Platform: PS VITA
At first glance, Gravity Rush (known as Gravity Daze in Japan) is one of the most visually unique looking games on the PS Vita. It has the charm of a Studio Ghibli movie with its cel-shaded graphics, steampunk-esque fantasy setting and sweeping musical scores. However, as I embarked on my journey into Gravity Rush, I found debilitating weaknesses within the strokes of genius that make up the game’s primary fundamentals in both gameplay and story.
Gravity Rush introduces us to our mysterious protagonist, “Kat”, who has lost her memory. Kat is capable of manipulating gravity, allowing her to fly, pick-up objects and walk up the side (or underside) of buildings. Kat can also lend her abilities to a black cat named “Dusty”, who accompanies her through her adventures as her avatar of power.
Gravity Rush primarily takes place in the city of Hekesville. It is somewhat similar to Star Wars' “Cloud City” but with a more steampunk style visual. The level of detail and depth of the city is truly breathtaking. I simply can't comprehend the hours of work that went into designing the city in this game, as every alleyway is unique, every lighting fixture is naturally placed and even the city’s transport system runs regularly, giving the city a full breath of life.
Unfortunately Hekesville isn’t fully formed and is missing major parts of the city due to gravitational storms that have torn it apart. A byproduct of these storms is the game’s main antagonists, the Nevi. The Nevi are shadowlike, inter-dimensional beings that have taken it upon themselves to terrorise the people of Hekesville. The only deterrent against the Nevi is Kat, who utilises her gravitational powers to defeat the Nevi and reunite the missing pieces of the city.
The tutorial warms you to the game’s controls through various challenges against the Nevi. All Nevi have a weak spot highlighted by a glowing white/red orb on certain parts of their bodies. It’s Kat’s job to target these orbs to destroy the Nevi. She can utilise various combat skills, from combo kicks to flying dashes, that target and ram into the Nevi's weak spots.
As the game progresses, side-challenges such as racing and time sensitive missions are unlocked. In these challenges, you have to utilise your gravitational abilities to complete races under certain conditions.
The main currency of Gravity Rush is purple orbs. They're generously dotted throughout the city and are also rewarded in the completion of challenges. Collecting these purple orbs allows Kat to level up her abilities, helping her to combat the Nevi or complete more difficult challenges more easily.
Storytelling is told mostly though a comic-book format in a style similar to the main-game’s visuals. You can flick through each panel with the touch screen and manipulate the angle of the comic by angling your PS Vita, which gives the comic a quasi-3D effect.
It all sounds lovely! A lot of content and a lot of charm, so where are the weaknesses?
With such a detailed environment, the control interface simply doesn't work most of the time. For example, in time sensitive challenges you will often want to use the “dash attack” to speed up your travel time, but you will often find yourself dashing into parts of the environment like indestructible lampposts and sides of buildings completely halting your momentum.
To add insult to injury, the camera tries to compensate for the trajectory angle Kat is pointing at, and most of the time this causes the camera to wackily twist itself away from what you want to look at, anchoring itself at the most awkward angle.
Kat will also sometimes land at a strange diagonal angle, not completely flat on the surface of where you landed. Any movement will spell disaster as you find yourself flying off the building with the camera malfunctioning to a crazy degree.
Kat can also use a skiing-like “slide attack”. You have to place both your thumbs on the touch screen to slide and tilt the PS VITA to turn left or right whilst sliding. Certain race challenges ask you to use the slide attack to complete them. You have to pass through checkpoints to complete the race, however the checkpoints are placed in such awkward places that often Kat will simply slide right past them. So if you miss any checkpoint during challenges, you'll have to take your fingers off the screen, resume using the normal thumbsticks and run back and activate those missed checkpoints.
Whilst sliding, you will fly up when hitting a ramp. When this happens, sometimes you'll land face down and will continue sliding, causing the camera angle to glitch, producing the effect of Kat sliding perpendicularly into the ground.
During one of the races, I was sliding perfectly on course towards one of the many checkpoints on the challenge map. I noticed a discrepancy in the ground that was coming up before the checkpoint, however the gap was so miniscule and thin (about 1 inch in length) that I didn’t even register it as a threat. However, Kat managed a to find way to slide herself right between the literal 1-inch gap, making me waste valuable time in completing the challenge.
