What does it feel like to fly? Comics, cartoons and films of Superman project this image of a man who points to the sky and magically floats into the air with the grace of an airplane without any of the propellers or motors inside. If a man or woman could fly, how would he or she do it? And how would it feel?
Gravity Rush, a launch title for the PlayStation Vita, attempts to answer that question, and succeeds brilliantly. The short answer is that it’s something between swimming and falling in any direction you choose. But before you get any ideas that the handheld adventure game is little more than a collection of weird gravity-based puzzles, take note: Gravity Rush is a surprisingly deep and nuanced game that takes place in a beautifully realized world the likes of any classic Japanese RPG.
At the game’s outset, our protagonist Kat, a slight girl with no memory of her past life, finds herself in Hekesville, a gigantic floating city. Oddly, she has the power to manipulate gravity, which is tethered to a sort-of cat thing named Dusty. Soon she finds herself embroiled in the politics of the city along with its myth, interacting with its everyday citizens from its secret police to a strange old man who opens his robe and carries her to a strange new world (this is horrifyingly literal).
Gravity Daze, the game’s title in Japan, more accurately describes your first hours when using Kat’s powers. Clumsily fumbling with the control stick and frantically re-adjusting your centre of gravity before falling to the ground like a rock, you’re just as inept at using Kat’s powers as she feels at the beginning of the game. You’re going to go through some difficult growing pains together, both in terms of the storyline and the gameplay.
You start out with the ability to change your centre of gravity, making you float in the air, and then by setting a particular point as your destination, you can fly towards it. Really, you’re falling towards it. If you rush towards a wall, ceiling or underside of a building, that becomes “the ground” for you, and the camera will spin into place accordingly. Soon you’re walking up the wall or industrial smokestack or what have you, Kat’s long hair and scarf falling in the direction of what “down” actually is.
Manipulating gravity can be both incredibly disorienting and exhilarating. At the game’s outset you only have a few seconds of gravity shift time, but after levelling up your basic skills a bit you’ll be flying around the city in no time with nary a worry about falling to your doom. In seconds you’re shooting to the tops of the steampunk-Parisian cityscape, viewing the bustling crowds beneath you like the impromptu guardian that you are.
A convenient waypoint system will pinpoint where you want to visit next – be it a major story mission or simply a non-player character you can have a conversation with – and show you how many metres away it is. Given the verticality of the city it’s a little imprecise, but once you get used to how the waypoints appear on the Vita’s screen you should be able to navigate the entire city in a breeze.
Combat, meanwhile, feels like a secondary concern that nonetheless carries a hefty weight in the plot progression. Hekesville is currently being torn apart by gravity storms that have isolated entire chunks of the city, trapping residents inside an alien vortex and separating family members apart. Appearing about the same time, creatures that resemble the ink blots from Alice: Madness Returns or the Heartless in Kingdom Hearts are terrorizing the populace. These enemies, called Nevi, are your primary adversaries for the game, and take multiple forms from tiny walking medicine balls to terrifying dragon-like monstrosities that can lay waste to entire city districts.
Kat has plenty of ways to deal with the Nevi, but in practice the multiple encounters work basically the same way through the entire game. You can string together kicks into a melee combo on the ground, but the most common way of dealing with enemies is shooting up to the air, hovering for a moment to zoom into a Nevi’s glowing weak point (they all have at least one of these), and diving with a gravity-propelled kick to its centre.
It’s not a bad way of dispatching enemies; it forces you to re-orient yourself against constantly moving enemies that resemble anything from floating jellyfish to monstrous, undulating dragons. And defeating them is oh so satisfying, their ruby-red cores shattering with a loud crack like that one time you made a mess of your great aunt’s tea set, setting off a chain reaction that makes the rest of the Nevi deflate and collapse into an inky puddle.
But since every single enemy is dispatched in the exact same way, it starts to drag as the hours while away. You do have some super moves whose uses are limited as a function of time: once every three minutes or so, you can drill incessantly at a single enemy or conjure blistering black holes of destruction to every Nevi in the vicinity. These moves are the most fun you’ll have for much of the game’s more challenging encounters. The rest of the battle, spent spinning in place, shooting yourself via gravity kick and missing half the time thanks to some genuinely devious enemy AI, is merely the rising action to them.
The amount of detail in Hekesville’s foud major city sections is impressive, doubly so if you go into the handheld game with lowered expectations. Each area has its own flavour and palette ensuring that despite most of the game taking place in the same city every chapter feels fresh and surprising. The entertainment district of Pleaujeune is littered with signs denoting clubs and casinos, while the bustling downtown area of Vendecentre features a lush central park while impossibly high skyscrapers dominate its skyline. Residents walk back and forth between ramshackle newspaper stands and ice cream shops, while a giant rail system surrounds the entire region, its arcane construction and criss-crossing girders hiding gems and the occasional out-of-place resident in its steel playground.
That’s to say nothing of the occasional ventures to areas outside the city that take a much more abstract approach to level design. You’ll briefly find yourself in voids littered with tiny floating rocks or within the eye of a storm with swirling flames your only boundaries – all designed to test your gravity-based powers in new and sometimes surprising ways. Missions occasionally alter or completely inhibit your powers as well, throwing a wrench in the details that freshens up the gameplay but never outstays its welcome.
The storyline progresses at a brisk pace with a varied and involving cast of characters. You’ll run into a number of plot twists and new elements appear almost out of nowhere, but everything that happens feels plausible thanks to the consistent setting. You’re always either in Hekesville or some area that extends from it, and it flows together thanks to a solid script.
The ending clearly sets up players for a sequel, as several threads and mysteries we’re introduced to are either left unsolved or given hints towards a greater future. And it’s all for the better; Gravity Rush has created a vivid and breathing world with a strong protagonist, an equally strong supporting cast and a unique gameplay anchor that invites the player’s imagination of what it can do with a few more tweaks and expansions. It’s the premiere title for the PS Vita and a strong early contender for RPG of the year.
- The loading times between certain missions, and when loading up a save file for the first time, are unbearably long. This isn’t a game to be played in tiny one-stop bursts unless you keep your Vita in battery-draining sleep mode for the day.
- Surprisingly convenient: tapping on an icon on the map that’s really close to another one brings up a small circle where you get to choose again – just in case you grazed a nearby node by accident.
- One of Kat’s supplementary powers has her projecting a gravity field, allowing her to levitate detritus such as boxes and garbage cans to fling towards the enemy. Its usefulness is entirely situational but it’s also used on occasional rescue missions, tasking you to pick up hapless bystanders and drag them through the air with you at sub-sonic speeds. Nothing like turning a beleaguered police officer into a reverse-velocity Gwen Stacy.
- Touch screen functions are mostly relegated to menu navigation, and it works quite well here. You can hold two fingers on the front screen to slide and drift at high speeds, but it’s finicky and generally useless. Compared to your default gravity manipulation, this is the Tony Hawk: Ride of movement options.
- Refreshingly, Gravity Rush is one of only a few games to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Kat, her rival Raven, and army commando Yunika are all well-rounded female characters who fight, argue, and sometimes work together – all without moping or huffing about a man. And the guys are all cool and grounded characters as well, being far more concerned with the goings-on of the world around them than Kat or Raven’s admittedly stupid outfits.