Here’s something I’m sure you’ve experienced before: a game which has a great idea but where the devs forget to build an actual game around it, leaving you with a painful frustration made worse because of how great the initial experience was. Whoops, that’s my opinion of Gravity Rush given away.
Gravity Rush (PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita)
Released Feb 2012 | Developed: Japan Studio | Published: Sony
Genre: Action-Adventure, Platformer
The first thing is that Gravity Rush’s plot seems wooly and difficult to comprehend. This isn’t helped by protagonist Kat’s standard videogame amnesia, although thankfully she doesn’t angst over it. She wakes in a floating city called Hekseville when suddenly a vicious storm strikes and begins to tear pieces of the city apart. In a rush to rescue a child trapped in the vortex Kat discovers she can manipulate gravity around her, allowing her to float through space and to align herself to any surface she lands on. Using her newfound powers she rescues the child but quickly finds that “shifters” like her are as vilified by some as they are cheered by others. However, with the storms came an invasion of creatures called Nevi and so Kat begins a quest to defeat them and help Hekseville. This is complicated by the fact that large swathes of the city are missing until she meets an eccentric old man called Gade who helps her traverse through spatial distortions in order to recover the missing sections of the city from the clutches of the Nevi.
If you’re having a bit of trouble keeping up, well that’s not terribly surprising; the plot suffers from being a touch too busy as new layers to the fantasy seem to get added constantly. I know director Keiichiro Toyama is best known for his work on the Silent Hill and Siren franchises, and both of those have their share of narrative twists and turns which Toyama seems to have brought with him into Gravity Rush. Ultimately though this game might have benefited from a bit more judicious editing as the various strands of the plot don’t mesh that well as each layer is added.
The plot isn’t really the main draw here though. Gravity Rush is one of those games that has clearly been built purely to accommodate a single core idea from a developer; in Gravity Rush’s case the central conceit is that Kat can control gravity in relation to herself, and how it uses that mechanic is the game’s biggest appeal. With a touch of a button Kat can suspend herself in space and then players can freely aim around; once you’ve decided on a direction, a second press sends Kat hurtling through the air. Kat can be suspended again at any time, allowing players to change direction instantly. Whenever Kat comes into contact with a flat surface she realigns herself to be standing on it, which makes exploring the city both exhilarating and mind-boggling as you constantly have to adjust how you view your environment. The camera tries to help with this but every time Kat adjusts gravity it shifts, making for a somewhat nauseous experience.
Kat unlocks other skills as she progresses, such as being able to lift and propel objects near her or getting a slide move to enable faster travel about the city’s winding streets, but the gravity-defying flight remains her signature technique and will no doubt be players’ primary mode of exploring. Hekseville is a form of open-world, with each district occupying a different layer of the city. Kat can freely explore one district but then must board transport to move to another so the actual open-world space you get seems a bit smaller than other open-worlds. This is partly because it was a portable game originally so it’s probably a move made to accommodate its original console, the PS Vita, but it actually works in its favour as each region’s size is deceptive. Because Kat can attach to any surface and because each strata of Hekseville floats, you can explore all around the city in a fully 3D area. Dropping from the rooftops to the underlayers and then launching back up into the inner part of the districts yields new places to look around in for collectibles and side missions.
I say “collectibles” but really I mean “collectible”; dotted around the city are glowing purple crystals which functions as the currency for any in-game transactions. These are placed to encourage usage of Kat’s gravity shifting powers as they can be floating up high, suspended in open space off the city’s edges or along the side and underneath structures. They typically appear alongside blue gems to restore Kat’s MP, which decreases constantly as she uses her powers, and carefully planning a route to hit these gems can result in huge and lengthy gravity shifting streaks. Pulling off long flights is amazing, and recalls similar feelings of elation from games like Spiderman 2, where traversing the open world is its own reward.
Gathering the purple crystals is necessary to upgrade Kat’s powers. There’s no sophisticated RPG system here, just a series of attributes which can be raised to improve various stats, such as Kat’s HP or reduce the speed at which her MP drains, or improving the power of Kat’s combat moves. Each attribute has a level cap which can only be removed by increasing Kat’s reputation which happens as story missions are completed and as a reward for completing side quests. Hekseville is a bit of a wreck thanks to the Nevi and many of Kat’s side quests are to do with restoring functions of the city, but unfortunately the side quests are a weakness of the game as they’re all uninspiring and dull, with only a scant handful of mission types to take on; either you pay a certain amount of gems to restore power to sometime in-world or it’s some flavour of race or power demonstration. The former barely qualify as gameplay missions and I have no patience for the latter.
