Imaginative visuals let down by poor gameplay integration.
There’s nothing wrong with adding a virtual reality (VR) element to a videogame after the fact, just so long as it’s done well. It’s true that projects built from the ground up for VR tend to fair better and showcase the technology in a more positive light. So when videogames like ZED come along that look promising but ultimately flounder in VR, that you have to wonder why go through the process in the first place.
Initially a successful Kickstarter project for Eagre Games back in 2016, with Chuck Carter – one of the creative talents behind Myst and the Command & Conquer series – at the helm, all appeared good, with an intriguing premise featuring a rich narrative and surreal imagery. VR was a stretch goal that was never met but the team decided to add it in any way.
ZED is a gorgeous videogame to look at. From the initial menu hub with a desk littered with finely detailed items to the bizarre landscapes which appear every so often, with twisting geometry, rich colours and towering structures, the entire experience is a visual treat for the eyes. The artists at Eagre Games must have had a field day dreaming up some of the sequences that help to convey what is going on in the mind of an artist suffering dementia.
The same goes for the audio and narrative itself. You really have to listen to the voice of Stephen Russell – a veteran videogame voice actor who has worked on Thief and the Fallout series. Russell does a tremendous job in the role of the ageing artist, as different scenes from the protagonists fragmented memories help him recall his past. Just like an audiobook, the story is engaging, dark and a sad reflection on a harrowing disease.
If this was more of an interactive experience designed for VR, with Eagre Games going down the route of Vader Immortal: A Star Wars Story or even Bonfire by Boabab Studios then this could have been something special. Alas, this is a videogame with some fundamental flaws.
Purely concentrating on the VR version for Oculus Rift – who plays on a flat screen any more! – ZED’s first glaring mistake is the lack of options. With any new VR compatible title, a quick look at the options menu for settings like VR comfort are a good indication of things to come (generally). ZED has options for audio level and subtitles. So you’d better be happy with teleportation because that’s all there is.
Unfortunately, the teleportation is the single most annoying feature in ZED. It’s horrendous, one of the worst examples in modern VR gaming. The reason is the inconsistency, it feels like an actual chore trying to move around the world of ZED. All you need to do is push the joystick forward to create a reticule and then let go to move, simple. Yet it doesn’t always work, or the spot where you jump to disappears, slowly building the frustration levels.
The knock on effect is that exploring the areas becomes tedious, rather than being able to admire them. After an hour of playing through the first three chapters out of six, the prospect of a further three chapters wasn’t exciting.
And then there’s the gameplay. Almost everything you can see isn’t interactive in any way. Fragments of memory can be unlocked by finding certain objects which glow and generally can be clearly seen. They all need to be found in each area to open the next location, with a picture puzzle needing to be solved before stepping through. These puzzles don’t take long to solve, with the solutions drawn on the walls somewhere in each level in bright blue pigment.
The two combined really detract from the experience as a whole, making ZED seem like it was developed by two different teams. One on the art/narrative side and then one on the actual interaction and gameplay.
ZED was such a promising title, and with Cyan Ventures helping to back it for launch, all the ingredients were there for a unique experience. However, that’s not been the case. A pretty videogame does not necessarily make for one that excites and enthrals. There has been some great VR content arrive this year, ZED is not one of them.