Authenticity is not a term that one might commonly associate with a fictional setting or context. But Red Matter developer Vertical Robot has crafted a world and a locale in Cosmobase Strelka that is impressive not just in its art design, lighting, score and gameplay, but also in how this futuristic Cold War mirrors our own recent confrontation between the U.S./NATO and the Soviet Union.
Indeed the conflict between the Atlantic Union (stand in for America and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the People’s Republic of Volgravia (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Warsaw Pact) is steeped in the language and imagery of the 1950s mostly, whether state iconography or propaganda posters, and even a score that harkens to Cold War thrillers.
I was reminded of pop culture treatments such as the classic film The Manchurian Candidate. The same suspicion, paranoia and state machinations are in place here, the same foreboding and taut experience from beginning to end. A chess game is even central to the goings on. The studio definitely deserves credit for so successfully recreating this in a compelling fictional setting.
That setting is the Volgravia base on the Saturn moon Rhea. You’re an agent of the Atlantic Union known as Epsilon and are sent to investigate the now abandoned facility and retrieve vital enemy documents. How you navigate and interact with this setting reflects intuitive controls that increase immersion and help contribute to the authenticity of this world and the story it has to tell.
Navigation itself on the Oculus Quest is well implemented as it allows a variety of options for player comfort. Default options of leap teleportation and snap turns worked best for me as the former fits perfectly with the low-gravity space setting and allows for traversing gaps or varying heights while the latter eliminates discomfort. But players can also hold a button and point to move along the ground.
One of the caveats I had while playing relates to how the locomotion options can interfere with the gameplay controls. Because snap turns on the Oculus Touch controller are mapped to the right thumbstick and smooth locomotion is mapped to both right and left grip buttons, I would sometimes try to turn with the left thumbstick, which changes your left tool’s configuration. Just a minor irritation.
I also wish that the leap teleportation could be interrupted to change direction. Thankfully, players can use the right thumbstick to increase or decrease how quickly leap teleportation is implemented as a comfort option. But because it plays out like an animation it can’t be interrupted to change course. One could argue that if jetpack equipped then it could make sense, but it might be too jarring.
Navigation actually is very well implemented overall and part of game controls that are precise, responsive and intuitive, lending themselves to a gameplay environment that feels real and goes a long way to rooting the player in this world. The right tool includes grip and teleportation/movement controls, the left has grip, scanner/translator/mission, flashlight and movement controls.
The grip controls to an extent are the workhorses of the game. You’ll use them to pickup or move objects; turn switches or valves/controls; operate levers; open/close doors or cabinets; push/pull items, etc. And as mentioned they are responsive to your movement, precise in their targeting and hit detection, and just feel intuitive and supremely functional in the virtual reality setting.
Changing the left tool’s configuration between grip and its other functions is easy with the respective thumbstick and visual cues in the form of related icons on the tool face. The animations involved are relatively quick and realistic. The flashlight is a peculiar choice to me as I used it maybe twice and even then it really wasn’t necessary. But maybe I missed a crucial clue or object?
The scanner/translator/mission function, on the other hand, was a key tool used throughout the player’s journey. The scanner analyzes objects and downloads data from digital files or key cards, allowing operation and access to options or areas otherwise locked. The translator will decipher signs, diagrams, memos, letters, etc., and is the main method for learning about the base’s staff and what happened to them.
Many actions are accompanied by (sometimes long) vibration, especially turning and mission updates. The drain on controller batteries was significant, even leading to a restart when a dead battery allowed my glove and item it held to float into the scenery. It's not a big issue, and I could have replaced the batteries earlier, but the option to turn off vibration (which I usually do) would have been appreciated.
The narrative itself is an intriguing mystery about the ties that bind these workers, how and why they frayed or didn’t, and the nature and impact of a red substance encroaching on the facility -- a literal Red Menace, reflecting the ideological one represented by the Communist USSR/Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. All of it influenced by the totalitarian Volgravian state and its Big Brother policies.
As gamers progress and start to unravel the story, their grip on reality likewise starts to unravel. Visions encroach on Epsilon’s experience, a mysterious figure intervenes and the red matter of the title begins to loom larger. The denouement is breathtaking, if a little cryptic for this gamer (I admit I had to look up a little help for processing it). The journey is an impressive one and shouldn’t be missed.
And the journey as in most things is an end in and of itself. Puzzles, like exploration, are a key gameplay element and with the intuitive, responsive controls are a joy to solve. Some are basic logic puzzles, others involve pattern recognition, for instance. They aren’t overly simple but neither are they too challenging. For myself, they were a perfect challenge and fit very well with the game’s setting and story.
It’s tempting to delve deeper into the puzzles and story but experiencing both are what Red Matter is about. That they are executed so well, and complemented by controls and a setting that are so immersive, creates a unique virtual reality experience. The stunning presentation allows each of these elements to shine in a way that highlights the expert craftsmanship on display.
