Games such as Gravity Rush are getting rarer. The Japan Studio-developed handheld adventure eschews committee design and instead coalesces on a consistent creative vision. Driven by the surreal imagination of former Silent Hill director Keiichiro Toyama, the title is a thoughtful exploration of original gameplay mechanics and cultural visual identities. It culminates in one of the most intriguing experiences of the year, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s exactly the type of product Vita needs to distance itself from the criticisms of its sceptics.
Unlike anything available on PlayStation 3, and unrivalled in scope on smartphones and tablets, Gravity Rush is a unique affair. It depicts the angst-laden escapades of amnesiac Kat, a contrary teenager thrust into the perils of a world on the brink of danger. Accompanied by a mysterious star-gazing feline, the protagonist unlocks the ability to manipulate gravity, and a whole wealth of combat and navigational skills as a result.
In truth, it never quite takes off as a piece of fiction. While the writing is considered and comical, the stop-start nature of the pacing makes it a difficult plot to follow. Fortunately, the title’s overall tone is charming enough to patch over the tale’s unanswered questions. Kat is such a likeable character that you’ll easily get swept up in the overall ambience of the experience, and allow the narrative holes to fall to the wayside.
The game may be tonally light-hearted, but it shares many assets with Toyama’s other endeavours. There’s a sinister, Siren-inspired undertone to the mood that’s thoughtfully explored, and contrasts against the teenage anxiety that headlines the story. This is a dense game willing to tackle multiple human emotions, but it’s grounded enough to allow you to decide how deep you want to explore.
And yet, confidently residing beneath the vibrancy of its characters and dialogue is a thoroughly engaging gameplay experience, anchored by an innovative traversal mechanic and considered controls. With a tap of the right trigger, Kat can float freely, uninfluenced by the rules of gravity. A second tap of the trigger allows her to redirect gravity, allowing her to float weightlessly in the air and explore the faces of buildings.
The mechanic gives Gravity Rush a superhero flavour, and it does it with much more fluidity than any recent licensed affair. There’s a grace to Kat’s movement that’s accentuated by the simplicity of the controls. Using the Vita’s on-board motion sensor to adapt the direction of the gravity is a wonderfully intuitive mechanic, and it works flawlessly. It’s a testament to the quality of the technology packed inside Sony’s shiny new handheld that the detection feels so precise, and it provides you with exact precision over every movement. It’s also a feature that distinguishes the game from its console origins – Kat’s move-set simply wouldn’t feel as slick on PS3.
Given the nature of the mechanics, the title is culpable to prompting minor moments of disorientation, but Gravity Rush is clever enough to overcome those issues with intelligent presentation choices and generally strong level design. For example, when upside-down, Kat’s hair will always react to the true properties of gravity, providing a reference point for the real physics of the world. Similarly, the game’s minimalistic HUD offers accurate waypoints to ensure you never lose your way across the multiple districts. While it is in essence an open-world game, the developer’s brilliantly balanced the scale to ensure you’ve always got room to explore your abilities without getting lost.
Unfortunately, that balance means that the world itself isn’t necessarily well populated with things to do. Collectable gems litter the skylines and encourage you to explore the architecture, but otherwise fairly basic challenge missions represent the bulk of the non-story activities. Here you’re prompted to experiment with Kat's abilities, engaging in race and combat missions to achieve specific points quotas and unlock additional gems. These gems can then be invested in various character upgrades, allowing Kat to have a greater control over gravity, for example, or improve her combat effectiveness.
There’s a very clear nod to Sonic the Hedgehog in the way Kat fights. Flinging yourself towards targets through the manipulation of gravity feels a little like the blue blur’s own lock-on ability, and the way she bounces off targets allowing you to align another hit gives the combat a delightful fluidity. It’s a shame that all of the enemies rely on the rather predictable trait of glowing weak spots, but it at least makes the action accessible.
Outside of airborne attacks, Kat also has access to a bevy of other combat options. When planted on the ground she can fight using a handful of button bashing combos, and similarly she has the option to unleash a trio of special moves. These range from homing attacks to typhoons, and vary in effectiveness depending on your upgrade selections.
For the most part the action feels fluid and precise, but it is let down by one mechanic in particular. Despite the game’s precision in the air, using the gyro to slide across ground surfaces feels frustratingly finicky. The issue is emphasised by a number of the game’s challenge missions that require you to beat outrageous time quotas using the flimsiness of the tilt controls. You can play through the entirety of Gravity Rush without ever really needing to use the slide ability, but if you’re searching for additional gems (or going for the platinum Trophy) then you’ll need to brace yourself for some thigh-punching frustration.
It’s a shame because, that minor issue aside, things control flawlessly. After years of makeshift control systems on the PSP, Japan Studio’s done an outstanding job of mapping the freedom of Kat’s move-set to Sony’s feature-rich device. It’s simply a fun game to play, and that goes an exceptionally long way in ensuring its replayability.
But while it’s the considered nature of the controls that ensure Gravity Rush maintains its appeal, it’s the quality of the visual design that really accentuates its status. Inspired by the simplicity of French comics and merged with the endearing style of anime, it’s an undeniably breathtaking game. The vibrancy of the game’s contrasting colour palette is emphasised by the clarity of the Vita’s OLED screen, and while the title unfortunately runs at a sub-optimal resolution, it’s hard to discredit the art design and it is a technologically proficient experience.
Similarly stellar is the title’s audio direction. Gravity Rush blends a variety of orchestral themes and motifs to create a delightfully eclectic soundtrack. The jovial shrill of accordions are juxtaposed against the more sinister sounds of harpsichords, and it allows the game to quickly move between different moods with relative simplicity.
And it’s that diversity that creates such an intriguing experience. You’re never quite sure where Gravity Rush is going to take you next: be it a Lord of the Flies inspired underworld or Escher-esque dreamscape, the game is constantly inventing and exploring new territories.
Gravity Rush is a rare gem. It's a game that defies expectations almost as frequently as the physical properties it’s built upon. A surreal narrative is complemented by genuinely ground-breaking gameplay mechanics, and while it’s not always flawless, it culminates in one of the most outstandingly original experiences of the year.