Vanishing Grace REVIEW: Compelling VR Narrative with Puzzle elements attached
Vanishing Grace's story elements are the reason to pick it up and play it through. Check out our review of the new VR narrative puzzle game from Monte Perdido Studio.
Repetitive gameplay elements and a surface-level narrative contribute to the feeling that it doesn't exactly deliver on its central premise. Then again, maybe the nuance was just lost on me.
Reviewed by Liam Noble Shearer
'Vanishing Grace' is an example of one of those classic titles. It is so perfect in conception and execution that it almost guarantees the game is going to be fantastic. In those terms, it'd be pretty safe to say that, upon completion two hours after I began, I wasn't ready to commit the game to the annals of VR history. But even though Vanishing Grace isn't perfect, that doesn't mean it's not a really compelling experience.
The title is not just a pun, even if the premise is that you, Joel, are searching for your friend, called Grace, who has vanished. It also encapsulates both the plot and narrative style that defines the experience. The game is set in a post-dystopian desert wasteland, and as you read between the lines to uncover the plot underpinning the whole experience, you start to realise that the game explores not only the remnants of humility in a post-humanity world, but the ugly reality of disintegrating relations.
It may be that I just have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic tales with real heart, but I'd say that, narratively speaking, Vanishing Grace hits the nail on the head. A solar flare has washed over the Earth, killing pretty much everyone and turning our planet's broad set of environments into a sheet of yellow desert. A citizen of a mass city known as 'The Citadel', you are a man named Joel. At the heart of the relationship between Grace and Joel is the Satisfaction/Complacency duality, and as he discovers the story behind Grace's disappearance, he also comes to terms with a few home truths about himself.
But if you're just looking for a good story, you might be better off watching a disaster flick. Vanishing Grace is a puzzle game in the most hardcore sense. The game makes you earn nuggets of story and lore. The learning curve is steep, the game can at times seem directionless, and you'll spend a long time working out how to get from Point A to Point B. I don't mean that in the literal sense, of course. In Vanishing Grace, most of the action takes place inside the confines of Grace's half-home, half-hovercraft. When you do leave, you'll be surprised just how vapid a post-apocalyptic desert can feel.
And this might actually be where Vanishing Grace falls short. The basis of the puzzles is keeping your VW camper hovercraft operational while you fight to get more plot exposition. It's an interesting take on the Narrative Puzzler sub-genre: sometimes the plot is the context for puzzles, sometimes the plot underlines the puzzles, but rarely are the puzzles the thing standing in your way from enjoying the plot in its entirety.
It goes without saying, as you'll already know if you've seen the trailer, that this game is absolutely beautiful. Stylistically, the game follows the popular trend of "New-Retro Nostalgia", Sci-Fi aimed at the generation who has seen vinyl records, cassette tapes, polaroid cameras and VHS but has never had to use them. Using these archaic mechanisms you will have the plot delivered to you subtly, integrated seamlessly into the puzzles you'll also need them to solve. I find this a very effective narrative technique, and in Vanishing Grace it is done extremely well. But to be honest, after three hours, you start yearning for a bit more variety.
Don't get me wrong - the puzzles aren't always a drag. In fact, some of these things aren't even puzzles - rather activities. Your craft will run out of fuel and you'll need to retrieve a material called 'Magnetite' from gaping holes in the desert floor. You'll stand on the ship's front platform with a boomerang and throw them at flying things. At other points it's glorified busywork. But, basically, the whole game plays out a lot like this: story element starts > story element interrupted by malfunction/available upgrade > fix malfunction/complete upgrade/do activity > story starts again. When I say it gets repetitive, this is what I mean.
There are a couple of unique puzzles mixed into the occasional grind though and, fascinatingly, the environment in which you're completing them transforms as you get deeper into the stranger aspects of the story. Like pathetic fallacy, the creepiest moments accompany midnight puzzles, your vehicle begins to malfunction in new and unusual ways as you hear Grace panicking over cassette recordings.
It's the perfect accompaniment to the growing sense of paranoia you'll feel as you uncover the mystery of Grace's disappearance. At the same time, the degradation and strain of Joel's personal relationships begin to weigh on you. But these perfect storm moments sometimes feel few and far between, and often feel more like intangible distractions than narrative variety.
Vanishing Grace will take little more than three hours to finish if you're taking your time, and you won't leave the experience totally satisfied. I'm not saying that is a bad thing in and of itself - "always leave the audience wanting more," after all - but alongside gameplay that can all too often bounce between 'far too simple' and 'I have no idea what to do' it almost seems like the game is letting down the story it is trying to tell.
In fact, I couldn't shake the feeling that if the developers hadn't been distracted by the puzzle elements, they might have focused the narrative conclusion a little more. I won't spoil it, but the ending - in my humble opinion - felt really underwhelming. That being said, the plot's subtly continues to the very end, so maybe the nuance was just lost on me.
After all, this is a Narrative Puzzler. With this experience in particular, you can tell why 'Narrative' should sometimes come first: in genre title and in execution.