Virtual reality is a unique medium, but a difficult one to develop for. Most VR games focus on the thrill and novelty of VR immersion without any serious, complex, or engaging gameplay driving the game. The fun wears off fast with these titles, and it’s easy to write off VR gaming altogether because there hasn’t been a “killer app” yet to play.
But Blasters of the Universe offers a pretty solid audition for that title. Billing itself as the first “VR bullet hell” game to ever hit virtual reality devices, Blasters brings the bullet hell genre over to the VR world in a pretty entertaining way. And as a virtual reality title, it’s more than just immersive: it’s fun.
Blasters of the Universe puts players into a sci-fi, Tron-like virtual reality game world tasked with defeating "Grand Master Alwyn," an expert arcade gamer from the early days of VR. Alwyn, being very good at video games but having no friends, decided to lock himself into a lonely virtual reality world along with his army of followers. He's a self-proclaimed "VR god” and a bit of a manchild, and it's the player's job to fight him.
Of course, this transfers into a first-person shooting experience where players use their head to dodge incoming bullets from enemies in their line of sight. In the game’s PAX East preview demo, the player largely stands in place as enemies come in, launching bullet patterns at the player that they have to avoid by dodging in pretty much any direction they can move.
Secret Location translates the bullet hell formula into virtual reality by taking a few liberties. For one, the player doesn’t really “move” left and right -- rather, they use the VR headmount’s location to dodge incoming bullet shapes. One example is a triangle, which the player has to either a) duck, or b) position themselves correctly so their head goes through the safe zone in the middle of the triangle. Of course, Blasters of the Universe stacks multiple enemies against the player at once, meaning it’s pretty common to dodge at any moment to make sure you survive.
Bringing a bullet hell game to VR means giving the player more freedom to move and shoot, too, making the title more of a first-person gallery shooter than a Touhou romp. That’s not a bad thing, though. As it turns out, it’s pretty comfortable to shoot enemies thanks to Secret Location’s aiming system. Players use both wireless VR controllers for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, using their left controller as a shield, and their right to shoot enemies. It’s a pretty intuitive setup, giving a lot of flexibility to shoot and defend oneself. Firing is pretty responsive, too, and it’s easy enough to figure out where to aim and how bullets will land thanks to the gun’s laser pointer. The controllers never fell out of sync during play, either, making play intuitive and approachable, even for VR newcomers.
There are other, smaller considerations as well. Levels are timed perfectly so there’s plenty of enemies to fight, but there are some cooldown moments to catch your breath – even if they only last a few seconds. Difficulty ramps up a gradual pace, too, meaning you won’t go straight from minimal physical activity to straining every muscle in your body.
While you do need a fair amount of space in front of the computer to move and dodge enemy attacks, Secret Location purposefully limited the player’s camera so the game doesn’t use a 360 line of sight in-game. It’s a good decision: limiting the player to largely shooting players in front of them means it isn’t nauseating (or dangerous) to quickly turn around and shoot one enemy after another.
However, VR bullet hell is certainly a workout, and Blasters of the Universe is a game that demands a lot of physical finesse. While some VR games require relatively minimal movement, Blasters only works with a lot of clear, open space: no coffin apartments, and no cramped living spaces. Otherwise, it’s way too easy to fall down, bump into something, or otherwise lose your balance completely. Not to mention, the game is literally physically draining. By the time I completed my first mission, I definitely broke a small sweat from dodging up, down, left, and right. This definitely isn’t a game to play right after working out, even if it would make a great exercise tool in its own right.
But there’s something about Blasters of the Universe that I love. The adrenaline rush, the first-person aiming, the wave of bullets headed your way, these things all come together to create a VR game that isn’t just a fun novelty virtual reality experience. No, Blasters of the Universe is a fun game. It has solid gameplay, makes full use of virtual reality headsets’ peripherals, and it’s built with the self-awareness that players will be moving around on the battlefield a lot. The game certainly isn’t for everyone, but Secret Location has created one of the first VR titles that make full use of virtual reality’s abilities – and that’s pretty sweet. The game is on Steam Early Access, so definitely check it out if you have the chance.