The moon base inside and out has a variety of surfaces all of which are highly detailed whether natural or artificial (though the red matter can appear flat and artificial). Lighting and shadows are exceptional and add to the realism of this fictional setting. Animations are fluid. Colors are subtle and well chosen. The score is perfect and the principal voice actor and dialog are well suited to the retro-futuristic setting.
Red Matter is that rare virtual reality game that fully immerses players in its setting, especially as that world is a retro-futuristic one that expertly recreates the context of a historical period in a fictional future. Vertical Robot has combined masterful controls, well designed puzzles, an intriguing story and high-quality presentation for a superlative VR gaming experience that’s not to be missed.
(This post was based on a review code of Red Matter for Oculus Quest. The game released August 15 on that platform.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
One and a half hours is not a long time to make an educated determination about the quality of a video game, but in the case of the No Man’s Sky Beyond update and the virtual reality mode it adds to the game, it was enough to make some key observations.
The update released yesterday actually implements broad and significant changes to the base game, going great lengths to help realize the original vision of developer Hello Games. But the new VR element is the one addition that I was most interested in and, frankly, concerned about.
My main concern was navigation. I can exist in PSVR games indefinitely, provided locomotion settings are diverse and user friendly. On the ground. Flying in VR presents challenges for me similar to driving, where smooth turns in a static setting can induce nausea.
I presumed – like in Eve: Valkyrie, War Thunder, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – that flying low above a planet’s surface would be too uncomfortable (high-altitude or space flight isn’t an issue, unless nearby mountains, space stations, etc.), and worried how flight controls might influence ground navigation.
As it turns out, those fears were unfounded. For some reason, flight in Beyond’s VR mode is not nauseating to me, provided I’m not doing sharp turns, barrel rolls, etc. Perhaps it’s due to the concentration required for the control scheme or some other explanation.
Likewise, flight controls are different from ground navigation options, so I’m not restricted to smooth turning when hiking alien terrain. I haven’t attempted driving yet, so we’ll see how that plays out. But being able to select my preferred smooth locomotion with snap turns is a tremendous blessing.
That said, flight controls are not perfect using the Move motion controllers. This is my preferred method in PSVR, as using the DualShock controller for me defeats the purpose of playing in VR. Still, too often in PSVR games one has to initially fight using these controllers and their cumbersome button layout.
For Beyond, players control a simulated flight stick and throttle combination with right and left hands/Move controllers, respectively. Holding one’s right hand in place and controlling for roll, pitch and yaw can be awkward. The throttle is pretty straight forward and stays in place.
The learning curve reminds me of Skyrim VR, one of my favorite VR games. The accomplishment of effectively porting the regular huge 3D game into virtual reality is impressive, but the Move controllers don’t make the transition easy and require lots of practice to pull it off effortlessly.
But it’s possible. And the level of immersion in getting inside your cockpit, throttling up and maneuvering one’s spacecraft while soaring above an alien landscape is deep and rewarding. Landing is still as easy as pressing a button. The one caveat is caustic storms that inexplicably create near whiteout conditions.
Ground navigation is a welcome relief as diverse options allow for comfortable traversal (including teleportation if that’s your preference). Plus I’m happy to report that the jetpack works well in virtual reality, firing up with the press of a button and enabling precise jumps by simply looking at where you want to land.
The player’s interaction with most things is a little peculiar, as you select an item then pull back with the controller to quickly perform an action. But it works. Likewise, reaching over your right shoulder equips the blaster/mining tool, whereas reaching to the left of the visor and pressing a button activates your analyzer.
There are also option menus that pop up when reaching for your left glove with your right or when reaching for the tool in your right glove with your left. So theoretically I know how to activate those even if I still haven’t figured out how everything works.
Menus, in fact, are another important distinction. In Beyond’s virtual reality, they are well implemented and reasonably user friendly, as opposed to in Skyrim VR, for instance, where they can appear sideways to the player’s vision or otherwise obscured by the environment or distance.
When hovering over an item in a menu, a separate menu might appear with respective action items to select from. This level of detail and VR control takes some getting used to but with practice is perfectly manageable. I haven’t navigated all menu options but so far so good.
One area I’m still learning is the blaster/mining tool configuration and control. Selecting which tool and which ammo, for instance, is still a mystery to the chagrin of myself and creatures I might accidentally shoot/blow up! I appreciate the depth of control, though it’s too early to know if it’s ever too cumbersome.
To the extent there are caveats about gameplay in virtual reality, and there certainly are given the sheer breadth and depth of options ported into this mode, any issues likely have more to do with the design of the Move motion controllers than the game, as is the case with Skyrim VR. The DualShock likely overcomes such issues but at the expense of immersion.
Note that I haven’t attempted fleet maneuvers, space combat, multiplayer, etc. Still, my brief exposure to No Man’s Sky Beyond update in virtual reality has left me satisfied, excited, a little apprehensive about how much I have yet to learn control-wise, but ultimately enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead.
