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.)
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