There’s an urban legend of an arcade game so addictive that physical fights would break out over who would get to play next. Its mind bending gameplay managed to induce insomnia, amnesia, and hallucinations in those that played it, and just one month after it supposedly showed up in Portland arcades in 1981, every single machine disappeared, leaving behind rumours of government experimentation, and ‘Men in Black’ collecting the details of the leaderboard topping players. That game was Polybius.
While the story of this legendary arcade title has been heavily debunked over the years – eventually being attributed to the overactive imagination of the internet – it’s still managed to build a cult following, even going as far as becoming the source of inspiration for legendary game designer Jeff Minter’s latest trance shooter.
Having the man behind titles such as Llamatron and Space Giraffe making a game based on this supposedly trauma inducing legend is slightly worrying. So when you load up Polybius and have to read several disclaimers warning of its heavy use of psychedelic visuals and flashing images, you’ll begin to wonder if you should really be putting yourself through the experience at all.
Should you decide to risk it you’ll find yourself in control of a craft as it speeds away from the screen – Space Harrier style – along a variety of pipes, canyons, and plains, all packed full of geometric shapes and patterns that you need to either avoid or blast so you can make it to the end of a stage. In addition, each level has a series of gates that when passed through increase your score multiplier while also giving you a significant speed boost.
Chaining gates together will help elevate your leaderboard scores, but as your velocity reaches increasing heights – and new twists to the core mechanics are introduced – you’ll find it more and more challenging to avoid taking the hits that’ll deplete your shields. But even as the difficulty increases, there’s an enjoyable risk reward component to the game: do you move slowly so you have more time to process what’s happening on screen – or do you go as fast as you can to maximize your points by threading the needle through each gate?
With so much going on graphically it can feel like visual overload at times – especially when you get up to full speed – and with the number of objects flying towards you on screen reaching utterly ludicrous levels, it can be quite exhausting to play. It’ll all be in your head, but after a session playing Polybius you’ll swear your eyeballs feel noticeably warmer due to the sheer volume of stimulus they’ve been channelling.
It’s definitely one of those titles where you’ll find the most success by getting yourself in "the zone". There’ll be plenty of times when you clumsily crash repeatedly and get totally annihilated in a matter of seconds, but when you find that special place and a distinctly unflattering thousand yard stare appears on your face, you’ll feel satisfaction that you managed to cut through the noise and deftly navigate the carnage ahead.
In terms of difficulty Polybius starts things off surprisingly easy, and you’ll be able to navigate the first ten or so stages with very little trouble. While things do get progressively tougher over its 50 stages, your only real frustration will come from the lack of explanation about the game's mechanics. Polybius, like its namesake urban legend, definitely wants to create an air of mystery – in this case about how to get the best score – and by welcoming you with the words “do what comes naturally” and only giving you some very basic pointers, it clearly wants you to work it out for itself. There are the odd hints along the way if you’re paying attention, but because of just how quickly the action moves on screen it can be hard to get a grip on what’s important, and after hours of playing you still won’t be 100 per cent sure how everything fits together.
Complementing its eye searing pace Polybius also has responsive controls and a frame rate that runs flawlessly at 120 frames-per-second – even on the standard PlayStation 4. Should you also own a PS4 Pro then you can enjoy the whole thing bumped up to a 4k resolution, but however you decide to play – there’s even an option for 3D TVs – it does a brilliant job of evoking the 80s arcade style and delivering an effective visual tribute to the arcade games of yesteryear.
No matter how great it looks on your TV, though, the best way to experience Polybius is on a PlayStation VR headset. Immersing yourself fully in the psychedelic visuals more than makes up for the slight drop in visual fidelity due to the lower resolution display, and when you add in the absolutely superb soundtrack that offers up a nice mix of tracks inspired by 80s arcade and 90s trance music, you’ll almost certainly end up losing yourself in the experience, which helps you to focus more on the obstacles ahead.
Given how quickly things move in Polybius perhaps the most surprising thing about the VR mode is just how comfortable it is to play. Whether it’s down to the smooth framerate or a number of other tweaks implemented by developer Llamasoft, this reviewer – despite some initial concerns – didn’t experience a single bout of motion sickness at all, even when playing for lengthy periods without a break.
Polybius is an excellent trance shooter which deftly delivers just enough sensory overload to thrill but not frustrate. While the lack of clarity about just what’s happening on screen makes for a small but intended bump in the road, it’s the strong core gameplay – which steadily introduces interesting twists to its formula the longer you play – stellar soundtrack, and excellent PlayStation VR support that’ll blow your mind in all the right ways.