Few things in gaming are as cool as the grappling hook. From its early use in 8-bit Batman games to the ridiculous skills shown off by elite level Sekiro players, grappling hooks give a game a literal new dimension, offering verticality and traversal options that encourage superb level design and challenging secrets. What could possibly improve on this idea? How about two grappling hooks but actually they’re plungers and you’re in space? This is the idea behind the charmingly bonkers Yupitergrad, a VR game where you play as a Russian kosmonaut tasked with repairing a malfunctioning space station armed only with two plungers on ropes of elastic. The result is a great VR platforming experience that really gets its hooks – sorry, plungers – in you.
Set in an alternative retro dieselpunk environment with distinctive cell-shaded graphics, Yupitergrad has a fantastic sense of character. The nods to decades of ‘in Soviet Russia…’ memes are well handled without being too over the top and the result is a game with an overall sense of humour that perfectly fits the setting. The cobbled together nature of the space station and the company’s lackadaisical approach to employee safety reminded me a great deal of Valve’s Portal games, and whilst the traversal here is more physical the puzzles have a similar feel. In part, this made me long for a VR Portal game so Valve should definitely get on that.
As mentioned above, the aesthetic of Yupitergrad is incredible distinctive and perfectly suited to the VR setup. The cell-shaded graphics and relatively simple design ensures that everything is incredibly clear and smooth. Spotting interactive points is furthermore assisted by intuitive colour coding so getting lost isn’t a major frustration. It’s still easy to get turned around on yourself in some areas just because of the first person traversal but generally this is quickly remedied and you start to get a feel for the station’s layout. This is just as well because there is some obligatory backtracking and fetching involved. Audio-wise, everything is fine with some nicely over the top accents in the voice acting and appropriate, if not memorable, tunes.
The early parts of Yupitergrad work well to introduce and familiarise you with what is a novel set of controls. Everything is done through using your plungers – you have no visible hands to use – so buttons and objects tend to be big and bold with generous targeting areas. There is still a need for accuracy, though, particularly in some of the game’s more challenging areas with rapid switching between grappling targets required. As you work through the introductory stages you’ll also unlock a propulsion system that can drive you through underwater sections as well as help give you an extra push on jumps. You’ll also learn to manipulate the elastic cords attached to your bungees, reeling in or lowering yourself in order to traverse complex sets of jumps.
The level design is the single most important aspect of any grappling hook experience, and this is only magnified by the switch to VR. Areas have to combine challenge with clarity, and on the whole Yupitergrad succeeds at this. There were only a handful of moments when I wasn’t sure how to proceed, and some of these were more down to human error than any design flaw. Actually succeeding in the traversal was another thing entirely. Where Yupitergrad really excels is in the sense of physicality it brings to every action. This sometimes seems a little at odds with the low gravity setting but ensures that you get a decent workout whilst playing.
Your plungers are mapped to the two Touch controllers making aiming and shooting incredibly intuitive. When you get into the flow of things this feels amazing and made me long for a proper Spiderman VR experience (rather than the ultra-short Homecoming one on PSVR). Swinging on one plunger whilst aiming the next and navigating moving targets, platforms and zipping around corners all feel fantastic and the embodied nature of all just gives everything an extra layer of fun.
That being said, the physicality of Yupitergrad does mean it’s one to play in small doses rather than binging, as is often the case with VR games. As such it works really well, with mostly nicely spaced checkpoints and obvious areas to take a break. There are some definite difficulty spikes and areas that will cause some frustration – a factor not helped by an odd inconsistent checkpoint. Generally these are generous but a few see you having to traverse several difficult areas in one go, with death resulting in going back to the beginning of the first one.