Posted on May 24, 2012 AT 11:34am
The fall—and rise—of the Gravity Kitten
Ever since I was a child, I’ve had one particular dream that’s played out over and over again: my ability to fly. Each time, the pieces are different—different settings, different people, different sources of motivation—but the core component’s always the same: I know I have the ability to fly, I’ve just forgotten how to. At some point, that memory comes back to me, and moments later, I’m jetting myself through the sky to some new destination. At times, these dreams can be so utterly overwhelming and powerful that it’s hard for my subconscious self not to swear that I’ve always been meant to have that power of flight. For a brief sliver of time, my body’s as light as air—my battle over the forces of gravity won.
When first starting up Gravity Rush, we know that spunky, blonde protagonist Kat has the ability to fly—she’s just forgotten how as well. Her crash course in controlling such talents comes suddenly, when she’s faced with either awakening to her powers or watching helplessly as a child’s carried off by a fierce gravity storm. The game teaches us how to control Kat’s powers one step at a time, but even these introductory lessons can be intimidating. Videogames typically have rules—rules that comfort us. Up is up, and down is down; we jump to get higher, and we fall to go lower. Gravity Rush breaks those rules, in a way that I’ve never seen (or felt) before in a videogame.
In thinking about what makes us enjoy games, it all comes down to connections. The game has to connect with us on some sort of level: physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. For Gravity Rush, that connection’s crafted through Kat’s ability to control gravity—and, through that, her ability to fly. For me, it instantly speaks to those powerful feelings I’ve felt from my dreams; for others, it’ll be the natural curiosity of having such a skill, or maybe that desire to feel like a superhero.
No matter the source of such connections being made, Gravity Rush accomplishes this by having the single most impressive flight mechanic I’ve ever seen in a game. I honestly cannot remember another project in any generation where I’ve felt such power and emotional from watching (and controlling) a character as they flew through the air—nor am I sure I can explain in written word the full extent of the awe and emotion I experience when actually playing the game.
Kat will be standing there in the middle of a sun-lit plaza somewhere in Hekseville—Gravity Rush’s floating-town setting—as children run around playing and adults go about their daily lives. You tilt the camera so that she’s looking up, and you press the right shoulder button. Suddenly, Kat’s body is literally flung in the air. The camera shakes, the wind howls around you, and you watch as buildings give way to wide open skies as she rockets higher and higher into the clouds. And then, her power over gravity gives way as the meter expressing the limit of those powers drains to zero. Kat falls—faster and faster, her body twisting and turning, the city she was just floating above now shrinking above her as she plummets to the unknown abyss below. The fear we all hold inside of ourselves kicks in; you know it’s just a game, but as you’re watching Kat helplessly plunge to certain doom, you can’t help but feel a genuine sense of nervousness and unease.
Then, the sound of her gravity meter refilling to full dings in your ear—and, just as quickly as she was descending, she’s ascending once again. You come to realize something you didn’t expect: Flying isn’t where we feel the most powerful—it’s when we’re falling. In most games, that would be the fall we’d witness before being presented with a “game over” screen. Here, we know we’ll be OK—because we understand that power we wield in this world. Gravity Rush is just that: empowering. Amidst so many games that make us feel like a pawn forced to raise arms against gods, here we are the god
That’s not to say that you’ll be playing Gravity Rush without any sense of danger or challenge—there’s plenty of that. It’s just that, even as the game continues on and you help Kat unlock new attacks or power up the ones she already knows, there’s just such a satisfaction to how the game plays and what options Kat’s mystical abilities afford her. As technically, stylistically, and emotionally impressive as Gravity Rush’s flying elements are, none of that would matter if the game didn’t offer control to back it up. Thankfully, that, too, is in place. At first, controlling Kat can be a little tricky—but, then again, so is any game where one minute you could be standing on the ground, and the next you’re running upside-down along the bottom of a bridge. Soon, the controls become second nature, and it won’t be any struggle to send Kat whipping through obstacles or dogfighting with winged Nevi (the game’s trademark monsters) in intense mid-air battles. Again, it goes back to that word—empowering.
