NOTE: No screenshots are contained in this review (because I’ve not figured out how to do it yet with the PSVR – look at some here www.windlands.com)
Well, today I’ve gave Windlands by Psytec Games Ltd a go. That’s not true actually. For the last 3 weeks I’ve been playing this exclusively. My last binge, World of Final Fantasy, got put on hold whilst I took a punt on something for my Playstation VR. I knew nothing about this game, but I wanted something to show my buddies at a Poker night that would demonstrate the PSVR in a manner they could get to grips with that was not a puzzle game, or “experience”. My poker buddies are a great bunch, really funny, but have such a narrow taste in games, that if it does not begin with FI and end with FA (note: a banned word in my house) it doesn’t get a look in. Fortunately, I think I’ve a reputation among the bunch as not just being the geek, but a trusted geek, and when I asked the host if it was OK for me to bring the PSVR round, he jumped at the chance – I needed to impress. I had Thumper, Tumble and the demo disc with DriveClub. The latter might have been fun for a bit but would get a little predictable, and the other two were probably just too boring (though I think they’re great fun). Wanting to give the guys an experience they would never forget (phrasing) I hurriedly scanned the PlayStation store for something that looked vomit inducing, and most importantly – cheap.
Windlands it was then. It only had 12 ratings, but all five star. It was from a company I’d never heard of but seemed to be some sort of indy dev collective. I was attracted to the fact that I had to look for this – clearly the marketing budget was minimal. The elitist snob inside my gamebrain thought this was a good sign, as mere “regular” gamers would overlook a potential gem, and I’d have the scoop all to myself.
It downloaded fast and I thought I’d give it a little try before leaving for the poker game.
The VR buzz kicked in – “WARNING! THIS IS A FULL MOTION VR GAME!” floated in front of me. Then a load of options appeared that narrowed down how I wanted to consume this experience. Naturally I just X-mashed this until it went away and then it started. Well almost. Some frankly very poor voice acting introduced some cheesy dribble about, I don’t know, some robot and an island and crystals etc (x-mashing was not helping at this point).
I appeared in a room. I looked around and it’s a very static world. Though it tracked beautifully, there are no animations, just some dust floating about and a slightly lo-fi soundscape playing. Damn I thought, have I been duped? Has my gamebrain snob got this one wrong? I pressed a stick to walk forward – whaaaaaaat? What just happened? What was that sensation? I pushed a bit more, and immediately thought to myself that this might actually be the single most exhilarating experience of my entire life! I’d taken two steps forward in a clearly Unity engine static game world, but it felt like I’d just awoken in the f%^$ing Matrix! You see, I’d not had this with PSVR yet. I’d driven cars, flown space craft, stacked blocks, and err, thumped, err giant aztec space beetle head things, but now I was in a real game world! As per usual, the left stick moves your legs, and the right stick rotates your torso. In a very, rigid, segmented way. You see, to minimize the chance of involuntary dinner removal, it rotates your view in chunks (though the head rotation movement is smooth). Don’t like this, Game Options, Enable Smooth Rotate – Ow my Eyes – Don’t like this, Game Options, Disable Smooth Rotate – Ahh that’s better. Actually, the chunky turning movement is very clever. After a minute or so of chunking, I did not even notice it, and combined with the head movement you only need it for large turning maneuvers.
I walked towards the brightness and stepped outside and a giant (and I mean huge) robot tried to grab me and then walked off and sat down for a sulk. I looked around and walked around a bit. I had the VR smile from ear to ear as the sensation of actually being in this artificial world was just great, it really was. Then I pressed the X button. I lept what felt like 20 meters into the air, in a really pleasing floaty way. It felt like I was on a roller coaster. This will truly be one of those game experiences I’ll never forget. I genuinely believed I’d just shot into the sky. Whilst in the air, I looked down and saw the ground coming rapidly towards me. I actually bent my knees as if to soften the blow. My vocabulary is simply not sufficient to describe the sensation. My biggest fear was that this feeling would wear off with more play, so I jumped sparingly. I took running jumps, and realized I could wall jump (a la Super Metroid). Soon I was bouncing all over, and I was still stood just outside of my original spawning point. With each leap my brain sent physical sensations to my stomach and limbs – I was feeling this world. And I’ve not felt sick once.
The game quickly gets its point across. You have to explore a complicated collection of ruins, forests, and mountains to collect crystals which unlock more areas to explore, and tablets, which really are just something to collect. These collectibles are are hidden in places that require dexterity in order to reach, so wall jumping and running is a must, but the most important item is the only tool you get – a pair of physics-y elasticated grappling hooks. Now the game has really started, and you will learn to use these hooks as an extension of your body. By default, you can only grip foliage (yup) which forces some thinking from the player in order to overcome obstacles. You will need to manipulate your momentum to swing between grappling points and effectively fly around the world. Please bear in mind how exciting just walking forward was! Swinging and flying is intense! You really feel it. I was pouring with sweat. The sensation of movement along with the reasonable yet genuine difficulty in getting to a high up location, coupled with the feeling of genuine loss when you mess it up and get sent back to your last checkpoint (of which there are few), is just superb. I was gripping the joypad so hard my hands were hurting – I MUST NOT LET GO, I MUST NOT MISS THIS JUMP! Brilliant.
I had to top playing after two hours, I was exhausted and my neck was sore from all the looking. I took off the headset and found myself facing completely away from my TV. I had a break for 20 minutes, and then dived straight back in, and it’s been like this for the last three weeks. It’s an addiction, such a fantastic experience from such a simple concept.
Windlands will take about 8 hours to beat on “Normal”. I don’t care though, it has replay value, and has built in speedrun leader-board challenges, which really do make you try your hardest to optimize the most perfect route, and even exploit the odd glitch here and there. I firmly believe that this is a first generation VR masterpiece, and I hope it is a sign of how the genre will develop. It’s not just VR for the sake of it, it really exploits the medium to provide a very natural interface to a gaming world. Well done Psytec Games Ltd, Well done.
My Poker buddies liked the demo where you headed a football.