SCE Japan Studio is straight killing it. Sony’s internal development house puts out some seriously good stuff, and its latest — Gravity Rush, developed in collaboration with Project Siren — is one of the few must-have games in the PlayStation Vita’s rapidly growing software library. Savvy importers already know all about this one, a February, 2012 release in Japan, but folks in other parts of the world get their first taste of the anime-style magic this week with the game’s June 12 release.
Describing what Gravity Rush is hardly does any justice to the act of playing it, but let’s get some baseline facts out of the way. Best described as an action-platformer with light RPG elements, the game follows a young woman named Kat in her adventures through the fictional floating steampunk city of Hekseville. Kat wakes up at the start of the game with no memory of who she is or what she’s about, but she quickly discovers that the eerily intelligent black cat that follows her around gives her power over gravity. This, in turn, leads to one of the core gameplay conceits that makes Gravity Rush such a joy to play.
At any point you can tap the right trigger to untether Kat from the ground and set her floating free. You then use the right analog stick to aim a set of crosshairs at your destination and tap the trigger again to launch Kat in whichever direction you’ve selected. You can tap the trigger again to stop her in mid-flight and re-orient your aim however you wish. The only limit on your ability to redirect gravity is a slowly draining meter than you can actually boost the effectiveness of as you improve Kat’s abilities. Whichever surface you launch Kat at, the place that she lands automatically orients itself as the “ground,” at least until the meter is completely drained and gravity resets itself.
It takes a bit of getting used to and it frankly sounds a whole lot more complicated in the above description than it actually is, but getting the hang of the feature is the make-or-break moment for Gravity Rush. Once you get a handle on the unique traversal mechanics, the open world of Hekseville becomes an absolute joy to explore. There are purple gems hidden all around each of the game’s neighborhoods, a resource that serves as currency for buying your assorted ability upgrades. It becomes incredibly addictive, exploring each new neighborhood from top to bottom as you unlock them. You’ll also explore to find and unlock a range of challenge missions that can net you even more gems. The simple controls are further bolstered by well-implemented visual aids; when gravity gets twisted to the point that you lose your bearings, you can always look at how Kat’s hair is hanging to remind yourself of where Down is.
These unique traversal abilities extend to the game’s combat as well. Kat can do some basic kicking on the ground, but it’s much more effective (and fun) to pummel your Nevi enemies — shapeless blobs of black and red that are tied in some way to the larger issues in Hekseville — into goo using your Gravity Kick ability. Once you’ve got Kat free-floating, simply line up your target and press the Square button to launch an attack; the more distance separating you from your target, the more damage you’ll do. There’s never really any more depth than that other than a few super moves that unlock later on (good against bosses) and a dodge feature that requires you to swipe the screen to avoid taking damage. It never feels shallow or repetitive, however. Likely because the act of launching these Gravity Kicks is so much fun.
The experience sputters a bit with Gravity Slide, a touch-triggered maneuver that essentially turns Kat into a human bobsled. You touch and hold two fingers against the bottom left and right corners of the screen, tilting your Vita left and right to steer. The touch part works, but the steering feels all together wonky. Fortunately, there are very few forced Gravity Slide moments in the game, and you can safely get through a lot of those sections simply by running and manually re-orienting the gravity around you.
Bosses are also fairly tame, offering a bit of a stepped up challenge compared to the game’s fodder enemies but not enough to really stand out as anything particularly memorable. Much better are the environments you travel to in order to take on most of these bosses. The so-called “rift plains” represent parts of Hekseville that disappeared into a reality-twisting realm; you’ll visit these locations each time you’re tasked with restoring a missing part of the city. Unlike the open portions of the city, these chunks of game are sprawling-yet-largely linear levels that deliver completely twisted environments for you to try out your powers in.
Wrapping around everything is an anime-style story with a look and feel that wears its Hayao Miyazaki inspiration proudly. It’s a light-hearted yarn that, despite some serious undertones, never really falls into the trap of being too full of itself. The presentation is also quite lovely, particularly the series of expository cutscenes that all play out like swipe-based motion comics.
There is literally nothing to complain about here. Some of the mechanics hit harder than others, but overall SCE Japan Studio did a magnificent job of helping Project Siren realize this unique vision on the PlayStation Vita. Just like Mutant Blobs Attack, you don’t have any right to sit and complain about the dearth of quality content on the Vita if you don’t first put some time in with Gravity Rush. It’s that good, and a definite recommended purchase for anyone who owns a Vita.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)