While a lot of people shy away from playing scary games, there’s those that are drawn toward the dark environments, the malformed foes, and the things that go bump in the night. As absorbing as horror games can be on a TV in a darkened room, the dawn of VR means they can consume you entirely, placing you right in the heart of the game’s horrors.
Firesprite are a studio whose work you’re probably aware of, but that you might not have heard of. Founded by Studio Liverpool alumni, they’ve developed Playroom and Playroom VR with Japan Studio and made Run Sackboy! Run! for mobile. With the release of The Persistence next week on 24th July, this is their chance to really step out of the shadows. This is their own IP and, as Managing Director Graeme Ankers and Game Director Stuart Tilley explained to us, they’ve wanted to make a scary game for years.
Set aboard the colony ship The Persistence, you’re trapped in an endless loop of horrors. The ship’s been caught in the gravity well of a black hole, its data bank of human clones has been corrupted and its clone machines that ought to be creating regular humans are spewing out mutant horrors. Luckily, the same mechanism that’s creating these mutants also means that you can come back to life time and again, trying to get to the ship’s bridge and home to safety. Unfortunately, The Persistence’s second role as a research ship has led to an unusual design that lets it re-order its decks and rooms to allow experiments to take place.
Reading between the lines of the story and you won’t be surprised to hear terms like ‘Roguelike’ and ‘procedural generation’ bandied about with The Persistence. Every time you die, the ship is remixed, the enemies have returned, and you need to set about your mission all over again. You’ll have an idea of what’s awaiting you the next time out, but outside of set piece sections, this design keeps you on your toes as you’re not quite sure what’s waiting ahead of you.
Getting around the ship mixes together full locomotion and short range teleporting. Three control defaults present themselves as you start the game for the first time, with the default giving you standard FPS twin stick controls, another letting you have the right stick turning snap your view at set increments, and finally what Firesprite call the ‘comfort’ set up, which has really high sensitivity turning on the right stick. It seems counterintuitive, but actually works well, tricking the brain and also forcing you to look with your head at the same time. There’s dozens more options to fiddle with in the settings, letting you find what you’re most comfortable with.
Your actual movement speed is fairly low and you’ll generally be taking a slow and steady approach – I was personally crouched almost the entire time. You can physically peak around corners and the game tries to be quite forgiving with whether or not you get seen, and ideally you want to sneak up behind them and use the Stemcell Harvester to take resources from them. Then again, when you do get weapons, they’re so fun that it’s difficult not to want to use them.
You have head tracked aiming, so wherever you look you shoot, and you always have the little blue bubble of the teleport marker. If you’re lucky, a mutant might drop a gun it was carrying, but most of the time, you need to spend tokens to unlock and then buy weapons and grenades from fabricators. You only get a few rounds in the clip before you upgrade them, but some of these weapons are powerful and just plain fun to use.
The Stormfury revolver packs a real punch, the Valkyrie fires javelins that pin enemies to the wall, the Swarm Drone grenade will send mini drones to go and take out any threats, while the Gravometric Hook lets you grab an enemy and then move your head around to smack them into walls. These aren’t even the most exciting ones in the game, with seventeen to find, which includes the Reaper, a weird circular disc saw that turns enemies you teleport through into a bloody pulp. They key is that these resources are rare. You have these flashes of awesome power, but they’re all too easy to waste in a panic, and stealth is still the order of the day.
While VR is an inherently closed off system, The Persistence isn’t. A companion app for smartphone and tablet lets a second player tap into the world and view a map of the level. From here, they can highlight items to pick up, spot enemies and reveal them through walls, even freeze them for a few seconds. Up to four devices can hook in, which could dilute some of the atmosphere a bit, but within that there’s the possibility for these so-called friends of yours to mess with you. They can be quite selective with what they mark – your own supersense ability can also temporarily spot enemies through walls – or actively trigger some mutants to come after you. More maliciously, they can sometime flip the lights off to plunge you into darkness, or even spawn enemies. The companion app pushes these kinds of interactions by awarding points, so while you might lose some of the isolated atmosphere, you gain the suspicion and distrust of your partner’s intentions.
From my time with the game’s opening hour, there’s a great mix of scares and letting you feel awesomely powerful with its weapons. It’s also a game that should be worth returning to, between the procedural generation and being able to play it cooperatively. If the mere idea of combining VR and stealth horror doesn’t give you a serious case of the collywobbles, then The Persistence might just be the game for you.