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Gravity Rush Impressions – A Tragedy

I wasn’t planning on picking up Gravity Rush, the first retail game for the PS Vita that isn’t a port, an extension of a franchise, or otherwise forgettable. It’s a game- and brand- designed from the ground up for the floundering platform. It leverages the handheld’s strengths while presenting a full “console” experience, as was promised by the Vita’s press copy. I tried the demo Monday night, I was at Gamestop Tuesday morning with a pile of trade-ins, and I left with a copy of the game.

Here’s the rub. This Gravity Rush, like Vita itself, is doomed. It is destined to be underplayed, under-noticed, and undersold. But also like the Vita, it’s not likely to be underappreciated by those who experience it because it’s a really, really damn good game for a really, really damn good platform. Sony’s continued mishandling of the Vita (the company apparently forgot about it at E3) is no more evident than in its failure to release Gravity Rush as the flagship launch title instead of a scaled down, watered down version of Uncharted.

Gravity Rush isn’t a mold-breaking, lightning-in-a-bottle title. It doesn’t create a new genre and its ambitions do not lie in telling a Bioshock-level story. But what is is, and where it innovates, is in bringing together modest ambitions to deliver a supremely solid, highly stylized game that has “cult smash” written all over it. This is a game very much in the old Sega Dreamcast mold, another possible Jet Set Radio. And then there’s that whole gravity shifting thing, which feels completely fresh, novel, and most importantly fun. If you’re whining about how all “they” make anymore is military shooters, here’s one for you.

It’s a superhero origin story game. It’s a surprisingly focused open world one. It’s an action brawler with an upgrade system. It’s a puzzle-platformer and there’s some stealth gameplay. It has that orb thing from Crackdown. And it’s wrapped up in a drop-dead gorgeous comics style that’s as much Marvel as it is Manga. The young protagonist would fit right in with the X-Men.

I’ve only played for about two hours but I love it. It’s dazzled me, it’s delighted me in that short time. Not many games these days do that since so many focus on the Blockbuster Moment, this-world-is-shit angst, or boo-ya murder fantasy. There was one point last night where I was trying to collect these gems and I was floating in zero-G free fall and I was twisting and turning to see them, using the Vita’s gyroscope. I was on my couch with the Vita over my head, eyes toward the ceiling. It was immersive, and the control was dead on so the illusion wasn’t broken by implementation. It’s been done before in other IOS and 3DS games, but nowhere has it been more effective. The thrill of empowerment when you use the gravity ability to walk up walls or fall into the sky is awesome.

But it’s not the same sense of badass power that the Arkham games give you. It’s more like you’re a kid, like Peter Parker, discovering your abilities and how to use them. The first hour of the game is clumsy and awkward. You blow off out-of-bounds often. You fall. You get disoriented. You crash into statues and miss kicks. It makes sense because you’re learning. Some critics have already complained about these elements, of course. They’re missing the point.

I’ve still got 10 to 12 hours to go with the game by accounts. I almost want to stop playing it now in case it becomes repetitive, boring, or loses focus in sidequests during the middle game. Right now, I feel like I’ve played a truly new game and not just for the Vita. Refreshing, joyful, and passionately made games are rare these days and I almost don’t want to spoil it.

A zillion people will play some puzzle-platformer designed by an arrogant ass that claims that Japanese design is dead. But the number of people that will ever get to play Gravity Rush is likely exponentially smaller due its appearance- and in fact, its dependence- on a poorly adopted platform. It doesn’t help that it’s a product marketed by a company that is clueless as to how to sell it or to make consumer want it. Is it worth buying a Vita for Gravity Rush? Hell no. But if you have one (or access to one), this game is as good an argument for the underachieving handheld as anything else. The tragedy is that it may turn out to be one of the best games of the year on any platform.