You’d be forgiven for thinking that, in order to create the fabled ‘sense of presence’ in virtual reality (VR), players need complete freedom of movement. You’d also be forgiven, then, for being somewhat sceptical of Crystal Rift when you first put on the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD) to play it. This first-person dungeon crawler from indie developer Jon Hibbins (now joined by Nick ‘Red of Paw’ Pittom), restricts players to moving one square at a time on a grid. But instead of falling at the first hurdle, something odd happens as you take your first steps inside the title’s dank caverns; you feel strangely comfortable.
It’s a side effect that Hibbins himself has admitted he wasn’t sure would fit. But as players adjust to Crystal Rift’s slower, methodical pace, they find themselves acclimatising to VR with greater ease. It’s not an immediate assault on the senses that some other developers are striving for, rather a fitting introductory experience to VR in its current form.
Once players are accustomed to Crystal Rift’s unique brand of movement they’ll prepare to tackle a range of trials in order to progress through the title’s dungeon-based first act. These vary from simple environmental puzzles to more challenging platform-based hurdles. Again, locked away in a dark environment with little in the way of cheerful imagery might cause players to acquire a headache in time, but Crystal Rift smartly keeps players focused by dropping hints and clues of how to progress. Rather than mindlessly scouring tiny details, signs tell the player what they’re looking for. This sense of direction proves to be something of a relief, meaning players don’t get bogged down and lost in murky environments.
The title does manage to get the heart pumping at times too as players have to carefully time moves, avoiding swinging axes and that most dreaded of videogame enemies, the spike pit. Crystal Rift can do a wonderful job of making the player realise just how invested in the experience they’re getting when they rush forward in panic, aiming to avoid an axe but going one step too far and falling to their doom. The few moments respite the player is given before respawning allow for reflection that everything is in fact okay, and that they might need to calm down a little in order to properly tackle the challenge.
Scares are another thing that Hibbins has expressed concern about. Interestingly, the developer has chosen to make this feature, in which a ghost might rush down a long corridor or a spider might dangle down in front of a player to their surprise, as completely optional. He fears that the title might be unfairly branded as a horror experience, when it is in fact clear to see that these jump scares are all part of Crystal Rift’s refreshing brand of fun.
It remains to be seen just how varied and challenging the Crystal Rift experience can get. Without a wide range of challenges it could be all too easy for this promising adventure to fall into a cycle of monotonous repetition that would bring back those headaches the title’s opening works so hard to avoid. Hibbins has promised changes to environments and a plot that he personally is proud of, and the title’s secret weapon could well be in its level editor that has the potential to transform it into more of a platform than a videogame. For now, the early signs for this VR adventure are surprisingly bright given its dim setting.