The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR looks to do for Supermassive’s anthology horror game series what Rush of Blood did for Until Dawn. Here’s a VR-exclusive roller coaster ride of a rail shooter, that takes plenty of inspiration from Supermassive’s more traditional narrative horror games for fodder to shoot at. But can it be more than a fun little aside?
In some way Switchback VR is pioneering an avenue that more VR games could explore going forward, thanks in large part to the eye-tracking built into every PSVR 2 headset. We’ve seen this used in other launch window games for things like menu selection, foveated rendering, giving gentle hints for what’s interactive in a game world and what isn’t, and Before Your Eyes’ blink tracking.
Switchback VR can pull a similar trick, putting it to far more devious uses. In a literal blink of an eye the scene in front of you can transform, mannequin enemies shifting around, getting closer, moving like it’s a playground game of What’s the time, Mr Wolf? to get closer to you… and then suddenly being right there and slashing away at you in your roller coaster car. It’s every bit the Doctor Who homage it sounds like but played in a slightly more campy, pantomime kind of way.
Then there’s the bonafide eye-tracking, as broken mannequins move slowly toward you whenever you’re not directly looking at them to fix them in place. It’s a smidgeon creepier to see things moving in your periphery?
It’s all a fascinating avenue for VR to keep exploring, adding even more potential nuance to how games can be scripted around what you’re looking at. Given how easy it can be to just be looking in the wrong direction, they could start by ensuring that you don’t miss out on the big flashy explosion that someone spent hours upon hours putting together.
The eye tracking is likely to be Switchback VR’s biggest trick, but it’s there to augment a fun and twisty roller coaster shooter. The game will take you through ten levels inspired by the first four games in the Dark Pictures anthology series, so it could be the haunted ship from Man of Medan in one level or a spooky hotel from The Devil in Me in another. Each level is around 15-20 minutes long per Supermassive, and from the two we got to play early, they’ve done a great job of keeping things fresh, going from fast to slow, from peaks of action to valleys of building tension. They throw in more standard ideas like ducking and weaving around objects, and leaning on classic rollercoaster suspense building as well, as it might ratchet you up a slope and then throw you at speed down an incline on the other side.
Outside of occasionally being able to spot and shoot arrows to switch tracks – each level has at least one split path that will add a little replay value – your movement through the levels is completely out of your control, but where you are truly empowered is with having a gun in each hand… most of the time. Now, I don’t know about you, but having a gun in each hand does take a lot of the scare factor out of a game, not to mention having infinite ammo for the standard pistols.
So, Switchback will whip the guns away from you at various points, leaving you helpless and without guns to face a scare or two with just a pair of floating hands (though you can always make finger guns using the Sense controller finger detection). But when it’s time for enemies to start coming at you again? Well, you’ll have those guns back in hand and be able to fight back. You can even punch enemies if they get too close.
When you’re cruising through the stages, you’re always on the look out for the marked objects that give you bonus points for the high score leaderboards, but every destructible object gives you points toward this, so you’re constantly blasting and then either tapping a button or shaking your hand quickly to reload. I kind of wish there was a more involved reloading option, but can absolutely appreciate Supermassive wanting to keep this light and accessible.
The only time I really tried to stop and think a little was when you’re given a special weapon – uzis, shotguns, revolvers, and that kind of thing. These have limited ammunition, so you’ll want to try and be a touch more accurate with them and reload only when the clip runs dry. In classic horror game style, you’ll know that something bad is coming at you if the game gives you these special weapons!
There’s a somewhat campy tone in places. One fight with a boss saw her going in and out of doorways like a Scooby Doo villain, all the while using telekinesis to bombard me with barrels and crates that I had to shoot down. Then there’s just some of the enemy design, such as the aforementioned mannequins who will stiffly flail at you when they manage to get close enough.
What I’m trying to say is that Switchback VR might be horror themed, but I was laughing and looking forward to the next thing that Supermassive would throw my way, rather than cowering in my seat. I was just having a lot of fun – aside from the high-G loop-the-loops that’s exactly what you’d want from a real world roller coaster, and it’s what you’ll get here.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR is out later this week on Thursday 16th March exclusively on PSVR 2.