To get whisked away to new lands and see things you might never have seen otherwise; that is virtual reality’s (VR’s) core mission. Breakthroughs in interaction and communication will come but the essence of this technology is really all about putting on a head-mounted display (HMD) and being convinced you’ve stepped into another world. No other title on Gear VR realises this quite like Land’s End, the next videogame from Monument Valley developer, Ustwo Games. Though it may be appearing on a mobile device, there currently are few better examples of a VR experience than can utterly engulf you in a digital landscape, making this one of the platform’s most ambitious titles.
In many ways, Land’s End is very similar to Ustwo Games’ cherished mobile hit from 2014. On one hand, it maintains the core principles of embracing the platform that it’s appearing on while pushing visual boundaries and delivering an ambiguous story. It’s also preciously short, with each moment to be savoured. Elsewhere, this is a wholly different beast, swapping a 2D world viewed from a third-person isometric angle for a first-person, fully 3D environment. It also places even less emphasis on challenge than Monument Valley’s breezy puzzles, instead favouring flow and progression. The result is an entirely unique experience for those that are looking for just that: an experience.
Taking place across five chapters that see players try to awaken an ancient civilisation, much of Land’s End is focused on exploration. An entirely a gaze-based control system is used to gently hop along specific points on a pre-determined path, though a controller can be used if you so desire. With little choice in terms of how you progress, much of the sense of discovery comes from where you look, with striking scenery hiding around every corner.
Land’s End’s rocky islands, sunny peaks and looming caves obviously don’t possess the crisp textures you would expect to see on a PC, but Ustwo Games has embraced that truth, instead creating a stylised world that feels like a halfway house between Minecraft and a more realistic title. Cliffs are littered with black specs that provide a decidedly retro solution to appearing detailed, while ancient artefacts standout thanks to their voodoo-like designs. Crucially, it rarely paints an idealistic image, often smearing what would be a picture perfect scene with dull weather or, in later levels, a feeling of gloom in the darkness of tunnels and hostility as the sun beats down. It gives these locations a certain sense of authenticity and weight that makes them far more believable than a simple set of picturesque ruins.
The sheer scale of it all is something that also has to be mentioned. There are moments in Land’s End that you’ll marvel at, especially when you remember that this is all running off of a smartphone. In one level in particular you’ll stand atop a vast expanse of land, feeling like its ruler, only moments later to be staring up at where you once stood from ground level, dwarfed by the enormity of it all.
If there’s anything missing it’s the music and sound effects, which are entirely replaced by a distorted drone that hangs over the whole experience. While it’s obviously a very deliberate move to set tone, you also long to hear water brush up on the beach as you watch it sway, or for the thunderous clap of a boulder smashing the earth when you drop it.
Update: The distorted sound was in fact a glitch that’s now been fixed.
Moving those boulders is one part of the puzzle system that represents any kind of challenge in Land’s End. There are two central mechanics here, the first being a ‘join the dots’ minigame in which players will come across surfaces with small holes that they must link together using a beam that cannot cross over itself. Some of these surfaces will need to be picked up and moved using Gear VR’s head-tracking in order to position holes closely to each other. This can be an empowering feeling, as you effortlessly move gigantic stones that, were they any closer, would threaten to crush you, seemingly with the power of your mind alone.
In VRFocus’ playthrough there was but one challenge that took more than a few seconds to solve. Again, it’s a deliberate move on Ustwo Games’ part, evidence of which can be seen in Monument Valley, but the solutions to these ‘challenges’ are so meagre their inclusion almost feels redundant. The system in place here invites some enjoyable trials that could see you negotiate twisted paths, but it unfortunately never manifests. It’s an artistic choice, and one that serves the storytelling well as you imagine this primitive activation method to be more commonly used eons ago, but it does little to help the gameplay. If you’re looking for a VR videogame with systems and mechanics that challenge you, Gunjack may be the way to go.
It’s also a shame there isn’t just a little more of Land’s End to experience. Though you could lose some time in its arresting scenery, a straight playthrough can easily take you under an hour, making it even shorter than Monument Valley. It means that the entire experience is fresh, keeping your attention from start to finish, but with no real reason to go through the story again yourself another handful of chapters would have been more than welcome. That said it’s a great way to showcase the tech to others.
It speaks volumes about Land’s End, however, that all of the blemishes noted in this review are intentional decisions made on the developer’s behalf, rather than obvious flaws in design or presentation. This is a considered, unapologetic follow-up by a developer fans would expect nothing less from. Its shortcomings are risks taken in the name of creating the most captivating, consuming experience you can get on Gear VR and, for the most part, it pays off in spades. If you’re after a Gear VR experience that can communicate the power of VR’s sense of presence, look no further than Land’s End.