One might reasonably argue that Assassin’s Creed and Super Mario Galaxy revolutionised thought processes underpinning the assumptions of what constitutes enjoyable navigation in third person action games. Being able to climb up and around just about any wall or building and navigate between them via parkour elements with Altair was a genuine pleasure for me in 2011 when first dabbling in the series, and Mario’s 3D outings on the Wii paid no heed to the constraints of realism, manipulating gravity and the third person perspective to masterful effect. Sony’s 2012 Playstation Vita title Gravity Rush has similar ambitions for turning the tropes of action game exploration on their head, by allowing you to control the direction of gravity at any time, and turn your world sideways and upside down. Indeed, navigation in this title is a joy, and is its primary success. On other levels however, Gravity Rush is comparatively less pleasing.
Players assume the role of Kat, a young blonde and red-eyed girl who appears to have fallen from the sky, and into the cobbled streets of the floating steampunk city of Heskeville. Having no memory of why you found yourself here or who you really are, the early hours of the game sees you integrate with the local populace and use your powers of gravity manipulation, provided by a mysterious lunar feline named Dusty, to benefit others, primarily by ridding the town of a mysterious race of shadow creatures known as the Nevi, barfed out by nearby gravity storms suddenly and without warning.
Kat is a likeable and refreshing protagonist, very down-to-earth, strong-willed, and keen to find her place like the rest of us; certainly a far cry from the masculine brutishness that we often see in many action titles. Her character develops well, and while the game doesn’t go into full detail about her origins (falling out of the sky – angelic deity perhaps?) she remains endearing throughout, and I consistently found myself wanting to learn more about her. My only complaint about her would be her lack of inqusitiveness and a willing to go along with the whims of some of the more mysetrious characters of the local populace, and I found this unconvincing. Regardless, it’s a shame that the care and attention devoted to Kat did not extend to the remaining cast of characters you encounter throughout the story, as their time in the limelight is fleeting enough that they don’t leave a lasting impact.
I feel the similarly about the story as a whole. You never really truly understand what is going on in the world, with cryptic statements and the abandonment of interesting themes, characters and concepts abound at every turn. The promise of more information, closure and detailed lore is dangled in front of you on a stick almost constantly, and hey, the food on that stick would appear to be very sweet tasting. Just as you think you might be able to savour the taste of that juicy morsel at last, the game comes to an abrupt, anticlimatic end that offers little of what you were hoping for and lacks coherence. The stage is well and truly set for a sequel however, and one may wonder whether the game’s narrative obtuseness was decided upon in development, to keep a focus on nailing down the gameplay mechanics before expanding upon and producing a more coherent narrative in a futture title. Nevertheless, what we have here is disappointing, and a missed opportunity to represent something much more valauble.
Whilst the story doesn’t deserve a great deal of attention, the game’s visual style is much more enticing. Deriving influence from French comic books, Heskeville and its cast of characters are a lovely sight to behold, and the attention to detail is a tribute to the power packed inside the Vita’s casing. The way objects and structures are faded out in the distance, for example, is a clever way of minimising slowdown in the game and also influences your sense of wonderment and your drive to explore this gorgeous world.
As I alluded to previously, the game’s key gameplay strength is in its exploration. Your ability to control gravity is introduced cleanly and quickly, and the experience is surprisingly easy to control. Pressing R allows you to float on the spot, with the right analog stick allowing you to point the camera in any direction; pressing R again will send you hurtling along in a straight line in that direction, with the left analog stick giving you limited control over your trajectory. Pressing X increases your descent speed with a satisfying sound of high-powered propulsion. If you hit a wall, ceiling, or any other suspended object, you can walk along it as if it were normal ground. Alongside the ability to jump (and excluding a cool extra to speeding up surface traversal known as the gravity slide) that’s all there is to it. It’s a system that requires practice and patience at first, and initially I thought it unwieldly and very disorienting, but the rewards are worth the effort.
Gravity Rush’s elegant navigation design wouldn’t be nearly so intrinsically satisfying were it not for an appropriate playground in which to exercise your powers, and whilst Nintendo has built games around planetary orbital gravity a few times now, the steampunk city in the sky would be another ideal choice, and it works wonders here. Towering church spires and office blocks, sub-level scaffolding and pipes, cooling towers, large housing complexes, airships and railtracks, amongst others, each being architecturally delightful, all have numerous nooks and crannies waiting to be explored. Within certain boundaries, you can fly to, move your camera to look at and walk along and up the sides of just about anything, and this freedom is exhilarating.
Where the exploration is its own reward, you’ll often come across the city’s gem currency, that can be used to upgrade your abilities, such as the length of time you can fly around, and reducing the downtime needed to recharge your gravity gauge. You can also use the currency for unlocking challenge missions, allowing you to earn yet more currency and thus fuelling the entire process all over again given the appropraite proficiency. It’s a satisfying reciprocal relationship to indulge in.
Combat in the title is much more frustrating an experience, especially since it dominates much of the game’s running time for how mediocre it is. On the ground you have a basic kick combo with the square button and a dodge ability, awkwardly activated by a touch screen swipe, which are entirely fine, if dull, options for taking out early enemies. In the air, the square button launches you directly towards a Nevi’s shining weak point, foot first, and whilst these high imapct collisions are initially enjoyable, the fact that there is little more to this combat system means fighting the Nevi soon begins to grate. Increasing your kick power and unlocking crowd controlling special attacks help to ameliorate this somewhat, but the near simultaneous introudction of more agile enemies and projectile spouting nuisances ensures the combat never evolves beyond flying head or foot first into danger, intentionally or otherwise.
Aerial combat proves to be especially tedious through its lack of precision. Aiming and landing your vaguely locked-on kicks take time, only that your exertions here are often completely wasted through to the more agile enemies simply moving out of the way or you being knocked out of your attack by an unseen projectile. It then takes another few seconds to line up your camera and then wait for your attack to hopefully connect once initiated. A lock-on system akin to that used by Dark Souls would have eliminated this irritation, despite possible making the game’s combat unchallenging, but as is, travelling from point A to objective B under the current combat system is overly restrictive.
The game’s missions and scenarios that revolve around puzzle solving and creative usage of your powers are improvements, but they are still not very spectacular, and tend to play things safe by involving travel between map marked checkpoints, rarely feeling irritating or confusing. Mission highlights will involve traversals to other dimensions, usually to return the broken chunks of Heskeville back to their original place, but the boss fights that are interwined with theses sections bring to the fore the limitations of the combat once again. Unlockable challenge missions provide an adequate distraction, particularly those revolving around making efficient use of your sometimes limited gravity powers in a time trial format. Beyond all the above though, there isn’t a great deal of substance to the game’s foundations.
In spite of the game’s flaws I enjoyed dipping in and out of the world of Heskeville, with the freedom to explore an artistically gorgeous world with few frame rate creaks, and the cleverness that surrounds a reasonable portion of the game’s story and challenge misssions consistently seducing me back to my Vita for a couple of hours.. At the end of the day though, the title only really nails one part of the gameplay experience (in a broadly similar way to how I felt with the first Assassin’s Creed) and if the developers were aware of this, the approximate 15 hour running time is justifiable, as I feel there isn’t enough depth to the game’s core to warrant a lengthier experience. Manage your expectations then, if you have an interest in playing Gravity Rush, but this is still an enjoyable romp on Vita.