Screenshot from Moss – PSVR
The virtual reality scene is largely littered with two specific genres of video games currently: horror games designed to immerse you in creepy and terrifying environments, and first-person shooters that pit you right in the middle of all the action. There’s nothing wrong with either genre, and for a fairly niche demo form of entertainment that is still in its infancy and finding its footing, they make perfect sense. However VR is rapidly becoming a more viable and enticing form of gaming with each year that passes, and with that comes the expectation of new and unique titles for the peripheral.
Thankfully Sony has picked up on this already, and during their E3 2017 press conference showed off two of the most fun and interesting new VR titles I have yet had the chance to experience: Moss from Polyarc Games, and Star Child from Playful Corporation. Both titles are side-scrolling puzzle-platformers with a VR twist, and they are such an incredibly welcome breath of fresh air to VR.
Star Child puts you in control of a woman, the demo beginning with her landing her one-person spaceship inside a station of sorts, and her hopping out to explore. There isn’t much direction or plot provided, but since it’s a side-scroller, you must proceed to the right. The first handful of screens are mostly there for you to admire the environment as you learn the basic controls. As you walk down the linear path it is worth physically moving yourself forward toward the PS Camera, as you can get right up close to our heroine and see her sharp features, as well as those of her surroundings. There is one screen where a swarm of fireflies floats back and forth over the path, and if you stick your head in their way they will notice and disperse to fly around you in all directions. It’s a subtle but impressive detail. On another screen you’ll see some crystals sticking out in the foreground; if you look at the protagonist through the crystals you’ll be able to see the red, green, and blue refractions of her image in it. Like with the fireflies, the attention to detail in Star Child is what sets it apart.
As you progress you’ll soon see a creepy alien-like creature crawling around in the shadows, putting you slightly on edge. This is no horror game, but this thing is clearly meant to be antagonistic. Once you first spot it, it appears at least once on each subsequent screen, becoming more bold and creeping ever closer all the time. It doesn’t attack you, but rather seems content with stalking in the shadows for the time. After solving a simple puzzle or two I am in an inner chamber of this station in a room with precious little light, when suddenly the creepy crawler jumps right next to you. If you stand still it won’t attack immediately, so as with everything up to this point I wanted to get a closer look at this thing that had until now been avoiding coming into the spotlight. As I was leaning forward in my seat admiring at the awesome detail on this thing, I creeped slowly to the right and out of its way, when suddenly it lunged forward and a big metal hand shot out at my face from the background, landing square between me and the beast.
I actually jumped back at this sudden action, having a little fright, then watched as the alien skittered away, obviously as taken aback as I was. It is then that the light in the background flickers on, and the robot from the announcement trailer is revealed. The metal object was the robot’s fist, extended outward from its body. It had saved my life, and apparently acknowledges me as a friend, and so opens up its palm and allows my to climb up into its massive hand. It pulls me up toward its face and the camera continues panning up, revealing the title and the end of the demo.
The developer who assisted me with the game was absolutely delighted by my reaction to the robot fist’s interjection, as that was exactly what they hope players will do. They want to pull you in with the scenery and details, so when something new comes along you want to really take it in and look at it. The alien hiding initially, then coming right into the foreground but not attacking at first is MEANT to make you want to get a closer look, so then when the robot intervenes it’s a shock and makes good use of the field of depth utilised in VR. Since I did exactly what they hoped I would, I feel safe in saying this game is going to realise their vision extremely well. Star Child is still early in development, and as such has no release window as of yet, but what they showed holds great promise.
Moss may be another PSVR side-scrolling puzzle-platformer that was introduced in the same presentation, but it has a completely different aesthetic to Star Child. Where Star Child has spaceships and robots and aliens, and is clearly sci-fi-inspired, Moss is more whimsical and fantastic. A main theme in Moss is the bond built between Quill — the mouse you control with the left analog stick — and you, the player, who in the game takes on the character of a forest spirit. Soon after the demo begins you can look down into a pool of water to see your reflection, and the face that Quill sees, which looks like a dark, masked spirit akin to what you might find in a Studio Ghibli film.
Polyarc has designed Moss to feel like you are in a library, engrossed in a good book, and they intentionally made it to that Quill enters each screen from the right and exits each to the left, to emulate the turning of pages. In fact before you meet Quill or see your reflection and begin actually playing, the demo kicks off in a library. You are looking at a book called — surprise, surprise — Moss, and you must open the book and turn the first few pages to get a bit of preamble. The fun part here is that you actually move the Dualshock controller forward and around to move the reticle on-screen, until you find something that starts to glow a vibrant blue. This shows you can interact with it, like the border of the book’s cover. So you move the Dualshock to hover the reticle over the book and pull a trigger to hold it, then move the controller to the left to open the book up and begin. This is how you, as the spirit guide, help Quill in her journey; by solving puzzles and moving object for her so she can proceed.
Quill isn’t helpless though; she’s got a sword with which to defend herself, and there are a couple of small skirmishes in the demo that let you experience battle as the adorable mouse. Combat is simple, but in adding that little dash of action to the game to keep it from just being a puzzler; and if the demo’s finale is anything to go by — wherein Quill enters a poorly-lit room where a snake-like boss is waiting — there’s going to be plenty more action in the full release.
Moss’s demo was at least twice as long as Star Child’s, and boasted much more challenging puzzles and an even more beautiful world. It is apparent that Moss is further along in development, evidenced by both the polish of the demo — the forest you start in is absolutely gorgeous, and I could spend as much time as it took me to play through the demo just getting lost in the environment — and the fact that it has a release window of “holiday 2017,” which is just half a year away. Additionally, Polyarc told me they had to remove the collectible element of the game from the demo so as to keep its length down so more people could try it out during the show. This means that in addition to clever puzzles for progression, there will also be clever puzzles to find collectible items throughout the game.
We’ve already got hundreds and hundreds of games that feature basic combat, collectibles, solid puzzles, and platforming. The reason all of this excites me so much is because it’s a VR game. If there are other side-scrolling VR games currently, I haven’t seen them. Granted, I don’t actually own a PSVR at this time, but that’s because I’m not interested in getting the pants scared off of me in immersive horror games, or playing the real-life soldier in the middle of a war. Moss and Star Child look like fresh, fun, interesting new concepts for virtual reality, and at this point I want to purchase a PSVR specifically to play them. The first-person shooters and horror VR games aren’t going anywhere any time soon, and that’s okay. But if we could just get a few more gems like these — that take beloved genres and give them a new twist — VR would have so much more widespread appeal.