#oneaday Day 896: Gravity Rush

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I’ve been playing a fair ol’ bit of Gravity Rush on the Vita recently. My feelings about it are somewhat mixed, but on the whole it’s a very good game, and certainly one of the most impressive handheld games I’ve ever played.

Of all things, my least favourite thing about it is the name. “Gravity Rush” is not the name of an epic, sprawling, visually sumptuous adventure. “Gravity Rush” is, to me, the name of an iPhone game — perhaps an Angry Birds Space ripoff — or an obscure downloadable console title at best, perhaps. (Or perhaps I’m just associating it too much with Gravity Crash on PSN, which is nothing to do with Gravity Rush.)

That aside, though, there’s a lot to like.

For the uninitiated, Gravity Rush is ostensibly an open world… platform game, I guess you’d call it if you had to pin it down to an established genre, but to pigeonhole it thus is to do it a gross disservice. It’s a platform game. A racing game. A mindbending puzzle game. An air combat game. And plenty of other things besides. It actually has a surprising amount in common with underrated open-world gem Crackdown, of all things. Oh, and it was designed by Keiichiro Toyama, who true game geeks will know is the creator of the Silent Hill series. According to Wikipedia, Gravity Rush was the first game he ever wanted to create, but was only able to bring his vision to fruition recently.

In Gravity Rush, you play Kat, a young amnesiac girl with red eyes, blonde hair and surprisingly dark skin for an anime-style character. Kat is also clad in an outfit best described as “bizarre”, and is accompanied by a black cat. Oh, and she can shift gravity at will with the assistance of said black cat, allowing her to “fall” in any direction she pleases, stick to walls, skid along the ground and do gravity-defying flying kicks.

Kat is far and away the highlight of the game. Despite her hackneyed amnesiac introduction, she quickly proves herself to be a fun character to play with. She’s a bit dizzy, she’s confused, she’s obsessed with her own appearance and appeal to the opposite sex, and she’s easily distracted. But despite these flaws, she has a noble streak — she wants to do the right thing and use her powers to help people, despite not really understanding where they came from or what they’re for. As the game progresses, the residents of the city where the majority of the game is set go from fearing her strange powers to respecting and appreciating her talents.

Gameplay in Gravity Rush is mission-based, but it’s up to the player when they want to trigger each subsequent mission. Between missions, it’s possible to tool around any of the unlocked city areas collecting gems (which can be used to level up Kat’s abilities), talking to residents to gain a greater understanding of the strange world the game is set in and taking part in “challenge missions.” The latter are very difficult timed tasks of various kinds — some might see Kat having to defeat as many enemies as possible in a time limit, others see her racing through a series of checkpoints, perhaps with some limitations on her abilities in place. Each challenge has three tiers of rewards, with increasing numbers of gems available for completing these tricky tasks by more impressive margins.

This may all sound relatively unremarkable so far, but it’s the excellent way that Gravity Rush makes use of the Vita’s distinctive capabilities that make it interesting. The “gravity shifting” mechanic is a prime example. By tapping the R button, Kat floats up into the air; tapping it again causes her to “fall” forwards according to where the screen is pointing, regardless of which way is “up”. The specific direction she falls can be controlled using the Vita’s right analogue stick, but a surprising degree of precision can be attained by combining the stick controls with the tilt sensors in the Vita. If you’re feeling completely un-self conscious, you can completely control the direction of the camera in these floaty bits by tilting and rotating the Vita, but that would be both impractical and undesirable for most people, so the combination of stick and tilt works very well.

Similarly, when Kat uses her “slide” move (accomplished by pressing and holding on the bottom two corners of the touchscreen), it’s possible to steer her by tilting the Vita side to side and jump by “flicking” the device. You can also “drift” in a Wipeout style by releasing one corner of the touchscreen as Kat goes around a corner.

A more subtle use of the Vita’s capabilities comes in the comic-style cutscenes that punctuate each mission. Tilting the device causes the perspective on the comic panels to shift slightly — unnecessary, but cool — while swiping with a finger advances to the next panel, just like in an iOS/Android comic reader app. These little touches arguably don’t add much to the experience, but they certainly don’t hurt it, either.

The game is a joy to navigate — gravity shifting and “falling” through the skies towards your destination is thrilling every time, and the world is an interesting, beautifully-designed environment to explore — but things do fall apart a little when it comes to combat. On the ground, Kat is limited to a not-particularly-effective kick attack as well as a useful “dodge” move achieved by swiping on the touchscreen. In the air, Kat can do a “gravity kick” manoeuvre where she “locks on” to an enemy then flies through the sky with high heel outstretched, with more damage being done if she “falls” on the enemy from a greater distance.

This is all very well and good and would be absolutely fine were it not for the fact that every enemy is only vulnerable in specific weak spots. Crash into an enemy anywhere other than their obvious glowing weak spots and you’ll do no damage. Early in the game this isn’t an issue, because the weak spots are in easily-accessible locations, but later enemies have multiple weak points all over their body and often thrash about, making it difficult to hit them. One boss in particular will have you flinging your Vita in frustration as it seemingly always dodges aside just as you get lined up perfectly. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but it does sometimes give the game some rather artificial-feeling difficulty spikes, which is a bit of a shame.

The game’s considerable charms (mostly in the form of Kat and the interesting, mysterious story she becomes embroiled in) outshine its flaws, however — at least to me. I’ve been playing it quite a bit today and I’ve found it an engrossing, immersive experience. I think quite a bit of that is due to the fact it’s a handheld game, which surprised me — traditionally, I’ve regarded handheld experiences to be less immersive, not more — but Gravity Rush draws you in like few other games I’ve played recently, and then doesn’t let go.

If you have a Vita, be sure to grab a copy. If you don’t have a Vita, it’s certainly a great example of what the system can do. Is it a “killer app” for the system? Perhaps — it’s certainly not perfect, but I can’t imagine it working quite the same on, say, a console. The touch and tilt controls are excellently integrated into the more traditional button-based commands, and the whole thing feels like it was designed specifically for the Vita rather than envisaged as a console title with Vita features shoehorned in later. The gorgeous cel-shaded graphics, heavily influenced by a combination of French comics and anime, also make it one of the most distinctive-looking games I’ve seen for a long time.

If nothing else, it’s a game I’d certainly like to see a sequel to in the future, so let’s hope it enjoys some success.

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