Thursday, July 12, 2012

REVIEW - Gravity Rush.

In order to properly impress upon you how crazy this game's story is,
I'm going to spoil some stuff.  Don't worry - it's all Act I stuff. 

Y'know the Bionic Commando's reboot?  Did you think the swing mechanic was a fresh, inspired spin on your run-of-the-mill platformer - revitalizing the gleeful sense that only platformers can give?

Y'know open-world platformers like Sly 2 or inFamous?  Did you find your greatest pleasure there in just wandering around the open worlds, collecting clue bottles and energy shards?

Y'know how Valkyria Chronicles didn't look so much like an anime as a manga that had been animated? 

Y'know shows like Sailor Moon?  Magical Girl shows? 

If the coalescence of a brilliantly different kind of platformer that encourages players to fling themselves around a gorgeous open world with art design that turns a platform's weakness into a feature while leaning on  Japanese storytelling tropes sounds like your cup of tea..? 

You need to play Gravity Rush. 

Meet Kat.  She is a Magical Girl. 

She awakens, wearing very strange clothes, in the floating city of Hekseville, having no idea who she is or where she came from.  Hekseville is a slightly-steampunk / art deco / Victorian city seemingly suspended in space, attached to a gargantuan pillar that extends up to infinity above and to nothingness below.   It's... a pretty gorgeous place.

At a distance, the city is art - sharp silhouettes gently washed with watercolor blots of warm oranges, cool greens or vibrant purple. It's a wonderful study of strong, dynamic line art and lazy brushstrokes of color.  

Kat's magical-ness comes from her cat, Dusty - who's not so much a cat as he is a sentient, temperamental cat-shaped tear in the fabric of space and time.

With Dusty at her side, Kat is capable of controlling her personal gravity at will - so "down" is whatever direction she desires - for example, sideways and slightly to the left.

This isn't flying.  This is falling with style.

After discovering her strange powers may be an asset to those around her, Kat falls down a sewer...

...and decides it's the perfect place to call home.

Then she meets God...

He'll flash you - with knowledge mankind was not meant to grasp.

...and after that?  It gets a little weird.  

Gravity Rush is replete with the tropes of anime and manga storytelling - and not in a bad way.  Kat is a profoundly positive girl - sharing more than a little personality with June's other gaming heroine - and entirely agreeable to almost everything that's asked of her.  While it would have been nice for her to have a bit more personality, it makes her easy to like - and permits her to be shuttled from one minor disaster in need of repair to the next - and when the game eventually descends into strange religious and spiritual metaphors, it's hard to mind.

The title gives the very real sense that there are deep and meaningful answers right around the corner - and while a few are covered, the most enticing ones are left to player's imaginations - or, more likely, the sequel.

By the game's end, you are the keystone in a mighty structure of Magical Girl power, and the title feels very much as it should - an introduction.  A first chapter in what may become a beloved franchise, leaving the bigger questions to be answered down the road.

While the game isn't voiced (characters occasionally speak in what sounds like a gibberish mix of Japanese and Russian), Kohei Tanaka lays down another wonderful soundtrack.  At first the music's tone - and heavy emphasis on wind instruments (yeah, I get it) bring a bit too much of his work on Resonance of Fate to mind, but he invests each of Hekseville's disparate boroughs a huge degree of personality - and when things get weird(er), he more than rises to the occasion.

A gorgeous game.  A cool/fun story.  A pleasing, affecting soundtrack.  Is it all good?  Of course not.

What flaws there are, though, are minuscule.  They're little touches it would have been nice to see, but one can live without.  For example, when I'm attempting a challenge mission which could kill me, it would be nice to be given the option to re-start the challenge, instead of waiting through a load screen which returns me to the open world, and then waiting through the load screen to go back into the challenge.

While we're on that subject, load times are a teensy bit too long.

While we're on the subject of tech, occasionally - if you come in super fast - the game will hitch up for a moment as you fly into one of its boroughs while it loads textures.

Elsewhere?  The little touches - the sparks of thoughtful, intelligent design - are delicious.

Here is a map screen, for example.

Highlighted in green, you'll see a pair of destinations that are rather close together.  In any other game, selecting one or the other is always a bit of a crap shoot, and prone to frustrating error.

In Gravity Rush, the system senses when icons are placed too close together, so when you tap one of them...

...both expand, allowing you to clearly choose one or the other.  A nice touch.  This thoughtfulness of design extends - thankfully - to the gameplay.

The player learns early on that, for example, once you fall for more than a few meters, you won't have a happy landing.  Striking the ground with enough velocity will cause Kat to tumble head-over-heels, and take a few precious seconds to gather herself to her feet.

There are countless little (undocumented, unexplained) pro-moves built into the game, that allow the player to more than simply understand Kat's abilities - but to master them.  Plummeting at terminal velocity towards the ground - if you dodge at the last moment - Kat will flip up and catch herself in an elegant, skidding stop.

At first, it's easy to overlook how well-animated the girl is - but once you've got her cartwheeling through the sky, pulling hair-pin turns at ridiculous speed and scraping together perfect landings, one can't suggest the game is less than wonderfully-presented, and thoughtfully executed.  

It's just fun, fun fun fun to play - a stunning success for a title built on such wholly unorthodox gameplay.  It's as weird as the combat in Batman: Arkham City working so well.  

It's the presentation that draws one forward, as it offers up its very strange mechanics.  I could try to explain that you use the right analog stick to adjust the camera and send Kat flying into space with the right trigger (or hold down square for an immediate air-dash to your max speed), but it may be better described as a... platforming shooter, where what you shoot is yourself.