To cause even more frustration, cancelling or retrying a challenge greets you with a black loading screen which takes roughly 20~25 seconds each time (Yes, I timed it!). However starting a challenge for the first time takes only 5 seconds or more, where is the technical logic in this?
Combat is generally a mess. Like I mentioned before, you have to target certain glowing orbs on Nevi if you want to defeat them. However, most of these orbs are too high up on the Nevi’s body to reach, so you need to fly up, move the camera to target them, then commit to a dash attack and pray you hit it. Most of the time you can land a hit but sometimes you will just dash right past the Nevi and you'll find yourself frantically adjusting the camera and your height with the gravitational flying skills so you can try your attack again.
I did question if I was being too harsh on the controls, as I am quite a competitive gamer and was focusing on getting the Platinum trophy for this title (Which I ended up achieving, yay!). However, I felt overall that the controls were something that never became fluid in the game, they're something you will constantly battle with.
The story is also poorly paced. From the beginning to the middle (Roughly 12 out of the 21 episodes of the game) the pacing is just right, introducing you to new concepts, new story elements and characters. However the latter half of the game has no character development on main story villains, major plot holes and is generally confusing, with certain characters suddenly discarded or forgotten about.
I guess it stems from a lack of dialogue. There's really no “official” voice acting. The language of the game is a made-up fantasy language that sounds like a mix between Japanese and French, leaving the text dialogue and comic-book scenes as the only story you can follow.
Overall, the visual element is lovely, but my major criticism is the games attempt at “charm". This is a Japanese made videogame with cultural tropes that are very Parisian in feel. The music also reflects this in its mix of Joe Hisaishi styled orchestral conduction and stereotyped “quirky” French accordion fuelled 50’s swing, heard in such films like Amélie.
I have nothing inherently against this form of musical approach or visual aspect, but it is something that's overly romanticised in Japanese pop-culture to a cheesy, extremely stereotyped and worship-like level. A lot of other anime / manga / Pop cultural musical acts from Japan have all copied the same thing, so the effects have become somewhat stale, and the cultural truths lost in translation.
I'm not surprised that Keiichirō Toyama created the concept for this videogame. He's responsible for such influential titles as Silent Hill and the Forbidden Siren series. Both these games excelled and suffered from the same things Gravity Rush does – unique visuals and concept, with awkward control schemes and story telling.
Generally, I'd say that you have to give credit to this game, as it's wonderfully crafted overall and stands out amongst any other game released today. I don’t think we're going to see anything with this level of visual identity or conceptual uniqueness for the rest of the year.
However, I must go back to my main grating point that the control scheme is truly awful. If you're playing this for story only, then the score at the end of my review will reflect your overall experience and you shouldn't worry about the controls the story challenges won’t really push you that hard.
For anyone who wants to really challenge themselves, I am aware that there are other videogames with “difficult” or “awkward” control schemes that sometimes have a steep learning curve, such as Monster Hunter and EVE: Online etc. However, in these games, the controls don’t really hold you back, the challenge is fair and the skill is really dependent on how you use those controls strategically to your advantage.
Gravity Rush simply does not give you the chance to utilise the controls in a fair challenge. From start to finish you will constantly fight the controls. There is no challenge to this game other than the controls themselves, and occasionally the camera. Pushing the limits of the control scheme reveals a very glitchy looking or broken videogame. The pairing of the detailed city environment and awkward controls just doesn’t sit well. If you're going for gold on most challenges, or for that Platinum trophy, get ready to feel pain and frustration.
However like I said before, it depends how you play. Overall it’s visually delicious and a unique experience. It has some touching moments and likeable characters with a genuinely well-crafted musical score. It's packed with enough content for a portable title to satisfy any style player from casual to hardcore. There's also the promise of three additional DLC packs to be released on June 26th, July 10th and July 24th containing even more missions for you to complete.
Although it depends on your level of tolerance, patience and gaming ability, when forgiven for its weaknesses, Gravity Rush is truly a beautiful game in every way and should be recognized for its contribution to the medium, proving that videogames can be artistic as well as fun.