Since humans put head to pillow (or rock) and starting doing that whole dreaming thing, one dream has always stood out as the most prolific; namely the sensation of flight. It should come as little surprise really that the need for flight lurks in the furthest reaches of our subconscious given that as human beings, we are anatomically incapable of achieving it without locking ourselves into massive airborne metal coffins powered by highly explosive jet fuel. Hoping to capitalise on our collective longing to fulfil that sensation without the latter, British developer Penny Black Studios have brought us How We Soar for PSVR, a title which eschews the rigours of traditional videogame challenge for the pleasure of a far more relaxing, metaphysical experience set within the thought process of a troubled author.
A soaring, breathless experience
Viewed from the first-person perspective of a rider whose reins are cleverly threaded through a visual representation of the DualShock 4 controller, How We Soar offers no explanation regarding how the player should begin their journey, but instead hopes that they will rely on their well-honed instincts to hunt out things that shine. It’s a subtle gambit that pays off with the goal being to collect a set number of coloured spheres that litter each level, just about anybody can pick up and play How We Soar with little issue.
And really, that’s pretty much it; you go from one skybound level to the next, flying through rings and collecting orbs which transform the game world, the sum of which results in some narration from the author himself who provides a modicum of exposition on his thought processes when it comes to creative writing. Another goal, though a slightly less obvious one is to paint the structures in each level by flying close to them; their surfaces exploding in an eruption of newfound detail and vibrant colour as you and your trusty bird pass into their vicinity. It’s a neat flourish that serves to highlight that if there’s two things that How We Soar has in abundance, it is imagination and a flair for the fantastic.
Speaking of which, when it comes to the visuals, How We Soar exists in a class of its own when compared to other PSVR efforts. By leveraging its myriad of abstract realms, How We Soar trades on its opulent surrealism to fashion papier-mâché worlds, each filled with constructs that represent themes and locations in the both author’s novel and real life, including everything from a messy office, to a battlefield filled with siege equipment and even a massive dragon curled around the top of a fairy-tale castle.
Away from such aesthetic stylings, controlling your airborne mount is a pleasure. The bird possesses just enough weight to feel hefty, while not boasting so much that turning ever feels sluggish, while the feeling of soaring through the clouds and then pulling up and around one of the game’s many papier-mâché structures feels like a genuine thrill. Thankfully, motion sickness isn’t a problem here either, since while the game employs liberal use of the DualShock 4 controller, looking about is controlled exclusively via head tracking of the PSVR headset, thus neatly sidestepping the potential problem of bringing up your dinner all over your knees.
From the beautiful sky view and gentle pipes-infused musical score to the gentle dip and soar of its flighty freedoms, How We Soar is ostensibly one of the most relaxing PSVR experiences money can buy, and this is something which is emphasised further by the lack of a true fail state in the game. Indeed, the result of crashing into the scenery is handled with characteristic grace; the player and their mount are thrust into a brightly lit tunnel that harmlessly ejects them into a different part of the game world, ready to pick up where they left off.
Bottomless skies, but limited depth
So while How We Soar excels as dream-like, almost out-of-body esque experience, it runs afoul of the same flaws that most PSVR titles do that carry the ‘experience’ tag, which is that there just isn’t a whole lot of game crammed in there. Once you’ve spent three to four hours going through How We Soar’s dozen or so levels, it becomes painfully clear that the game is lacking in the longevity stakes as there are no extra modes and outside of resampling its skyward vistas, How We Soar provides little incentive for players to return other than to go trophy hunting.
On further reflection, the absence of such traditionally regarded content isn’t as much to the detriment of How We Soar as one might assume. Indeed, if the goal was to create a virtual play space where we can leave our daily stresses behind and soar gracefully through the skies in a fashion mimicking those fanciful dreams that we experience in our deepest slumbers, then in this sense, How We Soar stands as a towering success.
Although we’ve already had one PSVR effort that attempts to capture similar flighty sensations, How We Soar is ostensibly a markedly different beast from Ubisoft’s own Eagle Flight. A much more contemplative effort, what How We Soar lacks in player agency and challenge, it makes up for in sheer relaxation and understated spectacle.