The ability to amplify the emotional and physical reactions you have while playing a video game lies at the heart of what makes virtual reality so promising. In Windlands, a newly released first-person platformer, you'll be throwing yourself into the void as you grapple around a ruined civilisation high up in the sky, and it's safe to say that it'll definitely make you feel something – it just might not be something you'll actually enjoy feeling.
When Windlands first boots up you're greeted by a warning screen suggesting that unless you have your "VR legs" you might want to limit your play sessions until you acclimatise. Putting aside whether you think "VR legs" are actually a thing or not, many people will see this warning not as the friendly advice it's certainly meant to be, but instead as a direct challenge to prove just how extreme a VR experience they can handle. This would be a mistake. A big mistake.
In this reviewer's experience – who foolishly disregarded the aforementioned advice – playing without any of Windlands comfort settings turned on resulted in a first play session of just ten minutes, which was promptly followed by several hours of lying down in a dark room. While different people will of course react in varying ways, it's entirely possible that you could end up feeling so awful after your first exposure to Windlands that you'd be ready to cast this title aside completely. Again this would be a mistake. A big mistake.
If you just spend some time experimenting with the extensive comfort settings – which range from disabling strafing with the left stick, to putting a transparent cage around your view – you'll more than likely find that sweet spot that'll enable you to experience Windlands without wanting to technicolor yawn all over your controller, and it's at this point you'll find an experience that's at times both exhilarating and terrifying.
As you explore the game's three different environments – all of which are rendered in a pleasingly colourful low polygon style – you can see shafts of light in the distance signalling the location of each of the nine crystals you need to collect. In order to get to these hard to reach perches you need to find a route across the huge number of floating islands that lie between you and your goal.
There are the occasional scraps of story dished out to try and explain who and where you are, but these serve more as window dressing rather than providing any sort of compelling narrative to help propel you through. Instead Windlands is more than happy to let its gameplay be the main hook.
Mechanically it all seems quite simple at first: you have a really floaty jump, and a couple of grappling hooks. Each of these hooks can be fired by looking at the point you want to grapple onto, and then pulling the triggers on the DualShock 4 controller. Latching onto a grapple point and flying towards the next piece of terra firma doesn't sound like anything you haven't done in a thousand games before, but the difference here is the VR, and if you suffer from a fear of heights you may find yourself facing an unexpected challenge.
Swinging over precipitous drops and launching yourself high into the sky before falling to the ground will lurch your stomach in a way that certainly isn't related to any motion sickness. It's that feeling in your dreams where you're falling, or that moment in the real world when you look down from the top of a tall building. It's a shockingly intense primal reaction triggered by the sense of immersion that VR gives the experience.
Fortunately, the more you play Windlands the more you'll become accustomed to the platforming and this dulls the edge of any fear you may have. When you hit the point you can throw yourself off a platform without worrying about missing your target, you'll begin to realise there's a little bit more depth than you first thought to the mechanics. You'll start chaining together swings to maintain your momentum, use wall jumps to gain height, and work out where you should be using just a single grapple – or even both together. By time you've scooped up the last crystal, you'll be moving around the world using incredibly satisfying combos that instil a real sense of achievement – especially if you've had to face your fear of heights to get there.
While it's consistently fun doing your best Spider-Man impression, on the game's normal and hard difficulty you'll occasionally find it challenging to work out just what route you should be taking. Admittedly the game does give you a lot of latitude as to how you get to your destination most of the time, but there are a few points that have a very specific route that it isn't clear at all. On top of this, some lengthy gaps between checkpoints mean that you can be forced to repeat certain sections over and over again, and this can also cause frustration to creep in at times.
With the main quest taking around four hours, you can choose to hone your skills further in some time-based challenges, or by hunting the collectibles littered around the three levels. While these help to give you some added purpose, the core mechanics continue to be so much fun that you might just find yourself perfectly content to swing around, trying to see how long you can go without stopping or how far you can fall and still grapple your way out of trouble.
Terror, exhilaration and nausea. It's a testament to the power of VR that such a simple, straight-forward game as Windlands has the ability to makes its players feel so much. The biggest problem of course is trying to work out just what it's going to make you feel. Fortunately, if you can master your stomach – with help from the numerous VR comfort options – and throw yourself in head first, you just might find a frequently thrilling experience that despite its frustrations is worth falling for.