Kat also finds herself locked in combat against the Nevi as she explores on her quest. The combat is another system which feels a bit tacked on and barebones, as if it were an addendum to the gravity shifting. Pressing square lets Kat use a kicking combo but there’s no nuance or skill to it, or she can shift into the air and perform a long-range diving kick. She can also lift some objects with her powers and fling them at enemies, though what objects can and cannot be lifted is often unclear. That’s basically your lot; if you’re hoping for any more depth to it then you’ll be left disappointed. Every Nevi has a huge glowing red spot where they need to be hit, so combat is a cycle of either kicking, diving, or throwing objects to defeat them. Although we see new forms of Nevi, there’s never any real change to the fighting – it’s an underdeveloped system which feels sloppy and scrappy.
It’s a very pretty game at least. Gravity Rush is cel-shaded during gameplay, which I’m a huge fan of, and what’s even better is that the entire look of the game draws from the works of Franco-Belgian comics. Although the opening district of Hekseville is a bit brown, the style is distinct; in particular I love the way things are fuzzy and indistinct in the distance before coming into focus with sharp black lines as you get nearer. Subsequent areas of the city which you restore each have their own spin on the same style, often using colour washes to help give them their identities, from the hazy toxic yellows and greys of the industrial quarter to the gorgeous lights of the entertainment district. The Nevi also have a monstrous appeal, appearing in weird bubbling shapes and lashing out with tentacles and their deep black and red colours make them stand out sharply compared to the washed out colours and fuzziness of the world.
The cutscenes however are presented in comic book style, flitting between dynamic panels as the story and dialogue unfurl. This is a reasonably good-looking choice, although it’s obvious that it was done to save space and money as a portable release. However, as good as it looks, it falls apart when the characters actually have to open their mouths and speak to each other. A lot of the dialogue is trite and cliche, a fact exacerbated by the lacklustre narrative. Kat is ok; her idealism and desire to fight for this town she has no idea about is endearing, as is her constant chatter to Dusty, her otherworldly feline companion. However, the supporting cast around her offer little to enjoy; many characters show up to dole out perfunctory lines about the next mission or to cryptically hint about the world, while other major characters are often too wrapped up in the ludicrous plot to remember to also have a personality as well.
What was probably the defining moment of my Gravty Rush playthrough came reasonably late on. I’d not long completed a mission which required me to travel down a huge tube-like structure; this on its own took ages as the structure kept going and going, unchanging in any way whatsoever. It was followed by an absolutely dreadful boss fight which in turn felt unending because I was then forced to repeat it in back-to-back missions for no reasons. Finally the game had me ascend the very same structure I’d come down in the first place, presented without change, as wave after wave of flying enemies kept knocking me about and forcing me to lengthen an already interminably long stage. I realised that Gravity Rush simply wasn’t actually fun.
Just like that the illusion shattered and I stopped caring about pushing on with Gravity Rush. Looking back it felt very clear that it didn’t really ever respect the time it took to play it; the side missions are nothing short of lazy rehashes of each other without any real reward to doing them, and the main story wasn’t much better. Many stages are lengthy purely because of having to wrestle constantly with the controls and the camera, and most boiled down to an identical rigmarole of the same tedious baddies lining up to get slapped by hurling Kat at them. I’ve already talked about the lack of coherent story structure, and once you take away any sense of a narrative or enjoyable gameplay loop I was left questioning what had Gravity Rush got left to offer?
The answer is nothing. Gravity Rush is a disappointment in a huge way. It has its fans and fair play to them but in the end I simply couldn’t take playing it anymore. It’s a game built around that marvelous idea of a core mechanic but that alone cannot make a game; unfortunately everything else around it, from the narrative to the combat, feels completely tacked on and the lack of care and polish sticks out like a splinter.
2/7 – POOR.
A disappointment. Best not to bother with this unless you’re desperate for a naff time.