2018: A Make-More-Space Odyssey
While virtual reality still feels gimmicky to me – perhaps as a child of the ’90s who just remembers Dactyl Attack all to well – there’s no denying it maintains an allure that pulls in the people, if not always the dollars. At EGX in Birmingham this weekend, there was a persistent throng of video game fans of all ages booking appointments to snap on the sweaty headset and travel into another world.
Various games were on offer at the PlayStation VR stand, from cyber-racer Wipeout Omega to cringey East-end gangstaaar shooter Blood and Truth. The appointment schedule was consistently booked up, showing that even if the people aren’t quite ready to stump up the cash for such an experience at home, curiosity about being one step closer to a Holodeck remains high.
Ironically, given the futuristic aesthetics of VR, I was only there to play a game which, at its base level – is as retro as you can get. Tetris Effect, currently in development at Japanese studio Resonair, is a game I’ve been intrigued by ever since it was quietly announced earlier this year, as I’ve always been a fan of the musical/ethereal genre, typified by games such as Vib-Ribbon, Rez, Child of Eden and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel.
Tetris Effect isn’t really a game that requires much explanation. Even the more recent variants of the famous block-busting puzzle title – such as Puyo Puyo Tetris or Tetris Battle – feature a more involved, conditional version of the game. No, Tetris Effect is Tetris at its most classic; the blocks fall, you shift and rotate them into place, completing lines will cause them to vanish, and if the screen fills up, you’re done. It’s been keeping people entertained for decades, and it likely always will.
What Tetris Effect brings to the interstellar party are the beats, music and weird, trippy visuals to create an immersive environment from which you can commence your brick-laying battle plans. Upon kitting myself out with the PSVR kit and hitting Start, I was immediately thrust into the far reaches of space, with planet Earth jutting out just below (and admittedly almost making me hurl immediately… it’s been a while since my last VR adventure). The playfield and all relevant information is secured center screen, while the surrounding space is filled with constellations of stars. No time to admire the view, however, I had L-blocks to place.
Pulsating beats and gentle rhythms play a big part in Tetris Effect’s atmosphere, with even the movement and rotation of the blocks auto-tuned to fit in with the background music. Similar to games such as Zoe Mode’s Chime, the musical composition builds as you complete lines, adding instruments and effects, and forming a crescendo as you pop out a full Tetris. As you progress, the constellations of stars form beautiful 3D shapes and creatures, such as dolphins, which then proceed to swim around the dark environment. This all sounds like it could be an irritating distraction, but the combination of smooth audio and hypnotic visuals are too attractive to be concerning.
After I ran out the clock on the first board, I performed a 2001-style starjump into the next stage, changing up not only the musical style, but also the visual aesthetic, which went from one of outer space to a style more Aztecian. Here, the difficulty also stepped up and, with my view drifting to the environment in wide-eyed whimsy, I made a series of dopey mistakes that ultimately led to my downfall. Curse you Tetris Effect for presenting a more interesting atmosphere than real life.
To be honest, my short time with the demo delivered exactly what I thought it would: A basic game of Tetris accompanied by smooth tunes and out-there graphical effects. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. For a good 15 minutes or so I felt a pleasurable disconnect from reality, playing a relaxing, nostalgic puzzle game while listening to cool music and swimming with space dolphins.
One thing that seems clear about this series entry is that it’s hardly Grand Master. Tetris Effect seems to focus on providing players with the classic Tetris experience of the Game Boy-era, but presented in an audio/visual style that blasts them into another universe. While the hardcore fans may balk a little at that simplicity, the VR atmosphere is what counts here. And in that regard, Tetris Effect delivered, resulting in it being my favourite game of the entire show.
Tetris Effect launches on PlayStation 4 on November 9. Take the Trip.