Hello Games deserves our appreciation for the level of commitment they’ve demonstrated to the game and more importantly to fans. I haven’t even scraped the surface of Beyond, but I know its VR component is something I will eagerly play for a long time to come. It makes the great beyond accessible in a welcome and entertaining way.
Funimation Films' Kingdom tells an intimate story on a large stage. In this way it reminds one of other epic films, where ordinary characters are swept up in a grand struggle, and few conflicts are more grand than the Warring States period of Chinese history. But this fictionalized account of how the Qin kingdom set about unifying China deftly explores that challenge on a personal level as disparate lives collide on the journey.
This live-action film is based on the adventure-historical manga series of the same name by Yasuhisa Hara and tells the story of two boys orphaned by war and sold into slavery who dream of freedom and becoming great generals. When circumstances plunge both into the middle of China's political upheaval, their choices prove fateful and set them on a course that intersects with a cross section of Chinese society for better and worse.
Their journey from slavery to war is a tumultuous one that lays bare the schisms in society as orphans, slaves, slave owners, peasants, commoners, military officers, officials and royalty intersect or openly clash, including a mountain tribe and its shifting relationship with "flatlanders." In this fictional retelling, a deposed commoner king and his allies seek the aid of ordinary Chinese to defeat his usurper brother and unite the kingdom.
Without giving too much away, the story does an admirable job keeping the boys' relationship at the center of the narrative even when they are apart. The bond they formed as children, their dedication to each other, and the promise they made to both become great generals are recurrent elements from beginning to end. It provides context, motivation and rationale, even when the world forces a different path.
Kento Yamazaki (Li Xin) and Ryo Yoshizawa (Piao) are well suited to their roles, and have a solid chemistry that endures through all the tumult they experience. At times Xin's portrayal can be overwrought but it doesn't stretch credulity too far given the trauma the character experiences. In fact, the mental and emotional anguish as well as physical exhaustion were impressively portrayed and helped convey how dire circumstances were.
Yoshizawa, on the other hand, had a more complex challenge but effectively displayed an appropriate range of characterization that helped sell the story. Indeed, all the actors/actresses helped breathe life into their characters, especially Kanna Hashimoto (He Liao Diao), Masami Nagasawa (Yang Duan He) and Masahiro Takashima (Chang Wen Jun). The ensemble in general works well with each other and the material.
There are also more colorful, larger than life characters that add entertaining elements to the story. A mysterious assassin who mercilessly pursues his prey, a monstrous executioner named Lan Kai that towers over adversaries, and the legendary General Wang Qi that inspired the boys and continues to evoke awe. All reflect a manga influence, whether or not they actually appeared in the source material.
The dialog is generally well conceived and helps propel the narrative with just enough exposition to follow the overall story without getting bogged down in detail. In fact, the film's pacing provides a serviceable balance between quieter moments and action, maintaining a thoughtful, emotional thread in between confrontation and combat. In this regard director Shinsuke Sato has crafted a well-rounded, entertaining film.
Action scenes carry much of the film and complement the story well. Whether scenes of individual fights or full-scale combat, the choreography, camerawork and editing help create exhilarating, tense confrontations involving ranged attacks, melee weapons and acrobatics sometimes aided by wire work. They're at times intense and always satisfying, whether on a plain, in a bamboo forest, in interiors or elsewhere.
Speaking of, the location shoots, courtyard scenes and interiors are all magnificent and help convey the story's epic qualities. Forested gorges, a mountain refuge and a resplendent throne room are among the impressive sights, not to mention the detailed armor, tribal gear, silk robes and everyday clothes worn by the cast. The solid score accentuates each scene instead of undermining, hitting the right notes for solemn or martial moments.
Some elements of the film are weaker than others, including lines of dialog that can feel uninspired, unfunny or just out of place, fight choreography with wires that can come across as showy instead of having consequence, and makeup in the case of Lan Kai that looks more like a Halloween mask than convincing prosthetics. However, these are the exceptions to an otherwise solid and well-made production overall.
The central story of the boys' relationship is a moving one that is strong enough not only to carry the movie but to do so even when they're separated. The fact that their origin as orphans plays into the larger conflict and ties in to the role played by other commoners, peasants and underprivileged Chinese in the effort to reinstate the deposed commoner king is an inspired theme especially in today's divided world.
The film succeeds because of the way it expertly portrays an intimate story of underprivileged characters swept up in the tumult of historic change. The characters' conflicts and how they rise above them mirrors the challenges faced by China, and in a way that allows audiences to be emotionally invested in the overall story. Kingdom in this way is a sweeping epic with heart, that grips audiences while it also entertains.
(This review is based on a screener. Kingdom opens in select theaters August 16. It is shown in Japanese with English subtitles, is rated R for violence, and has a run time of 134 minutes.)
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