Walking in a winter wonderland
Since the PlayStation VR rolled out just shy of a week ago, the hardware has seen been awash in primarily arcade-style games and that essentially serve as glorified tech demos to showcase what this long-awaited medium is capable of. While this is all fine and well, those looking for traditional adventure games have found slim pickings on Sony’s new virtual reality display.
That’s where London-based studio Untold Games comes in with their latest title, Loading Human. The first chapter in a planned trilogy, this sci-fi VR adventure begins in the year 2184 and puts players in the space suit of Prometheus Baarick, a hotshot astronaut and son of the brilliant scientist Dorian Baarick, whose health is quickly fading. This first chapter unfolds over the span of 18 months – or four or so hours of playtime – as Prometheus and his associate-turned-love interest, Alice, work to prepare a massive space shuttle called Origin for a trek into the cosmos to discover the Quintessence, a source of energy which has the power to save Dorian, and maybe mankind itself.
It’s an intriguing premise. And it’s made a bit more interesting with the way the story is handled in such a meta fashion, as the entire game is based on a virtual reconstruction of Prometheus’ conscience. So, you’ll essentially be playing a game in virtual reality that is a virtual reality recreation of your protagonist’s memories. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. Thankfully, this mechanic is never too intrusive, and only really manifests itself when memories are occasionally “corrupted”, and you’ll have to work your way through a wire-frame version of your surroundings and put together a series of events together in a logical order – not unlike the capers in Airtight Games’ Murdered: Soul Suspect – to move the story forward. These scenarios can range from the mundane, like organizing the steps needed to fix a kettle of tea, to more esoteric situations that involve cerebral probes, lab mice, and other egg-headed endeavors that would make Neil DeGrasse Tyson as giddy as a schoolgirl.
Loading Human: Chapter 1 takes place exclusively on Dorian’s antarctic facility, which is made up of dormitories, a gym, greenhouse, and the heart of the operation – Dorian’s Dark Matter research lab. You’d be forgiven if you thought you’d be conducting important research and solving intricate puzzles in the sterile, snowbound facility. However, that’s not exactly the case here, as most of the episode is centered around sporadic logic puzzles and exploring the relationships between Prometheus, his father, and his budding romantic interest. Most of the puzzles you encounter are resolved by simply finding the correct item of the job or scouring the environment for coordinates or passwords that have been scrawled on dry erase boards or saved on PDAs. While it’s disappointing more effort wasn’t put into these middling conundrums, the episode is at least well paced and does a good job of immersing you into your role of a 22nd century astronaut-turned-husband in an isolated arctic wasteland.
Up to this point, VR games built around touch-based controls have struggled with finding intuitive ways to let players navigate their environments comfortably. Untold Games hasn’t found the end-all, be-all solution with Loading Human, but they have managed to craft a system that feels surprisingly efficient. Pointing your Move controller forward and holding the Move button will make Prometheus walk forward. To turn, you simply point either Move controller in the direction you want to turn and tap the Move Button, which will allow you to quickly snap in your desired direction. Want to turn around? Simply reach over your shoulder and point the Move controller behind you and you’ll do a quick 180 degree turn.
The system feels a bit awkward at first, but once you come to grips with the mechanics you’ll be surprised at just how easy it becomes to navigate through the environment. There are still some niggling issues that pop up that manage to frustrate, though. There were countless times I managed to crouch accidentally because my controller was pointed slightly downward when I intended to go forwards. Also, the camera tracking leaves a bit to be desired when compared to other PlayStation VR launch games, as simply picking up items can feel jerky and unintuitive. Leaning to pick up an object at your feet is all but impossible, and you’ll frequently find yourself trying to pick up objects at waist level unsuccessfully until you stop, crouch, and try again.
Despite these nagging issues, I really enjoyed watching the relationship between Prometheus and Alice develop – even if their interactions seem a bit forced at times for the sake of getting the player to interact with their partner in ways that were previously impossible. At one point in the story I was forced to lay a big wet one on the lips of my digital damsel in distress, which was definitely an interaction I didn’t need in my life. But I give Untold Games kudos for trying something different for the sake of trying to make the player feel completely immersed in their role. Awkward, hot and heavy Uncanny Valley action aside, I genuinely felt my heart sink when I bungled my way through a date. And, without giving away any spoilers, the episode’s ending hits hard, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to feel a swell of emotion as the credits roll.
Another thing I quite enjoyed was the level of interactivity found within the game world. Prometheus’ apartment alone is simply teeming with tons of fun little doodads and gadgets to muck around with; in fact, there’s so many in fact that you’ll likely waste an hour or so just seeing what you can toy with. Audiophiles will take pleasure in poring through Prometheus’ impressive stack of vinyls that can be played at your leisure. There’s PDAs, TVs blaring news updates, and you can even give yourself a nice shave with a laser-powered razor if you feel so inclined. Or you could be like me, and simply try to stuff every last material possession in Prometheus’ pad into one of his fancy high-tech toilets.
I have no regrets.
But seriously, VR is all about finding that perfect blend of digital escapism, and it’s in this regard that Loading Human is a smashing success. It may not be filled to the brim with challenging puzzles or fast-paced action, but it does a fantastic job of making you feel like a part of a living, breathing world. It’s a cool feeling, and one that has me eager to see where the next two chapters ultimately take me.
Loading Human isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. Sure, it’s occasionally clunky and in many ways a superficial experience thanks to its mundane puzzles and the menial tasks you have to perform to move the story forward. But despite these flaws, the game’s impressive world-building and excellent cast supporting characters have me anxious to step back into the shoes of Prometheus Baarick. If developer Untold Games can deliver some equally compelling gameplay to go with the game’s fascinating setting, Loading Human could very well be a series to keep your eye on. As it stands, the game’s $40 asking price seems a bit steep for what you’re getting. However, if money’s no object and you’re an adventure game fan looking to get your fix on Sony’s new headset, you may find Loading Human to be worth your time.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) HTC Vive, Oculus Rift; Publisher: Massive Games; Developer: Untold Games ; Players: 1; Released: October 13, 2016 ; MSRP: $39.99
Full Disclosure: This review was made possible by a copy provided by the publisher.