One of the most standout aspects of virtual reality to me is not the obvious nature of immersing you into well defined worlds like Batman or Until Dawn (although that’s still a really cool thing). It’s that it can take the sense of presence and apply it to seemingly mundane worlds, heightening the experience to something that would be otherwise relatively lackluster on a two dimensional display. Recently I was very impressed with Darknet, a game that breaks that fourth wall a little bit by making you feel like a VR hacker. From looking at images and gameplay videos, it may not seem all that engrossing, but once you’re in there, it becomes something else entirely
VR Invaders takes a similar stance. While it’s not the flashiest game in PlayStation VR’s arsenal, it takes a subtle fourth wall break and allows you to be a Diver; someone tasked with entering neural virtual reality in 2046 to help debug or rescue people that have lost themselves to the virtual world. What ensues is a loose narrative (that can be toggled on or off) tied together by one of the most solidly designed VR shooting galleries on the platform, even if the setting seems rather uninspired.
VR Invaders seems to share its name with one of the earliest wave based bullet hell games that has permeated pop culture for the last 40 years. Whether this allusion to Space Invaders was deliberate or by coincidence, it’s an appropriate comparison to make as various drones attack in specific patterns, raining projectiles in your general direction. One Move controller acts as a shield against the constant shelling while the other is a gun for returning the favor and taking down the drones. This isn’t an on rails shooter. You remain entirely stationary, but between the shield and being able to physically dodge attacks, the resultant waves of drones become addictive targets as you try to eliminate them and stay alive. It should be noted that the DualShock 4 is not supported.
Taking a Dive
Hopefully you’re not in it for the story, because aside from the setting being rather interesting, the voice acting is laughable and the whole thing ends right as it seems to start taking off, when the two fugitive Divers begin to really understand what’s going on in the neural VR world. The PSVR port is apparently subtitled Complete Edition, but with how the story concludes, there’s nothing complete about it at all. The story can be toggled on or off, so if you just want to shoot some VR drones and chase high scores, you don’t have to suffer through the story repeatedly.
What’s impressive are the mechanics. This is a reliable VR game. Your gun shoots where you’re pointing. The shield blocks from the direction that you want it to. Enemy variety presents interesting scenarios aside from just shooting the same things over and over again. Difficulty ramps up in such a fashion as to really challenge the player to want to play one more time. Projectiles are signaled in such a way that you won’t ever feel unfairly killed. Everything is so tightly crafted that it just feels good to play. There’s an intuitive sense of presence that made me opt to play VR Invaders standing rather than sitting so that I could more effectively dodge and use the shield.
Shooting at power ups provide ways to change your gun, from rapid fire upgrades, to shotguns, and even a constantly firing laser beam. Another one makes you invincible for a short period and allows you to dual wield your weapons for ultimate drone destruction. Pulling the trigger on your shield hand will slow time for a moment to survey the battlefield and fire off a few shots. Used tactically and in short bursts, it can really make you feel like a drone killing action star, watching the score multiplier count up on the screen as you take out enemies before they can even consider themselves a threat.
Devil’s in the Details
The small details really lend a level of polish to an already solid shooter, and ended up being something that I appreciated more the longer I played. As you shoot, you’ll notice the world around you being destroyed by your shots. These aren’t just fancy visual effects. The pieces of the world can actually play with the physics of the drones, falling on them, knocking them off course, and even killing them in some cases. The husks of destroyed drones do the same thing as they fly off, so while each level sees drones coming at you in a specific pattern, there’s a certain level of unpredictability that makes every run unique.
For even more of a challenge, the difficulty can be toggled between Normal, Hard, and Insane, which will offer more points and more bullets, though giving you a much smaller health pool. Insane only takes four hits to kill you where Normal takes upwards of 10. The intensity quickly rises, and again the immersion drives a level of wanting to take the drones on again and again. The superb game design, mechanics, and sense of presence give me a feeling of excitement for the future of VR, considering that it’s already capable of this quality right now.
With all that quality, there’s a lowered quantity. VR Invaders can be completed in about an hour. Its eight levels go by very quickly, and though there’s a shooting gallery, a survival mode, and alternate difficulties for everything to offer some level of replayability, the fact is that it falls into the same pool of VR games that don’t offer a lot of base content. High score chasers will be able to go back and try for better combos on harder difficulties, but without any kind of online leaderboards, even that’s a self contained accomplishment with the only driving force to be better than yourself and other local players.
A game doesn’t always need to be flashy in order to be great. It doesn’t need the backing of a major license. Sometimes it just needs to do what it sets out to do very well to stand out above the rest. VR Invaders is a superbly crafted bullet hell VR game that is highlighted not by an ostentatious setting, but rather excellent game design. It’s just a shame that excellent game design in VR more often than not means the experience ends far too early, lacking a good balance between mechanics and content.