The initial enthusiasm over VR is long past and we're starting to get into an era where VR needs to prove itself as a viable form of entertainment. We're no longer content with brief experiences, casual fun, or glorified tech demos. Sure, there are some proper games for VR players to bite into, but there's a hunger and a desire for more. One team that hopes to fill this need is Fast Travel Games, a studio set up in Stockholm's Old Town. Their first game Apex Construct was first shown as part of Sony's Paris Games Week keynote last week, and we recently stopped by their offices for a demo and a chat about what is shaping up to be an interesting game that blends exploration, narrative, and puzzles with rather intense bow and arrow action.
"It's a fun action-adventure where you are the, seemingly at least, last person living on Earth", explains creative director Erik Odeldahl, who served as design director on Mirror's Edge Catalyst prior to setting up Fast Travel Games. "You return to Earth after some major event has more or less removed all human and animal life from the planet. And it's up to you to kind of figure out what the hell has happened here and you end up in a conflict between two powerful AIs that both have plans for you."
One of these powerful AIs is Father (we don't know if the other is called Mother yet, but it would make sense) and you'll soon learn that he's at least in part responsible for bringing you back. As you'd expect he's not terribly forthcoming.
The bow and arrow mechanic feels very natural, so much so in fact that while there are tutorials for other mechanics the developer didn't feel the need for a bow tutorial as it just comes naturally. It's a high-tech bow and comes with some interesting perks and options. First of all, it produces an energy shield if you press the left trigger. This shield is capable of absorbing a few shots from the enemy robots. Unfortunately, you cannot shoot arrows while the shield is up, so you can't cover behind the shield and shoot at the same time. Instead, you'll need to use it tactically together with dodging. Moving your head away from incoming bolts is enough, but if you're playing with room-scale VR you can move around more in order to find advantageous angles and if you immerse yourself you'll soon start to sweat a bit.
We played a demo consisting of the prologue and part of the first proper mission using HTC Vive, and thus got a feel for how the game works in room-scale VR. Clearly, it's an advantage as it allows you more room to dodge whereas in a seated experience you'll need to bob your head (the enemy always aims for your head) or make use of the shield. The game requires motion controllers, so either the SteamVR controllers, Oculus Touch, or PlayStation Move depending on your choice of headset, but it supports room scale, standing, and seated experiences.
Another interesting thing about the bow is that you have a choice of ammunition: normal arrows and electrical ones. There's also a third arrow type that you'll unlock later on. Not only will these have different effects on enemies, but they're also used in solving various puzzles. The puzzles themselves aren't overly complex; you won't be scratching your headset for long in order to figure them out. Judging by the early part of the game you'll be performing variations on similar tasks (locating power nodes and inserting them where needed, finding and using security passes) that gradually grow more complex.
The game is very good at letting the player know through musical cues when combat is to be expected. Compared to non-VR games it may feel a bit heavy-handed, but here it's necessary as it allows the player to relax in between enemy encounters and explore the environments without tension. And there's much to explore in the environments. You'll find notes and doodles in meeting rooms and offices, and you get the sense that something happened very abruptly to this world. It's almost as if everyone was just beamed away from Earth in an instant.
The Fast Travel Games studio houses a dozen or so developers at this point, including the founders, and they sit in a rather cosy attic space in Stockholm's Old Town. It's a bit cramped as the studio continues to add more staff. It's actually located a hundred meters or so from where the game starts in a post-apocalyptic Stockholm.
"It's an area of the world that definitely isn't explored enough in games", says Odeldahl of the setting. "It's an area we're really familiar with and it's also super easy. If we want to have graphical references to how do things look we can just look out the window."
Most of the environmental bits and pieces are in English, but there's a layer of Swedish writing in places that certainly helps ground the game in reality. In many ways, the game mirrors how it is at many of the larger game studios in Stockholm, where English is the main work language, while the local language also exists to a certain extent.
"I don't think you have to be a Swede to enjoy it, but sure Easter eggs for Swedes," says Odeldahl.
You have an apartment, or a hub if you will, where you get to store items and go on missions. Each mission typically takes around 20 minutes to complete, a length that Fast Travel Games feel is right for this sort of game in VR. The full game at release is planned to last for about five hours, but if there's demand they have plenty of ideas to expand things beyond that.
"We want to build a game that feels long enough, good enough, and something that doesn't just end", explains Odeldahl. "A lot of VR experiences even though they are super great are also very short. We're aiming for around a five-hour playtime, that could, however, be longer, of course, if you explore everything and we've hidden tons of secrets in the game and basically we want players to explore. The more they explore, the more they're going to find out about the narrative and the story. Most of the storytelling is actually exploration-driven, so it gets better the more you rummage around here. But it's a five-hour game when we release it and if people like it we have tons of ideas how to add stuff to the game. Both features and maybe missions, stories, etc."
Apex Construct will be released for PSVR first, with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive to follow not far behind, there are also plans for Microsoft's mixed reality devices. No release window has been communicated, but "it won't be super long" according to Odeldahl.
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