Bithell Games has built a reputation for going against the grain: developing videogames that riff on established convention to offer something new. The team’s debut virtual reality (VR) title, EarthShape, is no exception to this rule, using the traditional rules of a puzzle videogame in a unique and interesting way.
Surprisingly, EarthShape doesn’t do this in a way which is exclusively taking advantage of the unique properties of VR. The mechanics of the videogame would arguably work just as well on Wii or with PlayStation Move, or with any motion-controller. It’s in that use of motion-controls that EarthShape achieves something new; a puzzle videogame that marries forethought with an encouraging risk-reward system.
Dressed up as a cartoon outer space adventure, at its heart EarthShape is a simple virtual rendition of single-player Pong. The player has a dot-based grid ahead of them, into which a ball is fired. They must guide this ball to the exit without it going out-of-bounds. The ball will only move in straight lines, so drawing barriers between two horizontal or vertical dots will reverse its direction while diagonal lines will alter trajectory by 90 degrees. It sounds simple – and it is – but the challenge comes when attempting to gain points and with increasing ball speed.
For each barrier collided with the player will accumulate points which, during the campaign, result in quicker completion of levels. However, each puzzle has a time limit. The skill involved in successful completion of a stage isn’t simply guiding the ball to the exit, but by achieving as high a score as possible within the time limit. Skilled players will quickly learn the benefit of getting the ball on course to the exit as soon as possible, then preventing it from entering the hole by bouncing it back-and-forth between two local walls until the time limit warning is issued.
EarthShape also includes a Free Play mode in which you can utilise any of the items – visual modifiers and score multipliers/penalties – unlocked during the campaign. Despite its simplicity EarthShape is a considerable timesink; a truly generous videogame when considering the potential hours of gameplay available compared to many of its mobile VR peers.
However, for all its worth as a reformation of videogame puzzling tropes, EarthShape still makes little use of the unique medium it finds itself in. Perhaps as much an experiment for Bithell Games as VR remains for consumers, EarthShape isn’t likely to become the videogame you would chose to demonstrate the medium to VR virgin friends; nor is it likely to become a highlight of your personal software catalogue. It’s a great opportunity to while away a flight or long train journey in the hope of ignoring the strangers around you, but unlikely to be remembered long after arriving at your destination.