It’s happened again, hasn’t it? Another system, freshly released and dying for good software, has an interesting looking new IP, and everyone decides that it must be that system’s “Killer App.” And once again, with the finished product in our hands we can say that that really… just isn’t the case. Gravity Rush is not a bad game. It’s quite interesting. But it’s kind of a mess, as well.
Gravity Rush is the creation of Sony Computer Entertainment Japan’s Project Siren, a team that previously made the Siren titles. Since those games date back to 2003, it’s fair to say that these guys are not new to the medium, they’re veterans. It’s strange, then, that Gravity Rush should seem so half-baked, so overpromised and underdelivered. The core mechanic is gravity manipulation- our protagonist, Kat, can control the direction of her personal gravity, making “down” whatever direction she desires. She tumbles through the air, spinning gently, with every appearance of being out of control, while having absolute power over her trajectory.
The juxtaposition is an appropriate one for a story about trying to find your way in an unfamiliar land. Bizarre things happen all around Kat, and as much as it’s unfortunate that she gets caught up in the middle of them, she tends to come out on top. Indeed, she goes the entire game without incurring any real loss, and this complete lack of failure damages the game as a whole. Who likes a hero who never fails at anything? Flaws are what make characters interesting, after all. The story doesn’t have the proper arc, and consequently it’s often hard to care about the grander things.
Kat herself is charming enough, and one of the side characters is likeable, but mostly you’re surrounded by people you don’t like saying things you don’t care about. This carries through to a rather abrupt ending that leaves the majority of the game’s questions more than just unanswered, but nearly entirely ignored since being asked. What’s more, the final boss fight ends with a five second cutscene, and then the credits roll, with a motion comic alongside them teasing the remaining mysteries. A more blatant tease for a sequel there never was, and a more obnoxious neither.
The story, then, is a wreck of lost plot threads and uninteresting characters. What of the combat? This, too, is a mess, but in a somewhat more simple way- it just isn’t fun. One of the first powers you get is the gravity kick- the ability to hurl yourself at a target with your gravity powers for a single, forceful blow. I hope you like this power. I hope you like it a lot. Because 70% of the game is using it over and over and over. You obtain a few special powers that are more interesting, but they are all on the same extremely slow cooldown, so you will still spend most of your time flinging yourself at glowing weakpoints repeatedly.
You’ll have to do it even more considering how often you’ll miss. The monsters in Gravity Rush, the Nevi, are decently agile, and will frequently duck out of the way of your kicks, which take a good long while to reach the target, and are difficult to adjust at all midflight. There’s no lock-on system either, making it all the more difficult. Given how much combat there is in Gravity Rush, it’s astonishing just how bad it feels. It’s tolerable, but only barely. It certainly isn’t even remotely enjoyable.
And since it’s on the Vita, of course the developers had to include some Vita specific functionality! This includes mapping your dodge move to a swipe on the touch screen- because we all want to have to take our hands off the buttons in the middle of a tense fight- a slide move that requires you to have a finger on each side of the screen, and had me scratching my head as to how I was supposed to steer it for a long time- and tilt controls. Oh god, the tilt controls. Where do I start?
First off, you can tilt to adjust your view of the motion comic cutscenes. This sounds kind of neat at first, and then you try it while riding in a car, or walking, or anything that is not perfectly still, and suddenly you’re trying to watch the comic upside-down because that’s what the tilt controls did to it. Next, the previously mentioned sliding. Yeah, turns out it’s controlled with tilt, and has all the sensitivity of a Wiimote in a room full of candles. You tilt the Vita further and further and Kat doesn’t turn, and then suddenly she lurches off to the side. Delightful. Finally, you can use tilt to adjust your fall… which again, sounds good until you’re trying to angle Kat in one direction and have to turn the Vita so far you can’t see the screen anymore. Developers, tilt is just a stupid idea, and you need to stop using it in things, forever.
Despite all of these complaints, and more- there are other complaints I could make, trust me- I like Gravity Rush. I like it quite a bit. And that stupid, obnoxious tease for “Gravity Rush 2” at the end? It still made me kind of happy, because I want to see more of this game. For all its many, many flaws, and for as big as they are, the core of the game is just delightful. The cel-shaded art style is fantastic, and the city that the game is set in (primarily) is a beautiful, almost Ghibli-esque surreal arrangement of architecture. The music is fantastic, with an old European style of music rarely seen in games. And the gravity mechanics, for as much as they suck in combat, are a joy for movement.
You can run and jump up walls, you can fall toward the sky, you can clip a lamppost and have that completely change your trajectory. The first few hours of the game, you’re as clumsy with your powers as Kat is, overshooting your targets, running out of power in midair, and having a blast doing it. By the end of the game, you’re soaring like any other superhero, master of earth and sky with your expertly controlled powers. The novelty wears off, but it never stops being a great system, still with tons of potential untapped.
Gravity Rush, looked at just in a critical sense, in a numerical sense, is a failure. It messes up too many important things to be anything else. But a game is more than the sum of its parts, and Gravity Rush, when it works, is nothing short of magical. This is not a game worth getting a Vita for, but if you have a Vita, and you haven’t picked it up, you’re making a mistake.
Originally published for Press X or Die on July 6, 2012