It’s hard not to feel sorry for Vita. Sony’s pint-sized powerhouse has so much going for it but, be it due to a nation’s worth of moth-filled wallets or the rise of mobile gaming, nobody seems to be biting. It doesn’t help that the App Store has changed the public perception of what portable gaming can and should be – between freemium diversions and great games that cost no more than a bag of crisps, paying full price for a handheld game has become an almost outrageous notion. But that simply shouldn’t be the case. Vita’s main selling point – and perhaps also the reason it hasn’t taken off – is that it offers console-quality experiences on the move. Sometimes it’ll fall shy, sure, and on those occasions we wouldn’t dare deny anyone the opportunity to bitch about pricing. But when it delivers and you’re left ogling that awesome screen, only the most ardent of cynics could be left feeling short-changed.
Oozing style, class and finesse like the hardware itself, Gravity Rush is the perfect poster game for Vita. Right from the clever opening sequence, it’s clear that this is something really quite special, something that not only wouldn’t be possible on any other mobile platform (at least to this standard) but also gives the majority of big-budget console titles a run for their money. If anything, it’s a glorious feat of validation for all those that champion originality over everything else. It might not be the most technically adept game you’ll ever play, but Gravity Rush’s core concept is strong enough to gloss over all bar the most frustrating mishaps.
The concept in question is that leading lady Kat can somehow bend gravity to her whim, which may sound baffling but it’s as simple as tapping the Right Trigger once to start levitating and a second time (once you’ve lined up a target with either the right stick or the accelerometer) to define the new down. As such, what looks a lot like awkward flight is actually just controlled falling, but fortunately Kat is impervious to fall damage no matter the distance. Despite handy features like how Kat’s hair and scarf will always point out the ‘real’ down and how there’s a button dedicated to calling time on her powers to let physics take over, it’s tough on the brain to begin with. But within a couple of hours, clumsy tumbles should have evolved into pinpoint multi-part flights, and it offers remarkable depth for such a simple mobility mechanic.
Considerably shallower, especially in contrast, is the combat. It’s largely a one-button affair that feels not entirely unlike El Shaddai in its rhythm and flow, but while Kat’s default array of kicks can also be used in tandem with the gravity shifting mechanic, to say that it’s not exactly the happiest of marriages would be quite the understatement – you can hear the arguments from the other end of the street.
The problem isn’t so much that Kat’s soaring dive kicks – which gain power with distance – don’t work, because at times they do and, even with a degree of auto-tracking evident, they can still be hugely satisfying to land. The problem lies with the enemies; pretty much every one of them seems purpose-built to shut down this attack avenue. Some pull off cheeky last-minute dodges to send Kat soaring wide of her mark, others spam piddly projectiles to stop her in her tracks on all bar the shortest of dives, and later foes are ruder still, hiding away their weak points to more or less cripple the dive kick as a viable option. It could have been an awesome risk/reward mechanic, though the fact that most of the more powerful special moves unlocked as the game goes on are potent homing attacks is really quite telling.
Such issues can prove either more or less troublesome depending on how you see fit to level-up Kat’s powers, mind. As in all good superhero games, there are a bunch of different abilities and traits into which to invest the gems you find littered about the stunning steampunk world, though a clever twist sees each of these capped based on Kat’s confidence. As well as preventing builds that pour everything into one skill, this makes it easier to develop the skills you find yourself, and means you needn’t worry about investing too heavily in great-looking talents that turn out to be worthless. Collectibles in open-world games often exist for no other reason than to be gathered up and artificially puff out completion times for the sake of a press release bullet point. Here, though, every adventurous tumble towards something shiny is rewarded with a noticeable improvement – be it improved hang time, more powerful strikes or an enhanced special attack – and this just makes exploring the gorgeous architecture all the more enjoyable.
And ultimately, that’s what Gravity Rush is all about. Sony’s latest is a quirky and surprisingly modest superhero origin story, the player learning about and mastering Kat’s powers along with her, so it’s only right that those powers should take the headline slot on the bill. There are nuggets of backstory littered about the place for those that want to delve deeper into the fiction, while those that just want to get on with things can instead try their hand at a fairly predictable array of races, challenges and arena battles between core missions. That none of these extra-curricular activities can stack up to the base thrill of simply lobbing Kat into the abyss and seeing where she might end up a few gravity shifts down the line is no slight on the optional stuff on offer, though – it’s simply testament to the captivating power of so novel a central mechanic.