Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Gravity Rush Review


I’ve been excited about Gravity Rush since it was revealed as Gravity Daze. Though the name changed outside of Japan, the same intriguing elements remained intact. It’s billed as a fresh new platformer IP with interesting gameplay and art on the latest handheld gaming console. Since viewing the trailer, I have been smitten with the idea of playing this game, and I finally got my chance this month. Since entering the strange world Gravity Rush opened up to me, I’ve completed my journey and have come out the other side victorious. Has the Vita found a great new IP, or have I once again been hoodwinked into buying a piece of shovelware by a great trailer?


In Gravity Rush, you take control of Kat, a girl who has forgotten her past and landed in a strange city in the clouds named Hekesville. Her interdimensional cat, Dusty, allows her to shift her personal gravity, permitting her to fly across the city, pick up objects with her powers, and make Newton spin in his grave. With the push of a button, gravity is changed from its normal to any direction you desire, allowing you to walk on buildings, fly through the air, or dive-bomb on enemies. Her mission is to help the citizens of her adopted metropolis while strange creatures known as the Nevi stand to destroy what she has come to call home. At its core, this is a game based on shifting gravity and building around that idea. This inside-out development scheme affects two major game elements heavily. First off, allowing Kat to switch her gravity to drop in any direction, and thereby stand on any side of a given object, means that the designers had to draw out everything, from the tops of buildings, to the underbelly of the city, to every facade of the obscure objects you can barely see in the distance. And don’t think Sony cut corners, choosing to scale down the size and scope of the city to make their jobs easier. Gravity Rush has more attention to detail in one city than I’ve seen in a great number AAA titles of recent. 


To give you an example, I once found myself wandering down an alley to be surprised by a hotdog stand in the corner, nestled behind a staircase. Why was it there? I suppose the store owner wanted to open shop there. There is no reason beyond that. No missions take place there, no collectables are to be had, and no part of the narrative touches it. This area could have been, and likely was, skipped over by most players, but it was still there. The designers could have continued the flat brick wall, but they instead decided to add in a shop. That may not seem significant, but it shows how much the developers cared about creating a world that was not only believable, but explorable and beautiful; it’s an environment that feels like a place people live, not one set forth to utilize to accomplish missions. And not all of the locations are the same. Every borough of the city has its own personality, landscape, and character. Going to any one of these areas brings something new to my attention I hadn’t seen before, and I couldn’t enjoy that more. I thoroughly enjoy the world of Gravity Rush, and haven’t had this much fun exploring a sandbox environment since GTA IV.


The second element the gravity shifting affects is combat, though not as heavily as you may think. While it’s true that you can attack enemies from any position, be it on a surface or in the air, it all feels relatively standard. Kat can kick enemies while on the ground, perform a flying kick in the air, and has a few special attacks that she earns throughout the game. The combat would be excellent and fun if not for a few fatal flaws—no targeting system is in place and the camera angles cannot make up for that. In a game in which disorientation is your default state of being, having some sort of targeting system would aid in not only finding enemies, but continuing to attack them. I found myself being hurt far more often than I care to mention partially because of bad camera angles that would not correct themselves in the heat of battle, or because I was trying to kick a specific target and missing my mark. 


The frustration that is the combat system is at the core of my woes with this game.  The moves themselves aren’t that special, and I would have liked to experiment with more interesting mechanics since Kat is a gravity shifter. I feel that her abilities were not as explored in combat as I would have liked. Even if the move-set had lived up to its fullest potential, the maddening camera angles and rarity of hitting an enemy when using a jumping kick is enough to drive one to drink. Note for future titles, Sony, just having a simple target system using the D-pad or something similar would have made this a 10/10 for me. And yes, it seems there will be future titles, based on the story, ending, and hidden plot details.


It may seem strange to talk in length about the gameplay before the story, but I think Gravity Rush‘s strengths lie in its physics and level design, making the story take a backseat; and it shows. The story in this game is an odd one. Since Kat has amnesia, the player is finding out things about the city and protagonist as she herself does. This sense of “finding ones bearings” does a fantastic job of sucking the player into the world and giving Kat a chance to show her personality through her interpersonal relationships and interaction with the people around her. Though there are only a few supporting characters, they also hold the player’s interest quite well. The narrative, on the other hand, is a bit flimsy. Kat meets a man named Gade who is the Creator of the world. He takes her into Rift planes to get back pieces of the city lost to the increasing gravity storms while some sinister plot is being hatched in Hekesville. This high level narrative is interesting, but most of the interactions with people to get to those points are superfluous and feel like filler. 


There’s not much plot progression in these times and the only real point to it seems to be to characterize Kat and allow the player to explore. I don’t strongly oppose this, but I would have liked the story to mirror the level of detail of the environment. Perhaps on the next go-round we will see a deeper exploration of the plot and less fetch quests, but it seems Sony didn’t quite hit the mark on this one.

The art made me almost forget about the silly story, though, as it’s whimsical and incredibly stylish. It reminds me of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker in its cel-shading, but it felt far more detailed. The only problem with a mixture of high details and this art style is that sometimes bloom or color bleed tends to make things a bit muddy, and when your primary colors are red, yellow, and brown, the effect is an area that is lifeless and a bit difficult to focus on.

Luckily, each borough of Hekesville has its own color pallet, setting all four of them apart from one another. This change in color bases has the effect of breathing life into every new area Kat visits. The art extends beyond just the gameplay though, as some cutscenes are done in a comic book style, utilizing panels to tell the story. This could have had the potential to suck me out of the game and lose interest, but Sony implemented a feature that made me love these sequences—tilt control. With each panel of the comic, you need only tilt the Vita left or right to see a little bit more of what’s happening in the panel, behind its borders. The objects in the panel move according to how close to the camera they are, providing a nifty pseudo-3D feel. These sequences also allow the Vita to be turned on its side to see more of the comic up and down, and the comic seemed to adhere to gravity as no matter how you twisted the Vita about, the comic remained stationary with respect to the player’s eyes. I thought I would get bored of this after a few cut scenes, but it never ceased to make me smile to move my Vita around like a madman.


Just a Mario has coins, Link has Rupees, and Jak has Precursor Orbs, so does Kat have gems. Gems come in many sizes and values and are used to level up Kat’s abilities, health, and attacks. You can acquire these through exploration of the city, or completing time attack challenges. New time attack challenges are revealed every time Kat fixes something in the city. With every small act of kindness from restarting the Ferris wheel to making the trains work again, you gain access to more challenges and reputation with the citizens, which increases your level cap. There aren’t many of these side quests about, which I believe is a good thing. Sony struck a delicate balance with the side quest to main story ratio, as I never felt like I was grinding, nor like I had too much work to do in one area to progress the story and move on.

Verdict: The Vita has not been out for long, but already Gravity Rush has taken the crown of best Vita game yet, featuring exciting gameplay with fun characters and an interesting, though admittedly sparse, story. Though the combat could use an overhaul, its strengths in exploration, details, and characterization more than make me forgive its shortcomings. If you like platformer titles, anime, or simply own a Vita, Gravity Rush is a must buy. Even if you’re on the fence about investing in the new portable console, this title should be more than enough to push you over the edge.
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