New PlayStation app for the musically inclined
PICKING UP PLAYSTATION VR today? You may find that some of its best launch experiences are musical.
Maybe it's all a harmonious coincidence, but there are quite a few games for Sony's PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset that revolve around the mixing of music and all-encompassing visuals. And they truly run the gamut of gameplay experiences, whether you're looking for a totally non-interactive chill-out experience, a brutally difficult rhythm-matching challenge, or something in between those extremes.
Riding that middle lane is Rez Infinite, which is also probably the best of the three. Originally released on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, Rez embodied that turn-of-the-century aesthetic with funky graphics that designed their way around the low-poly limitations of the time, and a musical gameplay style that was in vogue in those days (in this case, "paint" enemies with your cursor, then release to fire attacks on the beat). It's more of a musical take on Space Invaders than a rhythm-matching game.
The PlayStation VR version presents that original experience, as well as a new level called "Area X," in a third-person VR mode— the game looks just like you're playing the original, except your television has grown to giant size and swallowed you. And it's just as challenging as the original, too, seeing as the Area 2 boss is still a giant pain in the ass that I can't seem to beat.
If you have no idea what I am talking about because you can beat Rez with your eyes closed, you may want to kick things up several notches with Thumper, a music game that goes all out to make you think you're riding a groove straight into the mouth of Hell. Like Guitar Hero, you're traveling down a "note highway" and pressing buttons to various musical prompts: Press X on the beat to hit notes, hold the joystick up to dodge spikes, hold left and right to take turns.
Eventually, you've got to string together sequences of notes and moves without missing beats in order to defeat massive boss monsters. On your TV screen, these are impressive enough in their freakish design. In virtual reality, they seem to tower stories above your head, throwing off your focus if you get too distracted by their insane grimaces (but making it all the sweeter when you take them down).
Like Thumper, Rez Infinite is also fully playable outside of VR. It's a bit counter-intuitive, then, that they should work so well in virtual reality. So far in my experience, standard television videogames that have had VR display modes hacked into them are not nearly as enjoyable as games that were designed from the ground up for VR.
So why should these two be any different? For one, I think it's because they were already designed in a way that makes a lot of sense in VR. Both games have you traveling in a straight line, without additional player input, down some form of road or tunnel. You don't need to navigate, you just look around. And you don't even really need to do that, either, since you're generally always looking at the things you need to interact with anyway.
Another reason that I think is compelling was articulated by a friend of mine about two minutes after he put on the VR headset and started playing Thumper: You need a lot of focus, he pointed out, to play rhythm games, and VR helps you focus by cutting out the real world almost entirely. These games trade on synesthesia, the blending of senses—seeing sounds, hearing colors. The all-encompassing nature of VR helps this along, I think.
On that note, there's Harmonix Music VR, a suite of different music visualizer apps created by the team behind Rock Band. Load up a thumb drive with your favorite music, pop it into the PS4, and you can experience your tunes in VR in a few different ways, some of which are more interactive than others.
The first of these, "The Beach," puts you into a scenic seaside scenario, which you'll notice seems to be gently pulsating along with the rhythm of your tracks. If you gaze at different elements of the scene—a lantern, a boat, the sun—you'll see a new, stronger music visualization scene. The sun will pulse with rhythm, the lanterns will dance and spark, et cetera.
"The Easel" is a 3-D drawing app. Much like Tiltbrush on the HTC Vive, you'll use motion controllers to paint in the air, building 3-D creations that you seem to occupy the same space as. The difference here is that the lines you draw all pulse along with the music—remember, you're still listening to a track or a playlist as you do this.
But I was surprised to find that the bit I enjoyed the most was the simple "The Trip." Harmonix says it's like being "inside a kaleidoscope." Depending on how many psychedelic substances you may have tried in your life, you may find a different descriptive metaphor. This, too, is like traveling through a tunnel, but one that morphs, changes, rotates, and pulsates along with the track you're playing.
Quite frankly, after that Area 2 boss in Rez and, um, every second of Thumper, it was nice to play a sit-back experience in VR versus a lean-forward one. Sitting back, staring into the tunnel and letting The Trip's visuals wash over me was more fun than I expected, and actually quite relaxing. When there's an abrupt and beautiful change in scenery that perfectly matches a change in the tempo or tone of the music, it can be, if just for a second, quite a breathtaking experience.
Are VR and music going to be intertwined from here on out? I'm not sure if this is a pattern that's going to hold up over the life of PlayStation VR, but given the quality of these early attempts, I feel like many early adopters will end up spending most of 2016 rocking out.