Gravity Rush was one of the more interesting titles previewed for the Vita when the hardware was first announced. It was one of the few completely original games, and one of the very few that were created by a Japanese studio. As a result, most people will be expecting something weird, different and off kilter. That’s exactly what they get when play Gravity Rush. They also get the best game currently available on the Vita.
Warping Time & Space
Gravity Rush—like quite a few Japanese games—leaves a lot questions in its wake and doesn’t necessarily answer all of them. It’s set in the fictional town of Hekseville, a world entirely unlike our own, where the society lives in floating cities surrounding a massive tower’s halfway point. No one actually knows what’s up at the top, but the story begins when girl with amnesia falls from the sky and wakes to realize she doesn’t know who she is and she has a cat that has inexplicably gifted her with the ability to shift gravity. From there she goes on forge a place in this strange new world and eventually struggles to master her powers so she can defend it. Along the way she—in true Japanese protagonist fashion—learns about the power of friendship and grows stronger so she can protect the ones she loves. The themes are cliché, but the setting is not.
In some ways, there’s a little bit of regret with regards to the graphic side of Gravity Rush. It’s been admitted in interviews that a large influence on the art direction of the game is the wonderful, pseudo-Euro-Retro-Futurist stylings of Moebius, the famed French comic artist. That influence is evident in the old world/steam punk look of Hekseville, which looks part Midgard from Final Fantasy VII and part European village from the 19th century. The games many cut scenes are even rendered in comic panels, emphasizing the Moebius roots of its look. The regret comes in when you remember that originally Gravity Rush was being developed as a full-sized console title, and the Vita currently has no way to output its lush visuals to an HDTV. It’s clear from the scale and scope of the environments that this game was meant for some powerful hardware, and although the Vita impressively manages to render it smoothly most of the time, some aliasing is evident, and the game can actually freeze when you hurtle from one district to the next too fast. Those technical issues aside, the game normally performs quite smoothly except under the heaviest of combat conditions with lots of enemies and enemy fire in the sky. Again that’s just another hint that Gravity Rush might have benefited from the extra breathing space it would have enjoyed with a hard drive install and cell processor to fall back on.
The sound side is in a similar position. First off, the music, composed by Kohei Tanaka, who last contributed to a game score on Resonance of Fate, is phenomenal. Tanaka understands the retro-futurist stylings of the game, and composes tracks with a lyrical, rich sense of orchestration about them. There are distinct echoes of classic Gundam and even Miyazaki films in the melodies at play here and it’s really a shame that they can’t be played in lossless audio. This also holds true for the audio effects themselves. There’s the usual Japanese ethos of imaginatively realized audio for swooshing through the air, shifting gravity, and the pleasant audio cues from interacting with the menus. While they sound fantastic through ear phones, you can’t help but wonder how much better they would have been with true multi-channel audio since most of the gameplay involves floating or hurtling through the air with activity occurring from every direction. The actual dialog is impossible to judge. Once again, Sony has gone the route of creating an entirely fictional society, complete with fictional language, so there’s no way to discern whether the delivery is convincing or not. What is there still feels otherworldly, yet familiar, as it was surely intended to.
Overall, the presentation for Gravity Rush is quite impressive for a portable device. The art direction is such that it’s in no way competing with the likes of Uncharted for more realistic graphics on the Vita, but both sound and visuals hold their own so well that you wish there was an option to see them on more robust hardware.
Freefall To Victory
Gravity Rush, much like Portal hinges on one central, physics based mechanic that the entire game leans on. In this case it is the ability to nullify gravity, aim the camera at where you would like gravity to resume, and then “reactivate” it. The upshot of this it means you can “throw” yourself away from the ground, or run up the sides of buildings, or hurtle through the air, then drop yourself at frightening speed to “gravity kick” an enemy.
It’s obvious that Sony Japan has given this mechanic a lot of thought because it is executed almost flawlessly. A quick push of the right shoulder button negates gravity and leaves the heroine, Kat, floating in the air. From there, using either the right analog stick or physically tilting the Vita itself repositions the camera in the direction you’d like gravity to re-orient. Push the right shoulder button again, and gravity readjusts. It’s an incredibly simple concept and it’s one of those “why didn’t anyone think of this before” sort of moments since it seems so obvious in retrospect how to handle this. It’s a surprisingly intuitive way to handle a concept as nebulous as shifting gravity, but, as to be expected, there’s a certain onus on the player to be able to handle orienting yourself when there’s no true Up and Down. One nifty trick the developers have used to try and provide a hint is the use of Kat’s scarf which will always respect “true” gravity. So if you’re in the middle of combat with an enemy on the ground, have dodged and attack and ended up standing on a wall, but aren’t sure whether the enemy is now above or below you, a quick look at Kat’s scarf will reveal the true direction “gravity proper”. As with real zero gravity situations, players must learn to quickly orient themselves and this will only come with practice. Because this is a Vita game, it makes use of the touch screen and gyroscopic abilities, though this usage is neither excessive nor obtrusive. Expect to tap the screen for finisher moves against bosses, or click on icons to confirm selections. The gyroscope can be used in place of the right analog stick to move the camera, and actually works about as well as the stick so this is strictly up to player preference.
As a result of this singular dedication to one aspect of physics, all of Kat’s activities in the city of Hekseville revolve around gravity manipulation for combat, exploration and even racing. There’s a small, RPG component to the game as side-quests open up which provide extra challenges to participate in rewarding the player with gems. The gathering of gems translates into XP which can then be used to upgrade various stats. Everything from the damage of Kat’s kicks to the duration she can spend manipulating gravity before her energy meter runs out can be upgraded by XP, and it’s obviously in the player’s best interests to do so since it makes combat and other activities much more manageable. The challenges—which act as the main side-quests—put players through paces, introducing them to every ability available to them and then pushing to get higher scores and better times for more gems. They add even more playtime to an already lengthy game that is every bit the equal of the full, retail game in terms of lifespan.
If there is any single Achilles heel to this game it would be in a minor sense of repetition, which Portal is also guilty of, though that game is shorter and reduces its risk of overstaying its welcome. The use of gravity is extremely polished and there’s a lot of fun to be had in hurtling through space for the sake of combat, or even just for exploration to find more gems. But aside from additional abilities like picking up and throwing objects in gravity fields, or using a “gravity slide” to surf/skate across any surface you can see, there really is not much else to the game except playing through the story and dabbling in the occasional challenge. The game, like Inversion, also makes the grave mistake of occasionally recycling bosses without switching up the need for different tactics. Fortunately, it doesn’t do it to the same heinous degree as that other gravity based game, and manages to create an interesting enough—if fragmented—story that you want to advance to see how it all ends. It’s obvious from the unanswered questions left at the game’s end that Sony would like this to be the start of a franchise with much more room for development. Hopefully they succeed, since what’s on display here is already a fun, promising start.
In the end, Gravity Rush decides to do one thing, and then does it extremely well. Its quirky, typically Japanese story is paired with some strong, lovely art direction for one of the most unique and playable games on the Playstation Vita. Make no mistake, for a certain kind of gamer, notably the hardcore who don’t believe the gaming world begins and ends with the FPS, this is a strong contender for the best game currently available on the Vita. Many were hoping this would be a must-play if you own the Vita and it comes pretty damn close to being just that.