So much potential marred by bad combat
Gravity Rush was the exclusive Vita game I was most excited about for when I inevitably picked mine up. All the screenshots looked absolutely gorgeous and the gravity-shifiting mechanics sounded really cool. It wasn’t quite enough to get me to buy a system, but it was close. It was one of the first games I picked up and played (through Playstation Plus, graciously from Sony), and my interest level going in was much higher than it is for most games. Unfortunately, Gravity Rush makes some mistakes that are truly disappointing and nearly ruined my enjoyment entirely.
The main character, Kat, drops from the sky onto the city of Hekseville at the beginning of the game. When she comes to, she has no idea who she is or where she came from. Her only clues are her gravity shifting powers that seem to come from her mysterious tagalong cat and the townspeople’s insistence on calling her a Shifter. She stumbles around town for awhile, trying to figure out what to do and is quickly met by the malevolent force that continually attacks the town, the Nevi. Fighting them off for the citizens and helping them rebuild their town gives her a place in the world and she soon settles into a rhythm. Various characters, like a rival Shifter named Raven and a helpful cop named Syd, come in and out of the story but never really get developed in any meaningful ways. The focus is mostly on Kat and her background before the events of the game.
The world is certainly intriguing, but the game doesn’t really explain much about its particulars. There are little bits of dialogue sprinkled around the map between missions to try and flesh it out, but there was never quite enough to give me a true sense of the world. The story beats themselves were the most potentially exciting parts. Too often, however, they would build up to something that just felt a little flat. The ending is your usual ending today, mostly set-up for something much cooler to happen in the next game. As much as I liked the character of Kat, I felt the developers spread themselves too thin on story beats and didn’t devote enough time to one thing or another. It felt like the most interesting parts were held back for another game, which is always frustrating.
I am pleased to say that feature that excited me the most, the gravity shifting, is just as fun to mess around with as it seems to be. Being able to rocket between different orientations of gravity and fly through the skies of Hekesville was breathtaking and quite easy to perform. By hitting the R button, you go into a sort of hover. Pressing the button again sends you off in the direction you are pointing, either with the right stick or the tilt sensor. You can maneuver slightly in the air, but major direction changes take another two clicks of the button. It takes some getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it, you can change direction on a dime and rocket away towards another place. It looks so cool.
The one gripe I have with it is when things get really heated, particularly in the combat sequences. It is very easy to lose sense of which way is up and which way is down, especially in the later parts of the game which become a bit more abstract in environment. The camera isn’t the best at keeping up with Kat and gets stuck sometimes when trying to revolve around behind her. It can be a little sickening trying to readjust. The developers were smart enough to have Kat’s hair and scarf always pointing down, as a guide for players. The problem is that it can be hard to see those tiny details when you’re flying through the air at hundreds of miles an hour.
Kat’s command over gravity is governed by a meter. Once it runs out, you start to plummet back down to Earth. To refill it, you must stand on something oriented with normal gravity. At that point, it quickly comes back. Her other powers also use it, moves like a gravity slide that can go up walls and ceilings (done by holding the touch screen in the bottom two corners) or the stasis field (used to pick up and throw objects). All of these moves, and other stats like health and air speed, are upgraded with gems. These gems can be found everywhere in the world and are worth more the higher up they are. Most of your gems will come from challenges that are dotted all over the map. To open these challenges, you must pay a small gem fee. This fee represents Kat using those gems to fix a part of Hekseville. These challenges have you doing little side missions like races through checkpoints or fights with Nevi; the better your time or score, the more gems you earn. These upgrades are very meaningful, especially the gravity gauge. Being able to stay up in the air longer is absolutely necessary later on.
Now we come to the part of the game that bummed me out the most – the combat. Ugh. I was very skeptical when I first encountered it, but it seemed alright at first. As the game progressed, it slowly got more frustrating. By the end, I wanted to tear my hair out at certain points. The main problem comes from the lack of a lock-on. There is a bit of aim-assist, but it doesn’t help as much as it should. Kat’s most important attack is a flying kick she can do while floating in the air. Hitting the attack button sends her rocketing off in the direction of the cursor, and she kicks any enemies in her way. You use this kick more than any other combat move in the game. When an enemy is moving or attacking, it can be next to impossible to line up a kick on one of the enemy’s weak points (the only way of killing them). Consider the fact that many late-game enemies have 3+ weak points and you can see the problem. The kick is also damn fast and adds to the disorientation factor when defying gravity.
Even if this kick had better lock-on capabilities, the combat would still be quite mediocre. There aren’t very many enemy types, and you are doing the same thing over and over again: get to a good position and line up a kick, hit square to fly at them and damage them, and repeat. Feel free to groan when I tell you that the game is mostly combat. Nearly every mission has you fighting off Nevi, sometimes in multiple waves. The few that don’t have you fighting anything or fighting very little are easily the best ones. These focus on the gravity mechanics, which is what the game probably should have done in the first place. The rest of the game is a constant slog through fights you won’t want to complete.
It probably comes as no surprise that the art was a big part of what drew me to Gravity Rush. Utterly gorgeous. It is very distinctive and screenshots always caught my eye whenever I saw them in a magazine or on a website. That style with the ability to shift gravity leads to some pretty breathtaking vistas, especially for a Vita game. I can’t imagine what this would look like on the Playstation 3, or even better, the next Playstation. It seems to be a very French-inspired art style, with bits of Japanese design thrown in too (this coming from someone with a poor artistic eye, of course). The sound is also somewhat French-feeling and reminds me of the post-WWII era of music. Each district of the town has its own theme. They are all quite good and fit the feel of the area, from the very whimsical tones of the first area called Old Town to the big-band sound of the entertainment district (read: where to find the prostitutes). I particularly liked the main mission theme and didn’t mind hearing it time and time again throughout the game. If you hate this theme, it will drive you nuts with how often it plays. The rest of the music also gets a little repetitive, especially since it never changes when in these areas. All in all, the presentation is top-notch, and the style is unlike anything I’ve seen in a game before.
My enjoyment of Gravity Rush fell off pretty steadily as I progressed through it. I could almost feel the points dropping off my score as the combat got more and more frustrating. I’m really disappointed that I can’t say entirely pleasant things about it, because I really wanted it to be awesome. Part of me even wanted to bury my frustration and put on a happy face for my review, but it got to a point where I couldn’t even force myself to do that. I could have dealt with the nonsense story; I couldn’t bear the repetitive, hair-pulling combat. Here’s to hoping that Gravity Rush 2 either doesn’t have combat at all (fat chance, but I can dream, right?) or that it is heavily refined. Such a cool concept deserves a better game.