ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gravity Rush – Dizzyingly Enjoyable (Review)

With the videogame industry generally settled on a few select genres that like to reiterate the same style and mechanics over and over it’s easy to forget just how artful, creative, and unique the medium can be, but even two years after its original release Gravity Rush (aka Gravity Daze in the east) does an excellent job reminding us just how much more games can be than the accepted norm.

Inspired by the style of French comic artists Moebius and Hergé, Gravity Rush takes place in the cel-shaded floating city of Hekseville. Though the busy streets feature no actual French text or dialogue and the story and content are distinctly Japanese there is a persistent European feel to the setting that, honestly, far too few games explore. But this is only one of many ways Gravity Rush doesn’t adhere to the standard. In fact, it doesn’t seem to care about pandering to any particular audience at all—and that’s the best decision the creators could have made.

The Gameplay

As the title implies, Gravity Rush is built around the protagonist Kat’s ability to alter the orientation of gravity for herself (well, actually it’s her cosmic cat’s ability that she is somehow able to tap into, but, more on that later). Now, in a world of mostly linear games such a neat idea could easily have been hampered by the developers deciding to only allow shifting gravity in specific places in specific ways, but thankfully this is not the case here. In fact, the game rarely suggests how you should use your abilities at all, though it does make sure to provide opportunities that showcase them quite nicely. At first you will be restricted from ‘falling’ to certain locations outside the starting area, but fear not: the game opens up considerably as the story progresses, so much so that I even had the ability to explore areas I assumed would always be off-limits. By the story’s end I had visited just about everything I ever saw at a distance—and all of it seamlessly. There are no loading screens between areas of the game, and due to its highly stylized nature I rarely noticed pop-in from texture and geometry streaming. All this lends to a tremendous sense of freedom that makes just moving around a joy and thrill. The feel of gravity shifting is undoubtedly the make-or-break of this game, and it is unbelievably smooth and natural for being the first title in what will hopefully develop into a staple series for Sony. Hekseville is excellently designed for being explored from every angle—a very creative feat—and there’s plenty to do in it to keep you busy for a good 10-15 hours.

That’s where gravity shifting becomes more than just a means of getting around. As it turns out, the city of Hekseville is plagued with dark gelatinous monsters called Nevi that appear from ‘gravity storms’ out of nowhere and terrorize civilians. As a gravity shifter you are able to defeat the monsters by hurling yourself into their weak spots. Tilting the Playstation Vita while floating in mid-air will fine-tune your aim. Touch controls also come into play on foot, where you can swipe the screen to dodge in the direction of your finger or hold both thumbs down to perform a ‘gravity slide’ and end in a smack that deals a fair amount more damage than a good old-fashioned roundhouse kick (which is always an option on smaller Nevi as well). Over time Kat acquires a few overdrive-type abilities that come in handy during big battles, but for the most part you’ll be spending time with the regular ‘gravity kick’. It’s not the most precise maneuver, but I found that to be its charm rather than a frustration. Becoming proficient at recovery as well as shifting and combat in general is part of the fun, and always knowing you could easily miss your target keeps you on your toes and makes the tilt controls all the more natural and engaging.

And you’ll only be spending a portion of your time fighting, anyway. There are a variety of side missions to be unlocked around Hekseville, usually by repairing a broken machine with ‘precious gems’ that can be found floating all over the city. These challenge missions vary from delivery tasks using a gravity field to bring people and objects around with you to gravity slide races against the clock, and a simple bronze/silver/gold scoring system will keep you motivated to actually try and complete each one a number of times. Seriously, once the story is over, the challenge missions are easily fun enough to warrant picking up Gravity Rush again as an arcade experience.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Gravity Rush is just plain fun. Gravity shifting is not a gimmick, it’s a fully realized mechanic that feels great and doesn’t age quickly. The controls work well, right down to the infamous (but necessary, in this case) motion and touch methods. The entire game world was built to be shifted through, and it plainly shows. From a mechanical perspective Gravity Rush would be terrific on a television console; on a less powerful handheld it’s a masterpiece of programming.

The Story

I’ll just say this up front: not everyone is going to appreciate the tale Gravity Rush has to tell. It’s strange, it’s disorienting, just like the shifting mechanic it was made for. And yet while it doesn’t ever really explain itself on several accounts, with the proper cultural and scientific context it is possible to see where things are going. I don’t put spoilers in my reviews when I can avoid it, so suffice it to say that if you are familiar with Japanese stories and understand the basic connection between gravity and time—yes, time—you will get a lot more out of Gravity Rush than someone who has less knowledge about such things.