Kat is both the gun and the bullet, and given that she's essentially skydiving everywhere she goes, the player can apply a liberal degree of aftertouch to their "gravity shots."  As she plummets skyward, you can gently manipulate the left stick to squeeze her through the narrowest of gaps, launching her over the city and tapping the left trigger to return to normal gravity - her trajectory arcs, and she comes to a skidding stop on Hekseville's cobbles.


Kat can create a gravity field around her - useful for fetch quests and, occasionally, weaponization of your environment.

The city - in addition to being gorgeous - is brilliantly designed.  From Kat's perspective, every direction is up and every surface potentially the ground as she walks across the underside of a bridge, looking up at the pedestrians below.  This entire game is a piece of M.C. Escher architecture in which you feel perfectly comfortable walking up a wall to trot along a ceiling before falling off it and going tumbling into the clouds.

Hours upon hours will be happily lost, here.  You'll be soaring through the town's pleasure district, on your way to some hugely important Magical Girl emergency and ooh, precious gems!

Whoosh!  With a shift of the camera and a twist of her torso, Kat switches directions and blasts off towards her new target.  Here - as with nearly all open-world platformers - the greatest joy is rarely found within the story missions.  Instead, the game's greatest pleasure comes from just faffing about the floating city and the forgotten realms that surround it, searching for hidden precious gems to collect or particularly mean enemies to defeat.

Built in to the game is a sizable chunk of character progression - Kat's abilities are significantly weaker at the beginning of the game, and you choose which to enhance with your collected precious gems.  Some of the greatest moments in the title come during this early time, when the player is often at very real risk of exhausting their gravity gauge as they fling themselves from one safe platform to the next.

It creates a fabulous tension, and instills in the player a mindfulness of their abilities - but it's short-lived.  By the halfway mark, a well-leveled gravity gauge will refill itself so quickly you can essentially stay aloft forever - flinging yourself into the sky before releasing gravity, plummeting towards the ground before zing! your gravity gauge kicks in and whoosh! you're off again.

By the latter third of Gravity Rush, Kat is endgame Alex Mercer.  She is a maxed-out Delta in BioShock 2.  She is, for lack of a better term, an all-powerful gravity-shifting goddess of good cheer and ass kicking.  Now, getting from A to B is no longer a thrilling challenge - it's just a matter of course, and a matter of style.

Fortunately, the game is so long on style and falling across the floating city of Hekseville remains such a grand, wholesome pleasure that one doesn't mind in the least how easy it's become.  It's unfortunate that the developers saw fit to adjust the title's late-game balance only in combat (though there are some fabulous dogfights, here and there), as the combat - while stylish - is a lot less endearing than the locomotion, and can often feel like busywork.  

I'm more than happy to kick the crap out of a few hundred creatures of darkness, though, if it means I'll get to return to the skies and underbelly of Hekseville.  Gravity Rush is beautifully-presented, with a zany story and excellent music, and while it's the game's concept - the image of a girl, standing sideways on a skyscraper as her hair points the way down - that sold many of us on the game, it's the moment-to-moment pleasure of its play that makes it the grandest Vita game I've laid hands on.  

A truly successful open-world platformer is the rarest of pleasures - not seen since last year's inFamous 2 and its prequel in 2009.  If, like me, you can find no greater joy in gaming than making your way around a fantastical world, snatching up collectibles, Gravity Rush would like a word.

It's not merely a successful open-world platformer, but one with mechanics so far removed from the standard it borders on lunacy.  Gravity Rush's concept and mechanics would have been the toast of the town if they'd been leveraged in a charming 2D indie game - but here, we are blessed with a full-scale release, replete with gorgeous art, stirring music, pleasing narrative and absolutely sublime gameplay.

It is, like the objects of Kat's affections, a precious gem.  I'm already dying for the sequel.  

  • this is the funnest 3D platformer I've played since inFamous 2
  • If you don't understand what a big deal that is, please understand - it's a huge deal
  • gorgeous presentation - I love the cell shading and the way distant structures appear as watercolored pen-and-ink drawings
  • the feel of jetting Kat through the air is, frankly, incredible.  I really didn't expect them to implement it this well - and the game is packed with little techniques to really master her abilities. 
  • the design of the game's environments really takes advantage of its unique mechanics
  • "Ooh, precious gems!"
  • I love Kat's animations as she whips through the air, and comes to a screetching landing. 
  • leveling Kat up really allows the player a sense of progression - you are incredibly powerful by the endgame
  • great music from Kohei Tanaka 
  • the story is fun!
  • tons of thoughtful little touches (the map expansion, for example)
  • I love how weird the game is prepared to get.  It takes you to some amazing places. 
  • Magicaaal Girrrl Powerrr!
  • it's a great-feeling open-world platformer with totally unique mechanics
  • the game's auto-save system is excellent.  It never ever left me with too far to go, to get back to where I was.
  • fun fun fun fun
  • load times are a touch long
  • leans a bit heavy on combat in the latter half - and combat is not the game's strength
  • there are a few missing touches. When I hit the top of the sky and you don't want me to go any further?  Just switch to natural gravity and make me fall - don't make me wait through a load screen.
  • I get why the Gravity Slide has to be controlled by the touchscreen, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. 
  • your gravity shifting becomes so powerful that it erases any tension from the mechanic - but it's still fun as hell
Buy this game. 

Little touch No. 8 : I love how Kat will drift in to an arrow shape when she's really flyin'.  She's like a human fighter jet.

1 comment:

  1. One of my absolute favorite "little things" that took this game from good to great for me was the gyro-controlled comic cutscenes. I NEVER got tired of tilting the Vita around while reading them. It was the best 3D effect I've ever seen outside the 3DS.

    It wasn't necessary at all, but they put it in, and I love them for it.