When twelve year old me sat down and watched Jurassic Park in my local cinema back in 1993, I was utterly entranced; watching towering dinosaurs come to life right in front of my eyes made me want to experience the exact same events that palaeontologist Alan Grant did (minus all that terrifying business with the T-Rex and the jeep of course). It felt like I had been thrust back into a time that I had no right to be in – and that excited me.
As I grew into an adult, I hoped that someone, at some point would have the brass clangers to create an experience to replicate my childhood fantasy, so trust Crytek then to be the John Hammond of this scenario; leveraging their extensive experience in constructing finely detailed worlds and environments to fashion something approximate to those thrills I experienced nearly twenty-three years ago. It’s just a little disappointing that the actual game which underpins that raucous, breath-taking experience is one that cannot quite match its stirring and meticulously rendered setting.
A living, breathing world with the best visuals on PSVR
Robinson’s story begins when the Esmeralda, a massive colonial class spacecraft, crash-lands on Tyson III; a planet steeped in lush forests, tropical jungles, deep caverns and inhabited by a whole heap of dinosaur-looking locals. Left stranded on this world in the safe confines of his escape capsule, players take control of a young boy named Robin who, with the help of HIGS, a massively condescending AI unit and Laika, his pet youngling T-Rex(!), must scour the planet in search of Esmeralda’s missing crew members in order to ascertain just what caused the host ship to crash in the first place.
Arguably, one of the biggest feathers in Robinson’s cap is that the world in which the player inhabits is so evocatively crafted; the practiced hands of Crytek being put to work in fashioning a realm that is magnificently awash in spectacle and rife with the sort of incidental detail that would prove invisible to most other developers. The calibre of Crytek’s world building is immediately felt, as Robin’s escape pod; a lovingly detailed, yet ultimately untidy living space at the beginning of the game, gives way to lush jungles, temperate forest zones and scorching hot tar pits to name just a few of the locations you’ll see.
As reassuringly varied and Share button worthy the myriad of environments are, they are ably paralleled and bolstered by the creatures that inhabit them too. Gazing up at the massive, white-marked and scaly arching neck of a towering Brontosaurus as it majestically stomps past you is just one of many sights that etches itself on memory. Elsewhere, more contemplative spectacles prove themselves to be equally memorable too, such as an agitated swarm of fireflies illuminating a dank cave or a mole popping out of the ground to sniff the air momentarily before retreating back to its underground maze of tunnels. Without a doubt, the world in Robinson: The Journey feels alive and it felt like I was part of a world that I never wanted to leave, rather than just a detached spectator just passing through.
Speaking of passing through, as it turns out, navigating the environment is a mostly simple and pleasurable affair. Despite Robin’s all-in-one tool looking very much like a PlayStation Move controller, the game is instead controlled with a mixture of Dualshock 4 controller input and head tracking from the PSVR headset; the former able to facilitate turning smoothly (don’t do this method if you want to keep your lunch where it belongs) or in degreed increments, while the latter accurately directs both your view and movement path.
Far more interesting is how the game goes about facilitating movement which isn’t entirely pedestrian, since lest we forget, the organic design of Robinson’s forests, jungles and other natural environments rarely permit consistently flat-footed movement. One such example of this is how climbing is handled; simply put, you just walk up to a vine, or handhold and press one of the bumper triggers to reach a hand up to grasp it. Once you have a single handhold secured with the shoulder trigger held down, you can then reach up with the other hand and so on and so forth, pressing the ‘X’ button to heave yourself up once you’ve reached your destination. Cribbed from Crytek’s earlier VR rock climbing experiment on PC, it’s employed wonderfully here because it actually gives you the feeling of properly scaling the environment; something that very few PSVR developers at this early stage of its life have had the ambition to shoot for.
Simple and uninspiring puzzles
Beyond the sweep of its Spielberg-esque spectacle, Robinson’s primary objective has players searching for additional HIGS units and video diaries in order to ascertain just what has happened to the crew of the seemingly doomed Esmeralda spacecraft. Searching out these units requires more than just trotting about the place, since the developers have intertwined a series of puzzles into the game in order to keep players on their toes, though alas, there is no combat; so folks looking to get their dinosaur-blasting rocks off, might be better served looking elsewhere (next month’s Ark: Survival Evolved could be more your bag). What does grate however, is that beyond a cursory instruction, you’re never reminded about what you need to do the next, as the UI is utterly absent of any kind of objective marker and instead relies on you remembering what needs to be done.
The puzzle mechanics in Robinson: The Journey only straddle two different kinds of conundrums; relatively dull ones where you must use HIGS to reroute power around the environment to power up devices that in turn allow you access to other areas, or, slightly more interesting physics based challenges where you have to use your all-in-one tool to move objects so that you might create makeshift bridges to get to previous inaccessible areas. To say that it isn’t exactly scintillating stuff would be quite the understatement indeed.
Cataloguing wildlife is fun – honest!
Away from such trite challenges and when you’re not searching for clues as to the fate of your fellow comrades, you have the option of cataloguing the local wildlife as a side activity and it’s something that compliments the tremendous sense of place that Robinson boasts extremely well. From flittering mosquitos and lumbering turtles, through to soaring pterodactyls and packs of rampaging velociraptors, just about everything can be scanned (again, using your handy all-in-one tool) and catalogued.
Where the hook comes in though, is that each species has a set number which must be scanned in order for it to be considered ‘complete’, and by encouraging the player to delve into the nooks and crannies of Robinson’s lushly detailed prehistoric-style vistas, it reinforces that connection with the game world at large and provides a reason for exploring its expansive and richly detailed spaces. In a way, the cataloguing feels akin to Pokemon too; the impulse to “catch em’ all” proving to be a pleasingly difficult one to overcome that provides the game with a hefty dose of longevity even after the end credits have finished rolling.
The PS4 Pro difference
For those of you who have been fortunate enough to score one of those shiny new PS4 Pro things, Robinson: The Journey emphatically cements its position as a visual masterwork. Increased texture detail, higher resolution and increased draw distance all noticeably enhance what is already a grandly handsome endeavour, elevating Robinson far beyond anything seen on PSVR so far. Regardless of what PS4 you play it on though, Robinson: The Journey is a gorgeous effort and standard PS4 owners will still get a tremendous visual tour-de-force all the same.
Clearly, Robinson: The Journey is a crucial title for PSVR’s prospects going forward. With many detractors of Sony’s VR headset lambasting its massively diminished visual capability in relation to the likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, Robinson stands as a resounding rebuke of such criticism, with its lushly realised worlds and painstakingly detailed prehistoric denizens simply being in a visual class all its own regardless of the VR platform in question.
I should have expected that being a Crytek effort, that Robinson: The Journey would look as good as it does. What I didn’t count on was how deeply it would resonate with me. As a non-VR title, Robinson might have floundered, but the sheer sensation of intimately being part of what is, for all intents and purposes, your own Jurassic Park narrative, overcomes the gameplay flaws which would otherwise prove to be its undoing.