As previously mentioned, you play as the heroine Kat, so named because she begins the game with amnesia and a star-speckled cat named Dusty who quickly forms the basis for her identity. This cat also is what grants her the ability to shift gravity, and she wastes little time putting it to use to help others. Thus she becomes the ‘Gravity Queen’ of Hekseville, an adorable sort of pure and innocent super hero, a teenager at heart thrust into grown-up responsibilities that she always handles with a cheerful, carefree attitude—the polar opposite and a refreshing change from popular sulky antiheros in countless other stories of late.

But of course, things don’t stay so straightforward for long. As Kat begins to discover more and more about this world she awoke in remembering nothing of things take one turn after another towards the bizarre. For the most part it’s all plot devices we’ve seen before, but never put together like Gravity Rush. Just when you think you’ve figured out the game’s angle it throws another curve ball and takes things in a wildly different, yet somehow consistent new direction. Normally I come away from such stories feeling like the writer was trying too hard to add gravity (no pun intended) to an otherwise soulless story, but not here. To those that get it Gravity Rush is appropriately mind bending, but even so it could stand to explain itself a bit more to keep everyone on track. Most likely, in keeping with the comic book theme, Gravity Rush was never meant to be a standalone adventure. We’ll need more ‘issues’ before we fully understand what’s going on, but until then we know enough to appreciate what’s there. Just be prepared for a rather abrupt ending that doesn’t begin to explain all the questions raised along the way.

The Style

You won’t often see this as a category of its own in my reviews. That’s because most games don’t aim for style like this one does. Gravity Rush is a blend of realism and surrealism, all shaded to look like a western European comic book. In motion the cel-shading effect is minimized by the action, but pause and look around any given scene for a while and you’ll appreciate just how good the game is as a piece of art. There are also a number of actual hand-drawn pieces used to tell the story in an interactive comic strip format. Though subtle, these story sequences make terrific use of the Vita’s motion sensors by keeping the image oriented right side up no matter how you rotate the device, and giving a parallax 3D effect to most art pieces by tilting the Vita left and right. It might not sound like much, but being able to look around the fantastic artwork like the Vita is a window to another world really adds a great immersive quality to what could have been a lifeless slideshow, albeit a nice one to look at, in any case.

A special mention must also go to the game’s soundtrack, composed by the renowned Kohei Tanaka. A story as varied as Gravity Rush requires a soundtrack that is equally so, and while evidences of its Japanese roots are present, for the most part the soundtrack pulls off all sorts of European flair with utmost style. When flying (read: falling) through the sky defeating Nevi and saving citizens a sweeping orchestra dips and rises, alternating between deep emotion and grand determination. When racing around the entertainment district a jazzy band sets the pace. When exploring outside Kat’s home in the sewers of Auldnoir just for the sheer joy of gravity shifting a blissfully romantic wind and string combo perfectly expresses the wonder of the gamer. In every case—and again, there are many of them—the soundtrack is always just what it needs to be, and then some.

The Verdict

In fact, that statement seems a pretty good way to describe Gravity Rush on the whole: it doesn’t settle for average. It doesn’t even stop at ‘good enough’. Though not entirely perfect it’s certainly one of the best things to ever hit the Playstation Vita, let alone gaming in general in recent years. Original, imaginative mechanics executed beautifully, a compelling, lighthearted heroine, a story that will keep you hooked even if it is incomplete and you don’t understand it, brilliant European-style artwork, a wonderful soundtrack—the list could go on, but you get the idea. It may be too different to go mainstream, but Gravity Rush certainly deserves every fan it can get. What faults it has are entirely negligible amidst the sheer delight of all it has to offer, and even those few low points can be chocked up to this being the first game of its kind. Should more entries to the series come in the future—and they definitely should—there is still plenty of room to explore new places and ideas and patch up the minor flaws of old ones. But even on its own Gravity Rush provides a fun and addictive look into a unique and memorable world that is sure to draw you in time and time again.

Don’t ask yourself whether you should go out and buy Gravity Rush. Don’t research it (well, any more than this review), and especially don’t look up spoilers. Just get it and enjoy each step of the wild journey it will take you on.