Virtual reality and fear are a potent combination. If you’re scared silly by an involving horror film or on the edge of your seat playing a thriller, it doesn’t take much of a mental stretch to imagine that putting yourself directly into those tense situations is going to be even more harrowing.
With that in mind, The Persistence developer Firesprite are putting you into the centre of a malfunctioning spaceship, and while one of its cloning machines is happily pumping out normally functioning versions of you, the others are proving to be considerably less successful. While it’s fundamentally a setting we’ve experienced before, fans of Dead Space or Event Horizon will undoubtedly get a kick out of this tense sci-fi first person VR game that puts you right in the middle of the action.
While stealth is a key component, action is at the heart of The Persistence, and it’s one of the most brutal and convincing VR approximations of first person combat that we’ve experienced. There’s a real sense of weight to everything you do, and an increasingly powerful armoury to draw from. From your first uncertain steps that see you sneak up on unsuspecting mutants, to the surprisingly visceral method of collecting live stem cells from their necks, The Persistence is a game that balances stealth, fear and atmosphere while empowering players to handle their opponents with brutal force.
You start off equipped with a stem cell collector that takes out a mutant in one fell swoop – as long as you’re behind them – as well as a limited use shield that repels attacks if you time its use correctly. It’s thankfully got a fairly generous effective use window, but you still need to be engaged and prepared if you don’t want to succumb too quickly, and the more unwanted attention you attract, the less useful it becomes.
The game’s armoury proves to be a real delight – assuming you’re a fan of sci-fi weaponry and smashing space mutants – and its seventeen increasingly wild ways to take out the snarling hordes give you a real sense of empowerment. They use head tracking to aim, making it easy to coolly aim for the head of the enemies, but their inherent power is tempered by each weapon only having limited ammo or a limited number of uses before they break. If you’re efficient enough with your exploration and collecting items you shouldn’t find yourself too short of armaments at any one point. You can build and upgrade new weaponry at Armoury Stations, which come in a few different flavours and tend to be common enough to prevent any arduous backtracking.
The game’s rogue-lite tendencies come to the fore when you die, as the spaceship’s AI IRIS is able to spit another version of you without any problems. Before you attempt to make another run at the ship’s mutant infested decks, you can use your collected credits to make permanent upgrades to your clones, as well as unlock further weaponry, which in theory should make your next attempt a touch easier.
While we’ve seen multiple space stations over the years with dangers lurking around every corner, Firesprite have managed to craft an incredibly good-looking rendition here. That’s perhaps all the more remarkable when you learn that much of what you experience has been constructed through procedural generation, with The Persistence’s layout changing after each death. You will come across rooms and layouts that feel familiar, but given the way in which you progress and the secrets they each might house, there’s enough difference to keep things fresh through multiple runs. It’s not the most diverse of settings, but the sense of place is so strong that it doesn’t particularly matter.
Despite the fear-inducing gameplay, Firesprite have clearly spent a great deal of time on making The Persistence as comfortable as possible in VR. As someone who’s not always got the steadiest of VR legs it’s nice to see a game with an array of options which can be toggled or tweaked until they’re just right, and while I found the Comfort preset to be absolutely spot on, there should be something here for everyone. Besides the different viewpoint options the game also grants you the ability to teleport as part of the combat and general gameplay, further softening the blow of first person motion in VR, and really setting the standard for future PSVR titles.
Besides sneaking up on mutants and putting an end to them, gameplay revolves around exploration and attempting to make your way through each deck with an aim to repair The Persistence and make your escape. You’ll soon settle into the rhythm of checking out each locker or door, all of which open by holding your gaze over their glowing lock for a brief moment, and it’s an effortless and well-designed VR shortcut that makes a somewhat mundane task much easier to participate in.
You’re never far away though from a creature that wants to make your insides outsides, and Firesprite have made very effective use of audio to amplify the tension. The soundtrack ebbs and flows, rising and falling with the action, while the guttural utterings of the ship’s unfriendly inhabitants will give away their presence. You have a limited sonar-esque supersense to gauge their whereabouts, but sooner or later you’ll end up in the dark with them and your puny flashlight. Suddenly your heart will be in your mouth.
Thanks to some clear signposting of enemies, and the surety of your armoury, you may feel pretty well equipped. However, all it takes is one wrong step, using up your ammo carelessly under pressure or taking too much damage, and you’re back on a knife edge between life and death, staring down the barrel of returning to the cloning fabricator and making another attempt at the floor you’re on. There are times too where your Dark Matter-powered sonar is stripped from you, forcing you to enter areas in the dark – literally and metaphorically – as the press of fear envelopes you.
There is another way to counter this, though it largely depends on how much you trust your spouse/significant other/horrible friends. Firesprite have made a companion app, available on iOS and Android, which allows a second player to tap away at a map, highlighting or hindering enemies, controlling doors, and finding hidden items. Sometimes the app actively encourages you to mess with the player, rewarding points that can unlock new abilities, adding a devilish twist to the co-op experience. In putting your trust in someone who’s supposed to love you, you may in fact find that you have married a sadist and not only will they not tell you there are enemies behind you, they’ll also grab your arm and scream. No, wait, that was me screaming.
In The Persistence, the team at Firesprite have concocted a rogue-lite survival horror whose atmosphere and hard hitting combat feel fantastic in VR. Thanks to an impressive array of comfort options it’s also amongst the best PSVR experiences we’ve had, and for owners of Sony’s headset it’s damn near essential.