Sony Japan’s effort to leave an early and definitive mark on the Vita begins rather simply, asking players to poke the touchscreen of the hardware in order to nudge an apple. It isn’t long for breaking from the stem and falling to the ground, only to roll off the floating island where the tree has grown, falling to the unseen depths below.
If you enjoy reading into such things, there’s room to suggest that letting that forbidden fruit fall away without taking a bite invites the idea that the player should abandon knowledge, that they should forget everything they know before stepping into this gravity shifting playground – that this experience is unlike any other to come before it.
And I rather like this idea.
It’s certainly the type of bold statement one expects from Sony, and Gravity Rush does indeed fight to turn the familiar upside-down, creating a play space where the often wasted space above one’s head becomes as important as the ground beneath their feet.
But Gravity Rush is also a prisoner of gravity and circumstance, struggling with the structure of that space and occasionally bumping against the ever present walls that contain it, and further burdened by a need to justify the Vita release by making the most of hardware features makes for some hard landings here.
Amnesiac Kat awakens to a strange cosmic cat companion, which aside from giving the player something to immediately latch onto emotional, also enables her to shift gravity. Seriously, who wouldn’t want a magical cat for a friend?
Anyway, Kat creates a gravity field around herself with the tap of a button, causing her to float just above the ground. From there, players pick a direction with the targeting reticule and can shift the focus of their gravity to suddenly hurdle toward new heights and destinations in order to stand sideways on buildings that loom over the city or simply buzz around the air. The animation is rather fantastic here, with Kat always hurling herself with jumps and hitting the ground hard. At no extra charge, she sometimes picks up nearby citizens who are understandably terrified by the experience.
Overindulgence is kept in check by a gauge that drains while players move through spaces in this fashion, recharging when they hit the ground proper and disengage the ability, or when they grab recharging crystals scattered around the environment, and more purposefully scattered around areas where Kat needs to keep shifting gravity.
There’s a very patient design that allows players to stop in the air without draining the gauge quickly, carefully picking the desired direction or target. The greatest hurdle to this mode of transportation can sometimes be the city, with layers that make waypoints tricky to find in the bends of buildings. But for the most part one can buzz around town speedily, and short of games that allow me to ride around in a giant boot, this might be my favorite way to traverse a videogame landscape.
Because this encourages a quicker and looser style of travel, the game’s waypoint system allows players to mark a direction on the map, pointing out locations where story furthering missions are, conversations with citizens await, as well as challenge missions that reward players with currency crystals.
Collecting crystals is the driving incentive for urban exploration, using them to upgrade or augment Kat’s abilities. Even though it’s a familiar premise, it works here. Being able to shift gravity longer or increase attack strength remains a powerful means of convincing me to tour the city and tackle extra challenges.
Despite some fantastic character designs, Kat’s primary adversaries also fall on the familiar, offering a mix of oddly shaped dark creatures with glowing red cores – you can probably already guess where you want to strike them based on that description. Kat can engage these monsters on the ground with quick kicks, but the location of those candy cores often makes it necessary to grab some air in order to launch flying strikes against them – the added bonus here being that they can’t strike you if you’re high above them, though they will fire projectiles.
Combat can never achieve a quick pace in this way, though larger boss encounters do their best to force the hands to move Kat around the screen at greater speeds. Many encounters provide plenty of time to carefully wait for adversaries to expose their core, making this game of Kat and mouse more about continually leaping into the air to pick off targets one by one. Though this sounds somewhat tedious, the need to watch the draining gauge and genuine joy of gravity shifting manages to stave off a feeling of continual grinding.
Combat often feels like fighting in water, and I dig that. What I didn’t dig however was the natural setup for evading attacks, which requires the player to brush the touchscreen slightly in order to dodge. I can’t fathom why, when I already have a finger on the attack button and my hands stationed around the analog nubs, that I would want to shift my hand and focus on the touchscreen during frantic combat situations. I mean, I understand why, because the Vita has a touchscreen and it’s very nice and here’s a chance to use it. But seriously?
If I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, it’s because that is a small example of how Gravity Rush finds a few ways to show off the Vita hardware by directly undermining a rather polished and enjoyable experience – where features meant to stave off tedium and break up the action go further toward breaking things apart, losing the sense of play and style created to drag my spirits back down to earth.
The greatest bottleneck created by this finds Kat sliding through rollercoaster type environments, shifting from side to side to collect items while doing so – again, not at all foreign to game design. To do this, players place a finger on either bottom edge of the Vita screen in order to begin Kat’s running slide, and can remove a finger to aid cornering while tilting the Vita to direct her. The effect is instantly aggravating, yes because it can cause someone like myself to die plenty, but also because it slaps the player in the face. Rather than building on the rules of this world, it feels as if the player is asked to simply step to the side in order to play a mini-game deviation tossed into the main campaign as a non-negotiable requirement.
It’s an upsetting turn of events because bottlenecks like this cause people to put games down, and there are so many good reasons to pick Gravity Rush up, from the European feel of the cityscape to the narrative sequences played out by comic panels the player can move around with the swipe of a finger against the touchscreen.
Again, there’s a highly polished experience here, with mechanics that give players cause and reason to soar while managing to work with potential camera issues that cripple other games trying to accomplish far less. That so much of the design plays it safe, creating rather tame combat situations in order to avoid breaking that experience, makes it absolutely baffling that hardware-centric features are then let loose to distract from an experience that does genuinely shine as one of the most compelling examples to consider Vita ownership. There’s no question that there’s plenty to appreciate, but some design decisions cause Gravity Rush to sway more toward purely artistic appreciation versus the rewarding gaming experience that there’s ample potential for here.