Had I written this review before I got to the end of Gravity Rush, it may have turned out very differently indeed. As I progressed through the game my opinion shifted wildly, ranging from a willingness to hail it as the best new IP in years through to an almost overwhelming urge to grind the game card beneath my boot. It’s certainly one of the most internally polarising games I’ve played in some time, but is it any good? Will I even be able to make a firm judgement one way or another? Read on to find out!
Fortunately, both for myself and for developers Project Siren, the first few hours of Gravity Rush are a treat. The game wastes little time before introducing you to its central conceit – the ability to manipulate gravity at a whim. Tapping the R button causes main character Kat to float, and then pressing it again creates a localised gravity flow in the direction you’re looking, sweeping Kat along with it. Though technically you’re falling, the result is essentially like flying, and with a few minutes’ practice you’ll be zipping this way and that through and above the streets of Hekseville.
Pfft, Spider-Man can do this without a magic cat.
…Oh, and what wonderful streets they are. Hekseville is a city composed of four districts, each with a unique look and feel. Auldnoir, where you begin the game, gives off a very steampunk vibe with its cobbled walkways coupled with copper machinery. As you progress through the story you unlock new locations including a grimy industrial sector and skyscraper-laden capital, but the highlight has to be the New Orleans-esque entertainment district, Pleajeune. The carnival vibe that pervades the district’s permanent night adds a welcome dose of character and sense of place which very few other open world games match.
Later on, however, you’re taken away from the city of Heskeville for a reasonable amount of time – at least a couple of hours – and it’s here that things go sharply downhill, both literally and figuratively. Your journey out of the city is absolutely torturous, plagued by gaming’s much loved “rule of 3″ – “you must do everything 3 times before you’ve finished” – when in reality you’ll be bored after the first section. When you arrive at your destination things don’t get much better: though the area has some degree of visual charm, there’s just too little going on to keep you occupied. You’ll also face the game’s most annoying boss in this area – and guess how many times you have to fight him? You got it! Had I not played through this entire section in one long sitting, I might have struggled to come back.
The story does a reasonable job of driving you through even the less interesting sections though. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much is actually going on in the game’s world: an early glimpse of another girl with black hair and powers identical to Kat’s had me thinking “aha! There’s the end boss then!” but that character turned out to be only one of many plot strands. Not all of these strands made complete sense, but the moments of “what the hell just happened?” ultimately add to the game’s very strong anime flavour.
Pictured in the front: Raven. I’m not gonna lie…I would.
Somewhat more concerning are the plot threads which are left dangling, presumably to make way for future sequels or DLC. This would be fine if they’d been given fairly minor screen time this time round, but one storyline in particular took up a good few hours of play only to be left unresolved. That you’re left wanting to know more about the fate of the characters is, I suppose, tribute to how the game succeeds at making you care for them. The main character Kat, in particular, is quirky enough to be endearing without crossing the line into irritation. Her consistently upbeat “can-do” attitude never wears thin, and you’re left with a genuine sense of attachment to her.
The way the story is told is – and I don’t use this word loosely – lovely. While some conversations are held through simple speech bubbles, most of the major story beats occur in beautifully hand-drawn sequences which you flick through like comic book pages. If you rotate or tilt the Vita while you’re viewing these sequences, the “frames” will follow your movement, further adding to the feel that you’re holding a real, tactile comic. Despite my normal dislike of cutscenes, I was never annoyed to see one of these sequences pop up – high praise indeed.
The same can’t be said about the combat, sadly, which is definitely Gravity Rush’s weakest link. Early battles against ground-based foes are fine – to borrow an overused phrase, “solid if unspectacular” – but when you start facing airborne enemies fighting becomes a monotonous process of repeating the same move over and over again. (Here’s a tip for you: put lots of upgrade points into gravity kick. You’ll be using it a lot.) With a few notable exceptions, boss fights are the worst of the lot, and mostly involve simply waiting for your special moves to recharge several times. The combat’s not terrible, per se, but given the time you’ll spend on it, it’s certainly underwhelming. An area that needs to be improved for the sequel, for sure.
Kat be so dumb, she threw herself at the ground and missed!
In many games sub-par fighting would be a fatal flaw, but fortunately Gravity Rush offers enough distractions that you can take a break from combat when needed. Like Crackdown, the city is peppered with glowing doodads that allow you to upgrade your stats. Collecting them is a game in itself, given that they’re hidden on the undersides of bridges, on top of the tallest towers and in other out-of-the-way locations. Simply zipping around the map and collecting any crystals you can find is the slow way to progress, though, and if you want to get ahead you’ll have to complete challenges. By sacrificing a trivial amount of crystals you can repair various of the city’s subsystems, and each time you do so a new challenge is unlocked, offering you the chance to win some serious bank. Getting anything beyond bronze on these challenges is surprisingly difficult, and in some cases you’ll have to come back later in the game, with levelled up powers and abilities, to stand a chance at getting a coveted gold rating.
Finally, special mention must be made to the game’s art style, which is consistently and thoroughly stunning. You’ll have no doubt already checked out the various screenshots on this page, but seeing the game in motion and exploring Hekseville for yourself is something else entirely. Playing Gravity Rush feels like diving headfirst into the world of a Hayao Miyazaki film, and you’ll fall for its visual charms even if you don’t warm to the mediocre combat. That said, it could definitely use some anti-aliasing, even if only in the center of the screen. The off-putting effect of the jaggies is soon forgotten though, as you’ll be having too much fun falling through the beautifully realised world to care. (Note: most of the images on this page are promo shots with much more AA than the real game. The shot below is one I took myself though.)
OK, downsizing the image actually removed a lot of the aliasing. I give up.
All told, Gravity Rush is not the “saviour of the PS Vita” that some claimed it would be (if such a young system can even be said to need a saviour) and it’s definitely not a game for everyone. Getting the most out of it requires some effort, as each time you’re having fun the game finds some new reason to take away your powers or throw you into an awkward boss fight, but if you persevere you’ll be glad that you did. This is a strong start for the series, and with a few well placed improvements a sequel could be truly spectacular.