I am a VR evangelist, and today’s demo at EGLX 2016 in Toronto just gave me another reason to love the technology.
In the VR demo room, there were a few virtual reality setups to try out, but I only had time for one. I didn’t pick the immersive-looking shooter with the HTC Vive or the intriguing flying game that barely began development two months ago. No, I chose Mervils.
Mervils is a 3D action platformer from developer MushroomBallVR that takes much inspiration from games like Super Mario 64. The game immediately caught my attention, not just because it will be released for PlayStation VR as well as Oculus, but because it looked simple, vibrant, positive, happy, and cartoon-y. It was just the game I needed to test out the Oculus headset for the first time.
Before jumping into the game, I picked the brain of one of the developers standing by the booth. He said that Mervils was far along and going to be sent in for approval in the coming days. With that, he said that Mervils would be easy to port over for the PlayStation 4–hopefully it makes it as a launch title.
After asking about the launch details, I wanted to learn more about the concept of the game, so I asked the developer to expand on the game’s goal. The response he gave was a description that couldn’t be closer to an open-space Mario game–and that’s not a bad thing. You play as a little avatar character, in a world that looks like something from The Hobbit, in search of pages to bind a magical book that will give you the power to defeat the mighty villain, Balazar. The missions are grouped into five different worlds. And guess what? You access levels by walking into portals overlayed with representative image, a la Mario 64‘s paintings.
The backstory for this kind of game doesn’t need to be complex. Virtual reality is all about the experience, and there is no shame in having the basis of the game be driven by a Mario-like structure. The implementation of the new technology is what is important, and Mervils certainly delivered. When I put on the Oculus, I was impressed with how comfortable it was. After a few adjustments to make the device snug, I was on my way to a fantasy far, far away from the rowdy crowds of EGLX 2016.
One thing I want to note before going any further is that the quality of the image produced by the headset seemed off; it wasn’t that I was wearing it incorrectly–in fact I adjusted it a few times to make sure–but that the resolution was poor. I got what some people call the screen-door effect, which basically means that the game looked like it was being filtered through a screen door. But rest assured! The developer did tell me that the headset was an outdated model from his kit and that the retail model includes a much higher resolution–hopefully that will make things right.
After doing my best to ignore the filter, I immediately felt comfortably a part of the world in Mervils. It really reminded me of the wonder of Nintendo games I grew up playing, and being completely immersed in virtual reality meant that nothing would break that focus. Unlike other VR games that try to make you feel like you are the character, Mervils takes a different approach by making you view the game in third-person.
While playing the demo, I recalled the developer explaining to me that a third-person view doesn’t break that feeling that you are in the game. He was right. I didn’t need to be the character–just having a view of the world from above and behind the avatar was plenty enough for me. You still pervade the virtual world that exists around the character, so I didn’t feel disconnected from my character or the world. In fact it felt rather satisfying to be able to manipulate my avatar from above.
While it is not something I can accurately explain without having you try the demo, the best explanation I can offer is that you feel as if you’re playing a board game and watching your marker (the avatar) traverse a space. I felt like a child building legos or driving cars into each other atop a table. In fact, as I played, I had this inescapable urge to put my hands underneath the game world (what I thought to be set atop a table) and carry it around.
That childlike behavior that the game encouraged made for a wonderful experience of escapism. And more than that, the mechanics just worked. One of the challenges many developers discuss when it comes to VR is how to approach movement so that the player doesn’t feel nauseous. I’ll admit that I did feel somewhat different, but it wasn’t nausea.
Mervils lets you make your character run freely around the open space, unlike other games that use teleportation systems to get you from place to place with the hopes that discomfort due to movement will be limited. The movement felt fine to me, and I appreciated the way the game allowed you to manipulate the camera left and right in an incremental manner–this reduced the potential disorienting feeling that smooth camera control might present. You can twist your head from side to side in order to get a panoramic view of the area ahead, but when you want to quickly see what is all the way behind your character, you just use the right control stick as you would in a traditional 3D game, except this time the camera would rotate in incremental jumps around you.
Some areas of the game even switch into first-person where appropriate. For example, when reading text, you just press a button and your character zooms in on what is scrawled on a wooden signpost. Another way first-person viewing was used in Mervils was when aiming a ballista. I really liked this one. After entering first-person view, your head becomes the reticle of the weapon. Although I was absolutely awful at it, it felt good to shoot down enemy birds with a twist of my neck. I hope to see mechanics like this cautiously used in other games-say, when marking enemies or peering through the scope of a sniper.
When I was done shooting–rather, missing–the flying creatures, conversing with some of the townsfolk, and bopping enemy heads, my demo was done. I’m excited to experience what else is in store from the game inspired by classic platformers, and think that it is a great step toward a future that includes VR games that aren’t just simple tech demoes.
For more on Mervils, check out the official site or watch the fly-through video below.