The Playstation Vita has had a regrettably tough life as a consumer product, but you can’t blame that on lack of games, although that’s more in spite of Sony than because of them. Nowadays, the only people that seem to be supporting the device are niche Japanese studios and indie developers making cross-platform titles. Sony themselves have been clear that they have no interest in pursuing development for Vita any further. I suppose when one of the handheld’s earliest hits, Gravity Rush, was announced to have a sequel in the works for the Playstation 4, Vita fans should have despaired at another lost potential title, but I guess we all saw it coming.
I never actually played Gravity Rush on the Vita, but I did pick up the “remastered” version that was recently released for PS4. This version seems to specifically exist to prep the uninitiated for the upcoming sequel. Not having played the Vita original, I’m afraid I can’t really compare the two. The graphics in the PS4 version are presumably better, but they are clearly from an upscaled Vita game. The open-world of Hekseville is composed mostly of very angular polygonal structures with simple texture work, and there is a hazy fog that clouds the long distance view of the city, which is almost certainly there to hide a limited draw distance. Furthermore, NPCs that roam around the city just sort of pop-in as Kat runs and flies around. Still, I wouldn’t say the game looks bad. It doesn’t look great, but it’s acceptable.
Gravity Rush tells the story of Kat, a young amnesiac woman who awakens to herself falling into the skyborne city of Hekseville. Kat is accompanied by a mysterious black cat named Dusty, who grants her the ability to control the force of gravity. Essentially, this power allows Kat to fly. Soon after awakening in Hekseville, Kat realize that her powers are key to defending the city from the attacks of the Nevi, a species of amorphous, shadowy monsters who have been wreaking havoc on the city’s peace and safety. However, as the story progresses, we come to realize that there are greater threats encroaching on this floating metropolis, and the Nevi appear to be mere pawns in a much greater scheme.
The city of Hekseville lies in a world shrouded in mystery. The cityscape hangs suspended in the sky, held aloft on the branches of a large, tree-like pillar which seems to extend both upward and downward into infinity. The citizens of Hekseville seem to have no knowledge of the world beyond their city limits, nor do they seem to give it any consideration. The mystery of Hekseville’s very existence is a central plot point in this narrative, and the player is slowly fed tidbits of information that hint at the true nature of this reality. I found the existential mystique of this world to be comparable to what you would find in anime like Fullmetal Alchemist or The Big O.
The story is what I ended up feeling to be the main draw of Gravity Rush. In addition to the existential enigmas of Kat’s world, the characters she encounters in her tale are incredibly charming and heartfelt. Kat, herself, is a peppy, friendly, and incredibly sincere young woman, who you’ll want to root for as she takes on a super hero-like status amongst the citizens of Hekseville.
Despite the fact that I found the story to be the best part of the game, it’s not without its faults. The plot chaotically meanders throughout the game and is not content to focus on any specific story thread. The game begins by introducing us to the threat of the Nevi, but subsequent chapters introduce numerous additional conflicts that Kat must contend with. Hekseville starts off in chaos due to parts of the city being inexplicably swallowed into alternate dimensions by gravity storms. A master thief named Alias, who seems to have a history with Kat and has the ability to control the Nevi, is threatening to steal the “Sacred Gems” which protect the city in unspecified ways. Furthermore, there is also a rival gravity shifter, named Raven, who comes to blows with Kat. These are just the conflicts set up in the earliest chapters of the game, while even more villains and mysteries are introduced as the story progresses.
By the end of the game, I have to admit I was frustrated by a lack of any sort of resolution. The early chapters set up so many intriguing mysteries. “Where did Kat come from?”, “Who is Alias?”, “Why are parts of the city being swallowed into alternate dimensions?” “What exactly are the Nevi?” You would expect later chapters of the game to begin answering these questions, but, instead, they just set up even more mysteries, of which very few are given any sort of closure. Ultimately, I was left with way more questions than answers. I understand that the designers wanted to build a series out of this game, and that it’s smart to leave hanging some loose plot threads to build the story of future sequels on. But Gravity Rush just left too much up in the air.
Gravity Rush might be described as an open-world game, as Kat is free to roam about and explore Hekseville between missions. While exploring the city, Kat can take on challenge and side missions, talk to a few select NPCs, and collect gems which are used to level up various stats. The main missions are generally relatively simple. Kat goes to point A on the map, a swarm of Nevi appears, she beats them down, and then moves on to point B where the same thing happens. Occasionally, there are simple tasks to complete on the way, usually stuff like fetching items or using Kat’s abilities to carry NPCs to safety.
I’m afraid I never found the Nevi to be particularly fearsome enemies. They tend to just sort of mull about and only become aggressive when Kat gets very close to them. I guess the lack of pernicious enemy AI is probably the result of the game being designed for the Vita’s more diminutive CPU. When engaged with a Nevi, combat is also pretty simple. The goal is to target glowing magenta weak spots on the Nevi’s otherwise shadowy bodies. If they are on the ground, attacks consist of mostly walking up to the weak spot and mashing the X button to do a series of kicks. If Kat is attacking from the air, the player can tap X when targeting a Nevi’s weak spot, and she will zoom in for a kick attack. All in all, this particular aspect of the game is nothing really exceptional.
Gravity Rush is at its core a game about flying…or more precisely falling. Tapping the R1 button causes Kat to become weightless. Point in a specific direction and tap R1 again, and the pull of Gravity on Kat will change to that direction. In this way Kat can “fall” in any given direction, which essentially allows her to fly about the city and reach places no one else can. She can also use this ability to run along walls and ceilings. There aren’t really a whole lot of games about flying, and I really enjoyed this aspect of the game.
It’s not without its problems, though. Later in the game, Kat finds herself fighting a lot of flying Nevi, which requires her to take flight to fend off foes coming at her from every possible direction. This gets complicated since you can’t possibly be aware of all the enemies in the space around Kat. While the Nevi are kind of slow and not particularly aggressive (as I discussed above), some of the flying Nevi shoot homing projectiles that are difficult to evade once they get close enough. This means that you’ll get hit by a lot of projectiles from off-screen since you can’t possibly be focused on everything going on around Kat at once. The only real tactic I found that worked in this situation was just to prioritize defeating the ones with homing projectiles as fast as I could.
Worse yet, after doing a flying kick attack, Kat bounces off the enemy in a way that often made me lose my frame of reference in the environment. This left me completely disoriented at times. This particular issue I feel could have been easily solved by having a button to lock the camera onto targeted enemies (like Zelda). Hopefully, this will be remedied for the PS4 sequel. While this game mostly featured very basic and simplistic combat, because of these issues, it could often devolve into a spastic and frustrating mess later in the game.
And that’s basically Gravity Rush. A game that starts off with lots of momentum due to both intriguing gameplay and story elements. But ultimately, the game just sort of falls flat, as it has no idea what to do with what it started. Regardless, I really enjoyed the world of Hekseville, and I have high hopes for the next PS4 entry. They really need to step things up a few notches for this upcoming sequel, but I think this first game serves as a good foundation to build upon. While I’m a huge fan of handheld gaming and the Vita, I hope that the more technically-sophisticated PS4 platform will give the developers the ability to fully realize the promise that this initial installment has shown.