelligence and otherworldliness. Looking around the massive Batcave world is somehow like witnessing Victoria Falls set in a dark, menacing grotto. The soaring water feature is grimly beautiful — stunning but creepy, too. You then test weapons like the Batarang and these make you feel like you have a superhero’s power, certainly enough to give The Joker a good drubbing.
It’s during Batman’s detective work that the game becomes bogged down. Piecing together the reasons for superhero Nightwing’s murder was generally unfulfilling. Here, you scan the body to see what parts were injured and manipulate time in a kind of dawdling instant replay to witness the violence that led up to the hero’s death. However slow, it has its moments. But searching items and bodies, 1990s adventure game style, for evidence in a morgue didn’t give me a feeling of accomplishment even when I discovered the clues.
And when I couldn’t find a clue, the small morgue felt catastrophically claustrophobic. I’m not saying VR works best when it’s all action. Story is still very important. But I am saying that under VR’s heavy-ish headset, it’s easy to become bored and impatient when a game plods on.
“Here They Lie”
Developed by: The Tangentlemen
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
As you begin “Here They Lie,” you realize something is already dead. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s your relationship. Maybe it’s both. You meet your former lover, a beautiful woman who is dressed in a striking yellow sundress. Her garb is in stark opposition to this dystopian world with its bleak black and white palette. She leads you to a subway and as you move from car to car, fires blaze and fiery demons lurk. Yet you aren’t burning. This satisfying early portion is clearly inspired by a long tradition of horror movies taking place in subways and train stations — everything from Guillermo Del Toro’s “Mimic” to “Midnight Meat Train,” which is based on a Clive Barker short story.
Later, as you move through a filthy slum of an urban landscape, you’re asked to club men in wolf and ram masks. Fiery-eyed demons batter the city’s less fortunate dwellers. Then, they come after you. There’s a surreal, nightmarish aspect to the areas you explore, including a debauched red light district. Toward the end, you walk through a candlelit, Dali-esque castle as statues fall and crumble nearby. It all morphs into a lava-like psychedelic maw. Throughout your journey, the detailed environments and characters you meet are effective, primarily in the sense that the entire experience impales you on a spear of sheer hopelessness.
Four things prevent “Here They Lie” from being completely creditable. It’s unrelentingly depressing. You never feel you’ve triumphed against anything. And although you make the occasional moral choice, it’s less a game than an experience. It’s also the most nausea-inducing VR offering I’ve ever played. The developers care more about affecting your mind and controlling your emotions than they do about your physical ability to complete their slice of grim fantasy.