I used to have extremely vivid dreams of flying in my teen years. They were accompanied by powerful physical sensations, where it'd feel like a locus of energy around my forehead made me able to defy gravity. Sometimes I could control that energy and other times it would pull me along. If I close my eyes, I can still remember that feeling.
Gravity Rush doesn't feel anything like those flying dreams. It feels different, and in some ways, better.
Rush is the right word to describe the sensations accompanied by this new PlayStation Vita release. The movement in Gravity Rush isn't the typical sort of video game flying where you enjoy extreme precision and control. You play as an amnesiac young woman named Kat whose flights start with floaty indifference and end with crunchy, clunky slams. The sequence is this: hover angelically, zoom with aplomb and crash with ungainly alacrity. Every time Kat smacked into the ground in a tangled heap, I always thought, "Geez, girl, are you all right?" And every time, she continued on with a plucky, open-hearted attitude.
When the game starts, Kat finds herself in a fictional cityscape called Hekseville, accompanied by a cosmically powered cat that lets her pull off her physics-defying feats. Some of the people she meets and talks to seem to know her better than she knows herself. You'll spend time restoring parts of the city's infrastructure to unlock races and combat challenges and talking to citizens to flesh out bits of Hekseville's backstory. As the game progresses, it teases connections between its heroine and the cataclysmic gravity storms that shattered Hekseville. Along the way, she'll fight inky creatures called Nevi—who come in a bunch of gelatinous shapes and sizes—each with an elusive glowing core that she needs to smash to kill them.
Even though the story seems ripped out of an anime/manga style guide, it still manages to be surprisingly poignant at times. Kat's desire to bring together parts of a fractured world—while trying to recover memories of who she is—falls prey to some some heavy-handed philosophy but nothing that's terribly wince-inducing.
Your main power in the game involves the ability to cut the ties of gravity in various ways. This lets you fling yourself, other people and random objects through the air. Kat can also cling to walls and other surfaces so that the ceiling becomes the floor you walk on.
This portable game places a heavy premium on movement and makes you keep an eye on a gauge that displays just how much anti-gravity juice you have. If you're running along the underside of a cliff and the gauge runs dry, you'll go tumbling down into oblivion. Penalties for blunders like this are minimal, though, and you'll generally get teleported back to a point on the map with no loss of energy. Besides, you can collect gems through exploration and various grind activities to upgrade your gauge usage and other attributes.
Gravity Rush shows off the kind of symbiosis between gameworld design, aesthetics and mechanics that you only see in the best playable experiences. The environments feel like they're built to be flown through, the flying feels slightly panicky and the combat is where you turn yourself into your own bullet aiming and firing Kat at enemy weakspots over and over. The formula of traversal and momentum-based attacks persists throughout the entire game but gets tweaked in a few clever ways. You'll find yourself without your special powers at certain points but still get presented with bent-perspective platform puzzles that follow through on the perceptual skills you've learned.
With all of the game's upside-down free-falling and head-tilting combat, you might feel a bit of vertigo at times but never ever nauseous. That's a testament to how finely tuned Gravity Rush's camera is. Because the environments were designed to be interacted from a variety of angles, there were times I lost my bearings flying around Hekseville. I'd find myself trying to remember which way was up. But figuring that out was always fun, whether it was finding a trail of gems I wouldn't have seen before or glimpsing a psychedelically stunning view I'd only get by flying sideways.
The Japan Studio dev team packs a miniature open world into Gravity Rush, complete with pedestrians, pets and air traffic that bustle independently of you. Each section of Hekseville and the transdimensional environments Kat ventures through seethes with a distinct character. Gravity Rush's art style generates much of its considerable charm. It's an alt-reality old-world Europe shot through a science-fantasy filter, with the heavy imprint of great European comics artists Herge and Moebius visible throughout.
The bouncy quality of Gravity Rush's combat stands out as another highlight. With a Gravity Kick that sends Kat flying at enemies, her foot becomes the arrowhead of a high-speed attack. You rebound back in to the air at the end of these strikes and will eventually need to be able to aim, strike and then re-aim quickly to thrive at GR's fighting sequences. Other special abilities play out the same way, making you focus on targeting as a crucial part of the attack. It's possible to use the motion-sensing features of the Vita to tilt the handheld to aim but I didn't find myself using that very much. Thankfully, there's not a ton of mandatory touchscreen inputs, either. You swipe the screen to dodge and tap on it to select menu options or pull off finishers, but that's about it.
My quibbles with Gravity Rush came in part with how easy it is to lose perspective during boss fights, especially ones that happen amongst floating chunks of real estate. But the biggest gripe with the game came at the very last, prompted by a really abrupt ending that makes the experience feel incomplete. Yeah, there's a slot for DLC missions in one of the menus but that doesn't mean you should get something that comes across as half-finished.
Still, I remain smitten by Gravity Rush just because it's so damn beautiful to look at and fun to play. It'd be great as a full-blown PS3 game. Lucky for the Vita, then, that it gets to strut its stuff on the new handheld. It's not structured for bite-size sessions like so many iPhone or Android games. This airy, whimsical experience also manages to be a pretty substantial bite of a sharply realized gameplay, too. Gravity Rush joins an elite list of games that have imprinted themselves onto the backs of my eyelids.
When I close my eyes, I can see Kat streaking through the air aiming a Gravity Kick at a Nevi from 100m away. That sensation provides a great escape from the bounds of more mundane experiences and hopefully points the way towards other robust handheld experiences waiting to show up on Sony's handheld.