Heart of the Emberstone - Equal parts frustrating and brilliant
The Gallery: Episode 2 - Heart of the Emberstone released way back on October 18th, and yet, here we are in early November, and we still don't have a review for the game. What the heck is going on? Well, I can tell you that we try our best to get a really good feel for a game, before putting out a mini-review with a rating score. Getting a good feel for Heart of the Emberstone has proven to be a difficult task. Normally, we'll get a game, spend a few days with it, and we'll know all we need to know about a game, to bang out a decent mini-review. With the Gallery 2, this hasn't been the case. Some days I feel like Emberstone is maybe the most impressive VR game I've ever encountered, and then other days it frustrates me to no end, and I almost don't want to return to it.
Certainly, there's lots to like about The Gallery - Episode 2. Cloudhead's follow up to Call of the Starseed bests the original in almost every conceivable way. The graphics are nothing short of spectacular. Set pieces have been designed with care, and you'll often find yourself simply admiring the incredible architecture of this alien world that you're exploring. I don't know how many times, I've strained my neck, looking upwards, noticing all the little touches and details that Cloudhead has lavished on this title. In addition to the jaw-dropping visuals, is the impressive sound design. If we gave out Academy Awards for sound design in VR games, then Emberstone should be one of the first recipients. Every door that opens, every elevator you ride on, every mechanical device you interact with makes extremely realistic noises that sound like they are really happening in the room you're standing in. Many games will claim to have impressive 3D audio, but you'll often get through the experience without really noticing anything special.
Of course, if it was all sunshine and rainbows, I would have had a review a long time ago. Heart of the Emberstone is plagued by many moments of frustration and irritation. First off, you have to deal with long loading screens. Just starting up the game, you'll have to wait for what seems like forever for the game to even begin. Then it throws you into a title sequence, and allows you to walk around for about 5 seconds, before starting up another loading sequence. I've heard that the loading times are greatly reduced if you have an SSD, instead of a standard hard drive. Still, these long loads can really kill your enthusiasm to play the game. Especially if you're enduring the loading screens with your headset on. I learned pretty quickly, to keep my headset off, during most of the loads, because otherwise it makes it that much worse. Time moves extremely slowly when you're in a sensory deprivation chamber.
If the loading screens were the only problem, I'm not sure it would be that big of a deal. I've dealt with painful loading scenarios in many other VR games. However, Emberstone has additional issues. Performance starts off great, even for those of us with less beefy gaming PC's, but at a certain point, performance could start to tank, and you'll notice some hitching and frame drops. This is especially troubling when you're in the middle of an interesting story sequence. The game can start to bog down, and you'll see the Steam loading screens instead of the actual game. This doesn't last very long mind you, but it has a nasty habit of interrupting key cinematic moments.
Another key irritant, is the fact that you'll end up in many situations in which you have no idea how you're supposed to proceed. The Gallery 2 is a puzzle game, so this type of gameplay loop is certainly expected. Nevertheless, when you bang your head on a puzzle repeatedly, and can't seem to find the answer, the easy way out, is to shut the game down and try some other game instead. Part of the reason it's taken me so long to get through this game, is that I keep running into roadblocks that seem nigh impossible. Of course, once I finally figure out the solution, I feel like a complete idiot for not recognizing the answer to the riddle. It's a hard balance for a developer like Cloudhead to deal with. You make the puzzles way too easy, and everybody says it's a game for babies. You make the puzzles too hard, and players end up so frustrated that they leave your game for greener pastures.
Backtracking, is another common complaint that you'll no doubt hear mentioned in any discussion of The Gallery 2. You spend the majority of the game traveling back and forth between 3 or 4 major areas. This wouldn't be so horrible, if you didn't have to endure lengthy loading screens each time you needed to switch locations. Another frustration is how it can be somewhat arbitrary, whether or not you're in the right location. If you quit out of the game entirely, and then reload the game up, there is usually some voice over from your sister explaining what your next mission is, and where you should be going. It would be nice to access this helpful tip, without having to completely close out the game and restart.
After such a long laundry list of complaints, you'd probably think that Heart of the Emberstone is a game that you might be wise to avoid. However, you couldn't be further from the truth. When everything is firing on all cylinders, Emberstone is quite literally one of the most powerful VR productions you're likely to experience this entire year. In fact, if it didn't have any of the irritations and frustrations that I've already mentioned, we might be looking at the single best VR game in existence. The good stuff is just that good! For brief moments of time, I felt like Indiana Jones, exploring the ruins of some ancient civilization. Cloudhead uses holograms of past events, to reveal the underlying narrative. It's a very effective way to tell the story, without having to resort to cinema sequences that take you out of the game. Everything comes together quite wonderfully at times, and you'll think to yourself... "Wow, this might be the best VR game I've ever played". Of course, eventually some loading screen or complicated puzzle will snap you back to reality, but either way, we're left with a very impactful demonstration of what virtual reality is capable of.