All strings attached.
Imagine you stand in front of a kitchen table. The only things on this table are three cute little mice. Aww. Hey there, little guys. You are tasked with keeping these three mice from crawling off the table. Okay, you might imagine, easy enough. But oh wait, there’s a catch; you can’t just stand with your feet on the floor. The floor is lava.
Hanging from the ceiling are four metal beams, all barely within arms reach of the table, and each other. You must dangle precariously from these beams as you reach out and push these tragic rodents back towards the middle of the table, lurching and swinging from one pole to another and praying you don’t miss one. As if things couldn’t get worse, they do, as a dispenser installed in the ceiling occasionally plops more mice down. There’s also a bunch of eagles flying around that all want to eat the mice, and you have to train the mice to fight them while also-
Alright, alright. I can see I may have mixed my opening metaphor up a bit here. But now you have come closer to understanding what it is like to play the non-VR version of Tethered.
Head in the Clouds
Originally created for Playstation VR, Tethered sticks the player into a limited, sky-perched perspective on one of several clouds around a floating island. The game boasts a variety of levels, with each island full of its own challenges and obstacles. From above, the player acts as God (although they prefer the term Spirit Guardian, thank you very much). Your job is to guide the simple and innocent people of the Peeps to build their lives on this big floating rock, feeding you spirit energy towards a set goal marker in the process.
So, this fixed perspective thing. This is one of the first and foremost places in which Tethered works fine in VR, but doesn’t translate well outside of it. As I played, I could see it. I could see how the zoomed out perspective would give everything a sense of majesty from a full VR perspective, and could really work beautifully well. But outside of that, if you want to just play on a regular Playstation 4, you’re in for a bad time. Everything is just too far zoomed-out to keep a consistent level head in terms of what Peeps are where and doing what. It’s not a very good way to introduce players to the way things in Tethered work, and it certainly doesn’t make the learning curve easier.
It also doesn’t help that there is absolutely no good way to control Tethered if not using VR. When wearing the Playstation VR headset, the player can look around to get a view of things. The only actual controller input is button-pressing in order to manage things. When playing sans helmet, the players options are to tilt the regular Playstation 4 controller around by way of camera view, or use the left joystick mouse-and-keyboard style. The former is buggy and uncomfortable, and the latter inherently cannot work for a game requiring this much fast reaction time.
So you start out on one of the game’s dozen-ish floating islands in the sky, and your first Peep hatches. Hooray! As each level in Tethered requires hitting an end goal total of spirit energy accumulated, the bulk of the game is a mass of things to do in said pursuit. Lots of things give you spirit energy: mining or chopping wood, building a farm or a tavern or one of a bunch of other possible constructions, or even killing the giant slug-monsters that come out at night. Oh, yeah; there are those, and they do that.
Tethered is about resource management for quite a bit of its playtime. Everything requires a combination of wood, stone, and ore, and you’re not going to get far quickly if you don’t start building. There are also some clever options when it comes to the very resources you take from. You can make a rock resource into a proper mine, for example, but not without the cost of some more resources to get things started. There’s also a fourth resource in the form of energy-rich crystals that pop up here and there, but these are more unilateral and obvious in their purpose. Bonuses. They’re bonuses.
It’s actually a deceptively well-devised system. Three resource types is a perfect balance that keeps things from getting overly-confused. There’s plenty to build, sure, but no matter what you’re making, you always know it’s going to come down to the simple math of it all. As you gather more Peeps, you will acquire the ability to upgrade them to become woodsmen, farmers, and other more specialized and specific kinds of workers. You can also upgrade some to become soldiers, to keep an eye out for the monsters that come out at night.
Lost in the Crowd
As well-formed as Tethered‘s core systems are, the game becomes utterly overwhelming later on in most stages. Starting about halfway through almost every stage I played, which can easily run for over an hour apiece, I had so many Peeps in my control that keeping track of them was a nigh-impossible challenge. When a game with limited perspective is as far zoomed-out as Tethered, it needs to compensate with some kind of identifying markers over the different characters heads, or something to keep more specific track of who is where and doing what.
Here’s a morbid thing for your reading pleasure; Peeps can commit suicide. Should one go too long without food, at low health, or without stuff to do, they’ll jump off a cliff, screaming on their way down. Not only is this really sad and unfortunate to behold, though. In the heat of things, it can come out of nowhere. Occasionally, sure, I lost one of my Peeps to a spiky and glowing monstrosity. Honestly, though, I think I can safely say that the majority of my losses came from some of the little guys offing themselves while I was too busy to notice. There’s so much to do that you can never have everyone happy, and focusing on fixing one problem in the chaotic thick of things won’t stop you from losing more lives.
Also, I have to repeat it; the limited perspective does not work. It’s fine in VR, but really needed changes it never got in the adaptation away from the headset. If I could just clearly see all of my guys – more than one or two, even – that would be enough to start.
A Prayer for Sunrise
Tethered really frustrates me. Does that frustration come from mechanics? Sometimes, sure. I actually found it difficult to play the thing in longer than half hour-ish sittings, due to just how much stress the janky VR-less controls generate. But it also frustrates me because I can see what was designed with the VR headset as the intended medium, and hey; in that headspace (pun sort of intended), it rules.
Well-constructed tactical resource management gets me pumped in a big way, for some reason. Tethered at its best pulls that off with aplomb. But playing it outside of the headset is like trying to watch a movie on a 24-inch screen from the far side of a field. As that mode is part of the package, I can’t not evaluate that. Tethered is great if you’ve got the gear, traumatizing if you don’t, and so levels out just a rocky “good.”
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: Secret Sorcery Limited ; Developer: Secret Sorcery Limited ; Players: single-player. ; Released: October 25, 2016, Updated for Non-VR April 7, 2017
Full disclosure: this review is based on review code of Tethered supplied to Hey Poor Player by the game’s publisher.