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Review – The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR

The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR is the spiritual successor to Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, the underrated carnival roller coaster of horror released as a PlayStation VR launch title back in the day. Like Rush of Blood, Switchback VR is a modern take on a classic arcade, cabinet, on-rails, light gun experience, like House of the Dead. These types of games could never translate from arcade to in-home flat screen, but they shine in VR. Why more studios don’t tap into this formula, I don’t know, but thankfully Supermassive Games is.

Carnival of horrors.

Underappreciated at the time, Rush of Blood was one of the best games on the console, at least in my opinion and the opinion of others in the staff. Switchback VR has the chance to carry that mantel to PSVR2. And for the most part, it does. This is the VR experience that many of us had hoped for to be there at launch, literally, with Switchback VR moving from its PC VR2 launch date, to March 16th.

Switchback VR opens with you in a train, and with a sense of confusion as to where or why. The events that play out, are used as both prologue and intermission scenes between maps. You are brought back to the train for one or two minutes at a time, as an obvious event plays out. The ending of which can change, although only slightly, based on progress in the game. The story is the weakest pull, and only used as a vehicle to loosely connect the gameplay events. You are here for the insane action.

If you are a fan of light gun arcades, especially horror ones, then it is this gameplay that absolutely shines. Confined to a rollercoaster car, your ride begins on a foggy moonlit night. If you are familiar with The Dark Pictures Anthology set of games, then you will have no problem recognizing these settings and characters. Everything you come across is pulled directly from their first season’s titles: Man of Medan, Little Hope, House of Ashes, and The Devil in Me. Sadly, nothing on The Quarry, since that is separate from the anthology. Even the Curator can be found standing, watching you, judging you.

Into the night.

Holding the Sense VR controllers feels so much more natural than holding the old PS Move controllers. Finger Touch Detection feels really nice as your hands and fingers almost mimic your movements. Double fisting your weapons, you shoot at waves of zombies, creatures, demonic aliens, and automata. Shooting anything you can raises your score, shooting items with pentagrams on them raises it even more. Along the tracks you will come across boxes that contain a variety of weapons: SMG, Shotgun, revolver, etc. Pressing Cross or Circle, or shaking your hand, will reload your weapon. The haptics really feel amazing. This is Switchback VR‘s sweet spot: the settings, the atmosphere, the gameplay, the overall sense of tension.

Now, as a horror game, Switchback VR isn’t entirely scary scary. It’s more of a creepy tension scary. Much like a roller coaster going up that huge track in the beginning, the “what have I got myself into?” feeling sets in. But after your first encounter, it really is just more of the same encounters. If the ride is moving, shoot everything you can. If the ride has stopped, prepare for enemies to come out. They will be to your left, right, and center, but some will stand back and use projectile attacks. Repeat that with different enemy variety and you have most of your encounters. The infamous “Don’t Blink” room makes genius use of the eye tracking, but these also play out similarly, just using your eyes to keep them at bay. There is always a tension there, but the fear level is not much more than that.

Don’t blink… but really, blink.

Much like the special ammo crates I touched on earlier, there are puzzle item crates that help you move past the game’s puzzles. These are pretty spelled out for you and it isn’t so much about figuring out a puzzle, but being able to do it in time. You will get a blacklight so you can see where to shoot obstacles, or a flare gun to, well, shoot obstacles. There is an electric gun that can be used to activate panels. For the most part, these are all pretty spelled out, but you will use them to help rescue, or kill, some hostage each track level.

Switchback VR is absolutely stunning, an absolutely gorgeous VR game, until it isn’t. It never becomes bad, but it does do things that take make you notice or double take. Usually pulling you from the experience just a little. The world and environment is beautiful, but pop-ins and jitters are noticeable. Every now and again, it feels like I am back in PSVR with its screen door effect, especially on intermission cinematics on the subway train. I don’t understand why, since the menu screen is incredibly sharp. Buildings and structures are incredibly detailed and amazing, but some effects, especially fire, look more like a skin. Like an effect produced by a light system pointing flame pictures onto a surface. Honestly, it began to feel more like a PSVR2 game being played in PSVR hardware.

Audibly, I have no such qualms. The sound quality is superb and adds so much to the game. The slow clank of the tracks as it pulls you, or the fast pounding as you race through tunnels at high speed. From the weapons, enemies, ambient creeks and crackles keeping your head on a swivel wondering what is behind you, it all sounds amazing.

Which path do you take?

Replay value is something to be touched on. Switchback VR is surprisingly replayable considering the type of game it is. Each track is a “go from point A to point B” experience, as you would assume, but there are side paths you can take a handful of times. These all quickly lead back to the main track but deliver you to a slightly different experience and encounter. There are also survivors that you need to interact with by either saving from a trap, triggering the trap, or just bypassing them completely, to abandon them. It is a nice changeup to each track, and offers the opportunity to jump back in after completion.

Being a VR title, I like to add how comfortable I was inside the headgear. That answer is, extremely. Even though you move, it is static and not dynamic. You are on rails and stationery the entire time. Sometimes, the fast plummet down a hill can cause your stomach to take notice, but just like any roller coaster drop. Overall, I felt no, or minimal, motion sickness or tension of any kind.

Reap the whirlwind.

Switchback VR begins as everything I wanted from a follow-up to Rush of Blood. By the end of the first track, I was sold and ready to sign off on it for anyone interested. Then it slowly took one step back for every two steps forward. Atmosphere is creepy and tense, but it isn’t all that scary. Environment is so fantastic and awe inspiring, but that screen door effect. Graphics and character modeling are outstanding, but those fire effects. Switchback VR is a fantastic game, and you should grab it in case you own a PSVR2, but there is always a small “but” hindering it from becoming perfect.

Graphics: 8.0

Beautiful game and design, only held back by oddly blurry cinematics, screen door use, and some strange effects.

Gameplay: 8.5

Minimal to no motion sickness. Gameplay is as simple as it needs to be, to stay entertaining. Choice options offer some replayability.

Sound: 10

Nothing short of fantastic. Perfectly paired with the atmosphere and environment to keep your head on a swivel.

Fun Factor: 9.0

Incredibly fun arcade light gun experience. The few mistakes are all but overcome by the sheer fun of revisiting Dark Pictures and shooting everything in site.

Final Verdict: 8.5

Switchback VR is available now on PS5.

Reviewed on PS5.

A copy of Switchback VR was provided by the publisher.

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