As a snot-nosed child, Greek mythological tales always held a certain kind of irresistible fascination for me. Whether it was the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, or the endlessly impressive tales of Hercules, it didn’t take much for me to get drawn into these epic fables of mortals, gods and monsters. Coming from Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf developer Forge Reply, Theseus tackles the parable of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, casting the player as the titular mythological hero who must defeat the gargantuan monster and escape the labyrinth.
The classic Greek mythological fable brought to life
Now, before the comparisons to God of War start rolling in, it’s important to understand that the spectacle and scope of Theseus is very different. Rather than playing an ash-tattooed badass who effortlessly carves through wall after wall of impossibly fearsome looking creatures, Theseus is much more about avoiding confrontation for the most part while you explore and traverse the environment in an effort to discover how to defeat the Minotaur.
Viewed from the third-person, Theseus’s perspective is akin to that of the earlier Resident Evil games where the camera is on a fixed point for the most part, though here the implementation of PSVR allows you to easily examine the environment all the while permitting an occasional eyeful of the terror which lurks in the darkness. Speaking of terror, Theseus does a masterful job of keeping the player on the tips of their toes as sets of glittering eyes skitter in and out of the darkness, twisted silhouettes suggest grotesque horrors and the ceiling continually shakes and crumbles from the mammoth steps taken by the Minotaur. These are just a small handful of ways in which the developers at Forge Reply manage to keep your nerves especially frayed.
Particularly benefitting from the use of a third-person perspective is the ruined labyrinth in which the majority of Theseus unfolds. A series of ancient architectures that have long since fallen into dilapidation and decrepitude, you can visibly see the traces of past civilisations and former glories as you inspect the environment whenever the Minotaur is not giving chase. From sky-scraping stone towers to long forgotten darkened tunnels and crumbling mezzanines, the world of Theseus feels properly lived in and pleasingly plausible in a way that was utterly unexpected.
Equally unexpected are the frequent jaunts that Theseus takes to a fragmented, dream-like limbo realm where supernatural forces have taken effect and water, rock and other substances are not governed by the same physics as the ‘real’ world. Here, the design of Theseus feels a little more off-kelter than the personable ruins of the labyrinth, but still manage to duly impress with their visual variance all the same.
Ultimately though, by not forcing a first-person perspective, Theseus instead reinforces the notion that like others before it, such as the grandly underrated Wayward Sky, PSVR can be just as effective when it embraces a third-person world view; something that other developers shouldn’t be reticent to attempt going forward.
The Minotaur has never been more terrifying
Most impressive of all in Theseus’ bag of immersive tricks however, is the Minotaur itself. Going by the name of Asterion, this towering obsidian skinned beast is perhaps the most nightmarish manifestation of the classic Minotaur to date. A cross between King Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park, Asterion is 100 feet of cracked skin, broken horns and relentlessly furious rage.
He is also, pointedly, quite blind too (which is where the Jurassic Park T-Rex comparison comes in a bit), as while he cannot see the player if they stand absolutely still, his other senses more than compensate for that fact, allowing him to feel the heat of a lit torch should they venture too close for example. Likewise, Asterion’s heightened senses bears out in tangible, unsettling terms too, as frequently he’ll bust through the nearest wall and just stop short of Theseus, eagerly sniffing the air for any sign of his quarry, and then slowly backing away when he believes that Theseus is not around.
Never anything less than a true terror and a total enshrinement of all that is foreboding and unsettling, Asterion is quite simply one of the most fearsome antagonists to come along in a good while, and he manages all of this without uttering a single word; instead using the visual destruction of the environment and the audible sound of his anguished cries to discompose the player long before they even set eyes on his hulking form for the first time.
More Journey, less God of War
In Theseus you will, for the most part, spend your time running away from Asterion, clambering over obstacles and leaping across chasms. Now, while this makes the game sound like an action platformer, such elements are employed in a distinctly low-key fashion; crawling under obstacles, for example, is achieved simply by pressing the ‘X’ button, while other similar athletic pursuits are accomplished by the same command input.
Equally in terms of combat, your options are also limited. While you obviously cannot hope to engage Asterion in one-on-one combat, you can however elect to take the fight his ‘children’; hulking great mutated spiders that look like massive multi-limbed raspberries that have the face of Marvel’s popular Spider-Man antihero, Venom. As such, combat is serviceable and there’s little or no flair to the proceedings; a basic sword attack can be chained into a combo, while a QTE style prompt can trigger an execution once the enemy has been weakened sufficiently.
Though such a bespoke lack of a depth might be more roundly criticised elsewhere, in terms of pace and the level of player agency, Theseus is akin to something more peaceable such as Journey, instead of the frenetic combat and violent excesses of an effort such as God of War. As a result, the relatively simplistic platforming and rudimentary combat mechanics appear to be in service of Theseus as an experience, and moving the narrative forward rather than anything more ambitious than that.
In keeping with its ambitions as an experience, rather than a bonafide game that encompasses the level of challenge that one might typically associate, Theseus is neither very difficult at all, nor of any great length. Indeed, the first time through you can expect to spend between two to three hours rummaging about the labyrinth, while the potential of a second ending and the allure of trophy hunting extends that figure to somewhere in the four to five hour range. Bear in mind too, there are no additional modes or content beyond the campaign so once you’ve milked the campaign dry, you’re effectively totally done with Theseus short of playing through it all again for kicks.
An evocative adventure that is absolutely drowning in atmosphere and rooted in a real sense of place, the fact that Theseus presents little challenge and can beaten quickly, shouldn’t detract from how effectively it wields PSVR to fashion a tense experience that is quite unlike any other.
To be clear though, those looking for any sort of challenge or taxation of their reflexes and motor functions will find themselves wanting. For anyone else however who desires a tense, atmospheric adventure that places little demand on either their ability or their time, Theseus should definitely be on their radar.