The launch schedule for Sony’s PlayStation VR has thus far proved surprisingly fruitful – more so than many console launches – and it must have surely staked the claim to the best ever launch line-up for a peripheral. Amongst these early titles then we find Secret Sorcery’s Tethered, a strategic god game set in a fantastical land, and though it’s a genre that you wouldn’t necessarily have pegged for virtual reality, it is undoubtedly one of PSVR’s early highlights.
The first thing you can’t help but notice is the visuals. Of all of the PSVR games available at launch few boast graphics as arresting as those in Tethered. Looking down from a cloud across a floating island you’ll see waterfalls tumbling over into nothingness, and bright butterflies fluttering above a mushroom patch while flocks of birds soar in the distant sky – and these are just some of the incidental details.
Your worshippers come in the form of Peeps, who are undoubtedly designed to have the same emotional effect on a player as an enthusiastically affectionate puppy, and you’ll want to do your very best to keep them happy – and alive. As their Spirit Guardian your role is just that, and successfully completing tasks, and the ensuring growth of your settlement, will release spirit energy which you need in order to return balance to the world – and complete the level.
You’ll need to direct them in every task – from collecting resources to constructing buildings – in order for them to survive through Tethered’s harsh nights. When darkness descends monsters come forth from beneath the island and attempt to steal your hard-won resources, and also attack your beloved Peeps. You’ll do everything you can to stop them from doing either.
The PSVR headset is your primary means of interacting with this beautiful environment, and looking at something or someone will allow you to interact with it. This then follows into the key tethering dynamic which sees you hold X before looking at what you want to tether them to and releasing the button. While there are various straightforward interactions, there are many additional ones brought into being by the use of weather.
Sunshine can hatch new Peeps from descending eggs, or help your crops grow in the fields, or you can combine them with another weather front to create a rainbow that can do various wonderful things, including curing a Peep of despair.
A Peep that goes too long without direction, or that becomes too hungry, will eventually give-in to despair, which causes them to make the ultimate sacrifice – to leap to their death off the edge of the island. It’s frankly a heart-rending dynamic – they look up at you just before they jump – and at points it may cause you a twinge of the same despair as there’s often nothing you can do about it apart from start again.
One way to ensure they don’t succumb is to keep them occupied. While any Peep is capable of performing any task, there are a number of different classes or specialisations that make your Peeps better at fighting, harvesting, prospecting, farming or mining, and they become progressively more essential to your success.
Each level grants you a series of unlocks, and as with many strategy games it’s up to you to make effective use of your resources to execute them, from building barracks that allow you to train heroes, to upgrading your mine to produce more ore. The upgrade trees can actually feel a little overwhelming at first as you’re given plenty of freedom from the off, but soon you’ll learn what buildings to construct and what they in turn can become.
Some of the little touches are just wondrously executed in VR. The instructional pop-ups that appear often ask you to then open one of the sub-menus and you’re able to literally peer around one menu screen to look at another, or lean down to look underneath it at your burgeoning settlement. Your viewpoint is affected by you position as well, so you can lean right in to peer at a particular item or Peep. It simply feels magical.
The music – provided by LittleBigPlanet composer Kenny Young – ties into this sensation with some beautifully whimsical string-led pieces that shift into darker more menacing tones as the nights draw in. The audio cues for each interaction or event are also incredibly well thought out, and help you to focus your attention towards the arrival of another egg, a weather cloud’s timer running out, or the arrival of a monster, all without filling your vision with an array of icons.
Perhaps the key question then will be why does Tethered have to be played in VR? Ultimately the answer is quite simply that it could have been released as a stand-alone game. There’s nothing in the game’s key dynamics that couldn’t have been achieved by playing using a keyboard and mouse, or a controller.
However, I genuinely think that it would lose something utterly integral. Being a part of the world brings out its sensory strengths, and their resulting emotional responses. In particular, if you play with headphones on, with no other distractions around you, you become a Spirit Guardian, you become a watchful protector to these creatures, and this world feels as real as you want it to be.
The one negative that comes from playing the game in VR is quite how much you’ll be moving your head around in order to give your Peeps commands. Particularly during the combat at night things can get pretty frantic, and you’ll need to move to clouds that have a wider view if you want to be able to catch all of the invading monsters without wearing yourself – and your neck – out. It’s a small price to pay though to experience such a lovingly crafted game.
Tethered is a delightful experience that shows the immense range of genres that can benefit from being brought to virtual reality. It boasts a playful and thoughtful approach to strategic god games whilst bringing you wholly into its world. For PSVR owners looking for something a little different, Tethered is utterly essential.