I recently played through Gravity Rush for the first time.
The game has been shockingly topical lately for what feels like such a niche product, with the remaster and the sequel both being in the (semi-) popular conscience. The fact that 2016 may well be seeing sequels to both this and Mirror’s Edge is pretty wild- to say nothing of the other long-elusive cryptids of the gaming world that set to surface. At this point, I’m half expecting the announcement of Metroid Dread. In any case, it seems like an opportune moment for a review/retrospective (reviewtrospective?).
The original Gravity Rush is a monument to abnormality. Exclusive to the Vita (a system owned by me and around twelve other people), the game doggedly refuses to be anything but its own weird and wonderful beast.
When this works to its credit, the results are fantastic. The visual style, sitting somewhere at the intersection between comic book, television anime, and Ghibli film, never ceases to impress over the course of one’s time with the game, constantly finding new ways to draw the eye without ever feeling overdone. The storytelling meanders drunkenly from straightforward to cryptic and back again with no regard for the usual morays of pacing- it’s light, tropey comedy one moment, existentialism the next, with an ending that feels more like a midway point. In most games, it would probably be a disaster. Gravity Rush is anarchic enough to make it work. In keeping with all this, the main (and most mundane) setting in the game can perhaps most parsimoniously be described as a mid-air, pseudo-steampunk, Franco-Japonic city… with surrealist elements.
And the soundtrack is superb.
In short, it’s a game that punches you in the face with reasons to love it. If it were an anime, it would probably be the second coming of Cowboy Bebop- a stylish, comedic, thoughtful, glorious mess. Of course, it isn’t an anime- it’s one of those video games I hear so much about these days. This complicates things, because the “game” end of Gravity Rush’s spectrum is decidedly murkier.
That isn’t to say we’re dealing with a cut-and-dry case of good art direction, bad game design. I don’t think that condemning Gravity Rush to that particular circle of videogame hell would do it justice. Rather, the issue is that the game plays to its weaknesses more often than to its strengths. It’s impossible to make a perfect game (significant philosophical differences from my own understanding of the issue notwithstanding), but it is possible to make a game that is so good at drawing attention to its positives that the negatives are forgotten and/or forgiven. Gravity Rush is not that game. It is the opposite of that game.
Gravity Rush is, at least in theory, built around what we might consider to be a signature mechanic. The main character, Kat, has some measure of control over gravity. This equates to the player being able to control the direction in which she falls- a power not dissimilar to flying, and not at all dissimilar to flying in the Buzz Lightyear sense. Floating in mid-air, selecting a direction of travel and plummeting away takes very little getting used to compared to the flight controls seen in most games, and allows for some fairly elaborate manoeuvres once the player has it under their fingers. Moreover, the audio-visual feedback combines with the controls to create a sense of physicality missing from a lot of flight mechanics in games.
Kat’s fly/falling power works fantastically for exploration. Gravity Rush’ city areas aren’t very large at all compared to those in, say, inFamous or Crackdown, but they are designed to accommodate the fact that the player has access to all of their airspace. Thanks to the bespoke visual design and built-in verticality of the environments, they actually feel much more expansive and engaging than many of those seen elsewhere. Later areas outside of the city’s bounds achieve a tremendous sense of scale and wonder within the confines of a small screen and a small processing unit.
I’m sure some people hate the fly/falling, but by most accounts it’s a solid, new-feeling mechanic. If the game were based around traversal and environmental puzzles, I think it would do a much better job of highlighting this. Instead, Gravity Rush insists on presenting itself as an action game, constantly locking the player into combat encounters that simply aren’t that fun. Larger enemies can only be attacked on their glowing weak spots (of course there are glowing weak spots), and weak spots that are more than a couple of feet above the ground (most of them) can only be attacked by way of a flying “gravity kick”. Flying around at high speed to avoid attacks, then launching yourself foot first into the enemy sounds pretty good, and it sometimes is.
The problem is that neither the controls nor the mechanics are quite sharp enough to make it work. Kat will sometimes slide along the top of an enemy, missing all weak spots and subsequently getting blasted into oblivion. Equally, her kicks will sometimes seem to home in at the last minute (in the absence of any kind of lock-on mechanic), or have their hitbox extend far enough to deal damage despite not connecting with anything red, glowing and weak. It all feels somewhat arbitrary and vague, and the encounter and enemy designs themselves do nothing but exacerbate the problem. Much of the game’s menagerie can only be attacked aerially, and the larger creatures, of which there are increasingly many, have a tediously large number of weak points that must all be destroyed to progress. Battles drag on for longer than is fun, with new waves of monsters or forms of bosses (not sufficiently distinct from the form just defeated) supplementing their length. This wouldn't be so bad in moderation, but time after time I found myself groaning internally as my fun was interrupted by another round of black blobs to kick
In short, Gravity Rush suffers from having the heart of an adventure game but the structure of a brawler. I’m sure some people (lunatics) loved the combat, and more power to them. To me, it feels like the game had its wings clipped by a misguided overindulgence in more conventionally “gamey” elements. In game that so superbly captures the rush (ha-ha) and freedom of aerial exploration, there is a certain poetic dissonance to the fact that a good deal of the player’s time is spent locked in combat, hemmed in by invisible walls that will kick them to a loading screen if they stray too far in any direction from the arena. If I were forced to assign a score, I’d probably give Gravity Rush a 7 or so, but in reality it’s more like a 9 locking horns with a 6.
Here’s hoping for good things from the sequel, at any rate- the content shown thus far has been, fittingly enough, gorgeous but rather combat-centric. Ultimately, I’d be happy enough with just another game like the first, since it is a rather singular experience at present, but much happier with a game that was confident enough to find the best direction for its art and mechanics, and follow through with it.
Thanks for reading, and play some good video games. You've probably earned it.