I’m not exactly sure why a developer best known for quiet, choice-filled games that border on interactive movies is so interested in turning them into arcade-style rail shooters, but Supermassive Games is taking another crack at exactly that – this time with the help of the new PlayStation VR2 headset. The Dark Pictures VR is less focused on storytelling than it was in Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. Instead, the focus is on action with mixed results. While it’s fun to blast through ghouls and bats in my path, this spinoff is plagued by many of the same issues as its predecessor, including a disappointingly short runtime.
Switchback VR’s story feels like an afterthought, putting you in the role of an unnamed protagonist on a hellish rollercoaster ride across ten different stages. Most are locations featured in the first season of The Dark Pictures Anthology, but you’re never really told much about why the protagonist is visiting them or any of the few supporting characters they meet. That’s partially because Switchback VR is very short, only taking me about four hours to complete, but it’s disappointing all the same, given how good of a job Supermassive usually does providing backstory and depth to its characters.
Switchback VR makes up the majority of its story with its gameplay. The action is on-rails, which limits the range of possibilities. However, you can move your head in VR to see in any direction. It was great fun to quickly change my position whenever I heard the eerie screams of enemies or if falling beams or leaning columns were coming at me. It is important to be aware of the situation as enemies can sometimes sneakily appear to your left or right.
You will always have two guns to fend off enemies, each independently controlled with the PS VR2’s Sense controllers. You can start each level with the default pistols but you can also grab ammo-limited options like a revolver and a machine gun by shooting the red crates found in sections of each stage. It’s annoying that these special weapons are locked into the hand you initially shot the crate with, but you can still have some fun switching up your strategy for a bit when you find them. A machine gun could be used to quickly remove enemies from your cart, and to save ammo by firing at enemies further away. Other weapons like a flare gun are required to solve certain puzzles and progress further – they do not require a lot of thought to solve, as you just need to shoot at certain objects to keep the track moving forward, but it is a nice change of pace from just shooting hordes of enemies.
Because there are so few buttons, the shooting mechanics have been simplified for VR. Reloading and firing can be done with two buttons on each Sense controller. That’s not a bad thing as on-rail shooters focus more on throwing as many enemies at you as possible in a short period of time than nuanced gunplay. Switchback VR is responsive, and the motion-controlled aim makes headshots very rewarding.
The heads you’ll be popping vary depending on the stage you’re on, ranging from standard zombies to flying vampires. Many of these enemies will look familiar to anyone who has played the first season or later of The Dark Pictures Anthology. Each episode is a faithful recreation for the monsters in those games. Your score for each level will be increased by killing enemies and destroying inanimate items such as empty crates, skulls, and bottles. This is a good incentive to deal with as much damage possible. There are even local and online leaderboards for you to compare scores with other players, but it feels like a shallow exercise when they don’t measure important factors like accuracy.
Switchback VR nails the creepy atmosphere and tension of each stage – from the dark and abandoned World War 2 freighter seen in Man of Medan to the sandy underground ruins of the ancient empire featured in House of Ashes. The problem is that cheap jump scares often overshadow any building suspense provided at a given location. While the first two enjoyably caught me by surprise, it doesn’t take long for them to become more annoying than alarming.
Although the jumpscares didn’t keep me on edge, the sections of Switchback VR that used the PS VR2 for eye-tracking were truly frightening. These areas feature enemies that come closer and closer each time you blink. This is a unique experience in any game, and it left me longing for more. This is a shame because only a few seconds of Switchback VR use this concept. However, the parts that do make use of it are a wonderful showcase of the potential for this new tech in future horror titles made for the headset.
Although Supermassive has done a good job of including some of the PS VR2’s new technology, Switchback VR still feels a bit technologically unpolished in a few places. While playing, I noticed some performance issues. Some background textures like tree branches would randomly appear when the cart moved closer to them. There were also three instances when the screen would freeze for a few second. These issues were relatively minor and didn’t totally throw my ride off the rails, but they were still noticeable and annoying on such a brief trip.
Switchback VR is short in length but offers replayability. You can take different routes to change up each run. You can change the course of your cart by shooting at certain gates. This allows you to make some interesting decisions and blends into the action. The end of each stage shows you a full view of your route, as well as a hint of alternate routes. This encourages me to return in and explore what I missed. That said, the little bit of variety those routes offer isn’t very memorable when you can still see everything Switchback VR has to offer in two or three playthroughs.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR Screenshots
Some stages allow you to change your route as well as giving you the ability to save, kill, and abandon survivors. Each survivor has an optional puzzle that allows you to choose how long it takes to reach objects in a particular order. The majority of these decisions, however, have minimal or no impact on overall story.
Boss fights can also be found at the end of certain stages. However, their execution is poor. These battles pit you with antagonists from their Dark Pictures entries. This includes the last form of the Sailor Girl, Man of Medan. Her boss fight consists of her leaping and firing projectiles at the player. The boss fights are usually boring and mundane, more like a tedious task to keep you from getting to the end of the stage than an exciting obstacle to overcome.
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