Supermassive Games had a hit on their hands when they took the Until Dawn universe and mashed it up with a rollercoaster in Rush of Blood for the original PlayStation VR launch, so it’s not surprise that they done exactly the same thing for PlayStation VR 2, but this time we are playing around in The Dark Pictures anthology universe.
Switchback VR begins with you seated on a train with a number of other characters around you that will soon reappear in rather more horrific circumstances. An explosion, a brief appearance from a sadly silent Pip Torrens as The Curator and we’re off, welded in to a rollercoaster for no logical reason other than that’s how the game will work. The core mechanics of the game are identical to Rush of Blood – you wield a gun in each hand with unlimited ammo, and can shoot crates for time limited upgrades which give you revolvers, shotguns, and sub machine guns. Shoot the bad guys, survive, win. It’s that simple.
The levels (each split into two stages) are all really quite lengthy for a VR shooter, taking each of the first four The Dark Pictures games for inspiration. The first is based on 2019’s Man of Medan, finding the coaster racing through a ghost ship before the action moves to a spooky woodland town for Little Hope. After that it’s off to tombs and caves of Iraq for House of Ashes and we conclude in the ‘Murder Hotel’ of The Devil In Me. I should point there are spoilers for those games, and especially House of Ashes plot twist ending. The final fifth environment is brand new and brings the story of the train crash and the demon Belial to a conclusion.
Some of the levels work really well – a rollercoaster zipping through waves of a wrecked ship is really quite something – but I did find the Little Hope setting to be rather generic. Spooky forests and VR have been done many times before. The best level by far is the third, set in caves and tombs with huge statues and massive drops off to the side of the track. It’s something that feels new and has an impact you could only really manage in VR.
Each level has a branching pathway and you can choose which path to take to add some variety to replays, and while most of the game is straight out shooting, there are a few simple puzzles including a section per level in which you must try to rescue one of your companions from the train. Along with the normal firearms you are also given UV lights, flare guns, and stun guns at various time which must be used on specific targets. The stun guns are particularly fun as you can use them to activate SAW-style traps and mangle your foes between metal plates.
The game really comes alive in the set pieces and boss battles when the VR is used to full effect. If you thought the horror staple of creepy baby dolls were unsettling, just wait until you have twenty of them crawling down the walls and ceiling coming to rip your eyes out. There are also some non combat sections which work really well, the part where you go into… well, suffice to say it’s very icky and squishy and your face goes places a face should never go!
Switchback VR really uses the PSVR 2 headset to the full. The haptic feedback on both the Sense controllers and headset is excellent and I really felt like I was dual wielding pistols like an action hero. The game also makes uses of eye tracking in innovative ways, moving enemies when you blink or when they are not directly fixed in your gaze, meaning things keep moving in your peripheral vision. The audio is really good with the music building tension and thumps and screams off camera really jangling your nerves.
There’s quite a lot of aim assist, and while it isn’t that obvious in a firefight, is really quite noticeable when you’re in a quieter section shooting vases for bonus points. It’s a small object 25 metres away and you can hit it without even really aiming? It’s a little weird.
Given that the Dark Pictures series was created to bring the full breadth of genre horror into gaming, I can’t really criticise the fact that almost every horror trope you could thing of is in the game, from spooky dolls, mannequins, witches. scarecrows, bats, spinning circular saws, and even face huggers. Even the way the final boss battle plays out is a cliché.
Thankfully the enemies are varied enough so they don’t get boring and jump scares are used sparingly enough to be effective. I really like that the developers have taken time to make every part of the game interesting, so even on the quieter sections you can turn your head and peer down corridors off to the side and glimpse something scampering about in the shadows.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR is a PlayStation VR 2 exclusive but sadly it doesn’t really feel like it. The polygon count in general feels rather low and looks more like a PS4 game, and there’s some enemies that are quite roughly animated – mannequins are always going to move stiffly, but it does break immersion when a slimy worm levitates off a wall and floats toward you instead of jumping in an arc. The hand animated approach does work in favour of the game at some points, as the creepy Sailor Girl stalks off the screen in a most unnatural way that could have never been motion captured.
Unfortunately, at some points there is an awful lot of pop in. In one section the forest just kept on spawning right in front of me, and in other areas detail pops in when things are far too close to you. This happens infrequently but it’s still very distracting when you nerves are on edge and the slightest movement attracts your attention. Is that an enemy over there? No, it’s a rock that hadn’t loaded in properly. Hopefully Supermassive can keep optimising this through some updates.
The game has online score boards so you can see who is best between your mates or the entire world, and there’s certainly a good deal of replayabilty if you want to chase high scores over the three difficulty levels. Clocking in at over three hours it’s a really decent length for a VR shooter and unlike many other games in the genre, it didn’t get boring thanks to the array of enemies, pathways, and weapons.
What would the score have been if the wonderful Pip Torrens wasn’t silent?
At least. He pops up quite regularly, judging you from afar, but that’s all.