I’m not sure if director Keiichiro Toyama’s goal was to create a game that allowed players to feel so powerful and so free, or if he just wanted to make a game that was cool because you could fly. If his goal was the former, he’s certainly succeeded.
Much of what makes Gravity Rush so brilliant lies in those elements, but such ideas would be nothing if the rest of the game weren’t of equal quality. Thankfully, this isn’t a great gimmick wrapped up in a mediocre game. From start to finish, Gravity Rush exudes class and charm in everything it does. Kat will grow on you before the game’s barely kicked off, and the world she inhabits is filled with people, places, and personalities that are all equally appealing. Exploring every nook and cranny of Hekseville and its adjoining areas doesn’t come because you’re always forced to—it’ll come because you want to see every back alley or every shadowy underside of a city section that the creators have conjured up.
And, my goodness, will the world look stunningly beautiful as you do! Gravity Rush was originally conceived as a PlayStation 3 game, until Sony decided to move it to the Vita to give their new handheld another purchasing option to catch customers’ eyes. Without question, the game’s no worse off visually from this move—every place you visit and every new area you see will be stylish, creative, and downright amazing to behold. Even something as simple as looking off in the distance will provide examples of the graphical touches that went into the game. Buildings don’t just fade out or blend into the background when farther away—they become solid colors, strong lines, almost as if sketches used for the backgrounds of comic-book panels. In fact, Toyama referenced French comic artist Mœbius (Arzach) as one of his inspirations for the look of Gravity Rush, and that shows via the in-game graphics and the comic-style storyline breaks. Mention must also go out to the soundtrack that accompanies Kat’s adventures—it’s beautifully produced, fits the fantastical setting, and serves as yet another strong pillar in the foundations upon which Gravity Rush is built.
Gravity Rush has a few nagging issues, and if a hypothetical sequel changed very little about the experience, I would probably be disappointed that the concept wasn’t successfully refined. For example, Hekseville is big, beautiful, and full of life, but it can, at times, feel emptier than expected. It actually reminds me of Toyama’s first project—the original Silent Hill—and its own world. The town of Silent Hill was detailed and decorated, with plenty of places to go exploring, but your reward was often little more than the experience of seeing something new. I hate to say that I want more “fetch quests” in Gravity Rush—because, lord almighty, that’s not what I want!—but the game could’ve found more to do with its expansive locations. There’s also a huge amount of potential in the entire gravity aspect, especially given just how polished it feels from a gameplay standpoint.
Yet while I can think of segments I’d love to have seen or expanded upon, I can’t find myself able to look negatively on Gravity Rush due to those feelings. For the small amount of points I could make that could’ve been better, I can provide 10 times as many elements that were better than I expected. Plus, this game isn’t about a simple checklist of points—it’s not a rundown of “good”s or “bad”s with an average tallied at the end. This is one of those games like Journey or Shadow of the Colossus, where what strict pieces of gameplay we could criticize or claim are missing give way to something bigger, something more important. Gravity Rush is a game, yes, but it’s also an experience—and one that boldly stands out from anything I’ve played before it. It’s fresh, it’s novel, it’s exciting, and it’ll grab hold of you and refuse to let go until you’ve seen and done everything it has to offer you.
I have a rule: A gaming system must have three titles you absolutely want to play and own—and they have to be out on store shelves—before you should consider buying it. If I were to allow myself to break that rule, it would be for something like Gravity Rush. This is a game that’ll sell you on needing to own a PlayStation Vita, and it’s the killer app that those who already own one have been waiting for.
SUMMARY: Gravity Rush isn’t just the best game to grace the Vita—it’s also one of the best games I’ve played in some time, no matter the system. In so many ways, it shines with a beauty that so many games can never achieve, and it’s an experience you’ll absolutely not want to miss.
- THE GOOD: Beautiful, enjoyable, original, enthralling, exciting, challenging, and emotional. That’s all, I guess.
- THE BAD: That I now want Gravity Rush’s flying mechanic to be in a bunch of other games.
- THE UGLY: Every other Vita game’s visual design after playing Gravity Rush.
Gravity Rush is a PlayStation Vita exclusive.
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