The Unspoken (VR Gaming)
Last weekend me and my roommate and a friend of ours drove a half hour up to a nearby Microsoft store to play in a tournament for the virtual reality game The Unspoken. I’ve written a little bit about this game before, but the tournament was probably the most play time with this game I’ll be getting in my life, so I figured I should write up my thoughts now.
Upon arriving at the tournament, Jacob, Alvin, and I spent some time figuring out how the hell the game actually worked. Jacob and I had both played the tutorial back at Dreamhack, but hadn’t really understood it then, and Alvin had never played at all. The basic premise is this: You are a wizard, and you are fighting another wizard. You, and the other wizard, can be one of three types of wizards: Anarchist, Kineticist, or Blackjack. These three all have different abilities and playstyles, the Anarchist throws fire and is a balanced class, the Kineticist throws objects and is a defensive class, the Blackjack shoots daggers and is an offensive class. Every class has a basic attack, a basic shield, a push attack, a volley attack, and a guard. In addition to this there are three additional one-time cast spells that each player gets to choose.
The maps are always some area divided into two approximate halves, scattered with five or six pillars. These pillars serve as jump points for the mages, you can teleport to any pillar on your side of the map by pointing a hand at it and pressing A. There is a short cooldown on the teleport, so a large part of the strategy involves nailing your opponent with a high damage spell right after they’ve teleported and are waiting a couple of seconds to teleport again. On these pillars embers will periodically spawn. Embers are necessary in order to cast any of your more interesting spells, that is any of the push, volley, guard, or three one time spells. These spells are how you do most of your damage, so the embers are important to gather. The final thing to note about the stage is that on rounds two and three a glowing orb spawns in the center of the stage. Whoever does the most damage to the orb in a set amount of time breaks it, and earns a fourth one time spell. This one time spell, when cast, summons a Grim Reaper figure which tracks down your opponent, and does a massive amount of damage, almost always killing them in one hit.
This, of course, might differ for players who are legitimately good, but for the most part everyone at the tournament had very little experience playing the game. The strategy depended on the round. In round one you had a good old normal hearty fight, flinging the basic spells back and forth, shielding, using the stronger spells. I’m sure that there are tricker moves you cold pull, but for us it just devolved into chucking spells at each other.
In rounds two and three, the vast majority of the time, whoever got the center orb, and therefore the Grim Reaper, won. So whenever the orb spawned both players immediately teleported to it and started whacking the crap out of it. The only exception is that in one game I dealt enough damage to my opponent after he summoned the reaper that I killed him before the reaper arrived. Other than that, I never saw anybody escape the Reaper.
I’ll start by saying that my review is not incredibly favorable. No, it has nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t win the tournament. The game was, on it’s own, fine. It had good balancing mechanics, it was difficult to master, someone who was really good could clearly trounce a novice player. If this game was for a different platform than VR I would probably say that it was a good game and move on. But it was for VR. And as a VR game I think it fell short.
I have, admittedly, a limited amount of experience with VR, but here’s what I know: playing VR games makes me feel awesome. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the number one directive of a VR game should be to make the player feel awesome. The VR games that I’ve played did this by allowing for freedom of movement and action - something that was totally missing in The Unspoken. As a mage I should be able to teleport anywhere I want to not just pillars that arranged neatly throughout the landscape. As a wizard I should have a wide variety of spells ready to cast at my fingertips, not a limited set of four augmented by trinkets. The game felt slow and limiting, because it intrinsically was. There are opportunities to feel amazing - teleporting out of the way of an enemy javelin (high damage spell) just in time feels awesome - but for the most part I’m just standing there chucking my basic spell in my opponents general direction, watching my shield to make sure it doesn’t die.
I was also disappointed because this genre (meaning high fantasy) has so much potential. When VR really started to get it’s feet on the ground this was the genre that I was so excited for. As I kid I read a thousand high fantasy books, with wizards and magic and dragons and swords, and virtual reality would finally give me that chance to be an all-powerful wizard dueling on the back of my dragon circling a city. But The Unspoken sees you hurling fireballs back and forth while cowering behind a shield, carefully misering your embers and trying to take advantage of your opponents misstep.
Instead of being a naysayer, I’d like to paint a picture of how my dreams could come true. If you’ve never played Magicka before, it’s a silly mage adventure where spells are conjured by mixing together eight different elements, represented by the QWER and ASDF keys on your keyboard. Combinatorial explosion grants us a huge number of possible spells from just eight inputs, and it feels pretty awesome learning and nailing those different spell combinations on the field of battle. In The Unspoken you use six different buttons during the course of the game; the A button, the side trigger, and the front trigger on each of the two controllers. This still represents a possible tens of thousands of possible spell combinations, which is far more exciting than five to eight. Hold front left trigger for ‘earth’, hold front right trigger for ‘fire’, and there you’ve got a fireball. Point and take aim at the enemy wizard, release the triggers, and he’s got a fireball hurtling his way. Maybe he can prep the shield spell in time, maybe he teleports of to the side, maybe he unleashes a jet of water at it, maybe he gets hit and takes damage but counters with a lightning bolt from above. That’s a far more dynamic and engaging system than holding down a button and chucking in the enemy’s general direction from one of six predefined locations.
The Unspoken is made by Insomniac Games, and the developers might be purposefully trying to make a game that is more appropriate for a causal audience. It seems to me that VR, more than any other platform, is more likely to contain hard core gamers and so I think the ‘casual’ direction (if it was intentional) would be a mistake. In addition they seem to be trying to turn The Unspoken into an esport, given the tournaments they are setting up around the nation. While I wish them luck, some other VR game deserves the spot.