Virtual reality has us conflicted. On the one hand it can be a bold and beautiful thing; a new way to immerse ourselves in the wonderful worlds crafted by the immensely talented developers who've wowed us so many times before with their craft and quality. But that doesn't stop the medium from feeling youthful, even underdeveloped, like a child that's still learning to walk and talk and do things for itself for the first time. And then, on top of that, there's the small problem of nausea and motion sickness, something that affects different people to different degrees.
Robinson: The Journey is the epitome of this divisiveness. It's an elegantly designed game in many respects, and it's probably the best looking PlayStation VR title to date (it's made by Crytek, a studio with an almost unparalleled track record when it comes to crafting beautiful worlds), and on top of luscious environmental design, it boasts some strikingly animated dinosaur-like creatures that really add to the splendour of the occasion.
However, on the other side of the coin, Crytek's VR offering also features a movement system that'll leave many people feeling extremely nauseous. We struggled for the first hour, our stomach twisting violently on more than one occasion, but after the opening hour or so it started to ease and towards the end we had acclimatised to the setup (movement on the left stick, 12-way directional controls on the right, head-tracking to aim the reticle). But beyond the potential pitfalls of locomotion there are a few other issues that impacted the experience.
As we alluded to before, virtual reality is still very much in its infancy, but that hasn't stopped some games from trying to run before they can walk. This manifests itself here in puzzle design that feels very basic yet at times vague, a simplistic story that's told via recordings found in the world but that lacks real impact, and a disappointing absence of meaningful interaction with the dinosaurs you meet along the way. For all of its visual quality and intriguing design, Robinson can still feel outdated and lightweight in some key areas.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Robinson: The Journey, like its literary inspiration (Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719), is based on the events that transpire following a shipwreck. In this case a young boy by the name of Robin is stranded alone on an alien world after the colony ship he was born on crash lands on the surface. The cause of the collision is unknown, and Robin is left alone for months, sending out his distress signal, growing food to sustain himself, raising his pet dinosaur Laika, and chatting to quirky AI companion HIGS.
The story is simple enough, and it involves Robin exploring the world around him and searching out fellow survivors. The whole thing can be completed in around three to four hours (maybe five to six if you take your time, scan every piece of local wildlife, and check out every nook and cranny along the way), so we'll spoil no story here, but we will say that it feels under-cooked and we were a little disappointed that the undeniable potential of the setting wasn't explored further. We were kind of expecting some kind of Planet of the Apes type narrative twist to explain the dinosaurs, but in the end this is just a planet full of Earth-like prehistoric creatures. Despite charging full price for this particular adventure, the short running time and unconvincing ending meant that this felt very much like a prologue to whet our appetite ahead of a main course that never came.
You could excuse the missed opportunities and short-lived story if the rest was up to scratch, but we thought it was a bit hit and miss. There are a couple of nice puzzles in there, but most weren't utilised to their full potential and a lot of the challenges appeared without precedent and therefore felt a little vague and/or confusing. Sometimes puzzles or ideas were recycled to good effect, but for the most part we felt like Crytek missed the chance to flesh out the story with more meaningful challenges, and during the second half of the game they could have reused some of the ideas that they'd successfully introduced nearer the start.
On top of that, certain sections were hugely frustrating. There was one moment that almost ruined the game for us; while climbing (the mechanics associated with this are brilliant, it should be noted) we got to a point where we'd inadvertently gone in the wrong direction. Hanging there, knowing that we couldn't let go without dying, we got extremely frustrated and agitated that we couldn't work out what to do next. At other times we had to use a tool (that looks just like a Move controller, which makes us wonder why there isn't any Move controller support) to shift items around the world, which could at times be fiddly beyond belief.
There was a stealth section that had us cursing, and there were several passages of play that were too vague for their own good. Throw in some visual inconsistencies and a narrative that could have been much more exciting, and overall we were left feeling a little disappointed. We wanted more of what worked (the puzzles where you take control of HIGS and reroute power are decent, you can order your pet dino around at certain points, and the climbing sections were good too), and a bit more story to get our teeth stuck into, but we simply didn't get it.
It's not a total write-off by any means. There's plenty of atmosphere, the voice acting is decent (although the script is a bit clunky in places) and some of the puzzle sections have merit. Still, there's not enough here to justify the premium pricing, and we can't help but think that there was more planned and things got scaled back along the way. Ultimately, Robinson: The Journey fails to build on its positive elements, and has a few too many rough edges to ignore.
Largely because of the setting we were excited about Crytek's PSVR debut before it crash landed on our PS4, but now that the dust has settled and the credits have rolled, we rather think that this was something we endured rather than enjoyed. This could (and perhaps should) have been the killer app that PlayStation VR wants and needs, but when it's all said and done this isn't much more than a missed opportunity that only hints at what it could have been.