Supermassive Games is better known for its cinematic, choice-based narrative horror games, but it opted down the more arcadey action route for PSVR1 launch title Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. It was a surprise that just about convinced early adopters to splash out on a pair of PlayStation Move controllers to take part in its schlocky gun-wielding roller coaster.
Repeating the trick on PSVR2 with The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR, which also uses the headset’s unique features to amp up both the action and the frights, surely sounds like a recipe for success. Especially when it’s the only exclusive for the pricey headset, aside from Horizon Call of the Mountain. Is it on a similar calibre as a must-play?
As with its spiritual predecessor, Switchback VR is a horror-themed roller coaster crossed with an arcade rail shooter. Its levels take inspiration from the four games in The Dark Pictures Anthology, from the haunted ghost ship of Man of Medan to the ‘murder hotel’ of The Devil in Me. Fans who have played the anthology will probably appreciate these nods, though you needn’t have played any to enjoy (if enjoy is the right word) the ride.
The Sense controllers are much improved for dual-wielding weapons, with feedback from the adaptive triggers adding a new layer of immersion. Haptics also mimic the rumble of your cart travelling along the rickety rails and the impact of hitting obstacles you’ll need to physically move your head to avoid.
The roller coaster element builds tension when the tracks make steep inclines, before the inevitable stomach-churning drop that almost makes us want to bring up our lunch. The problem is maintaining the same exciting rush throughout, which doesn’t work when levels drag out to well over 20 minutes – almost the full length of an actual arcade on-rails shooter like The House of the Dead. Despite being a short experience, Switchback VR‘s pacing comes at the detriment of its scares.
Much of the time, Switchback VR is a pedestrian ride that slows to a crawl, forcing you to sit helplessly in the dark as it milks all the suspense. It does have one trick up its sleeve: using VR2’s eye-tracking to bring enemies closer each time you blink, which is as terrifying as it sounds. More often than not however, it falls back on very cheap jump scares.
Those certainly do the job: when ghoulish zombies bear down on you it’s easy to panic and start firing blindly. But continuously using the same tricks over each lengthy level gets exhausting. There’s also just as much time when there’s nothing of note to do, so you’re given a spot of target practice to earn points – fine if you’re looking to get a high score, but also a blatant bit of padding.
Taking some inspiration from the core Dark Pictures games’ narrative choices, you do get some interactivity seemingly designed to make levels replayable. Think being able change which portion of track your cart is heading down, and whether to save other characters or leave them to their doom. Nice in theory, but the puzzles lack immediacy and end up killing the pace even more. Again, we’re reminded of The House of the Dead, which also featured multiple paths and characters you can save, all of it well integrated in the core of the game. Maybe the developers of its remake should consider a VR update?
The worst part is that when nothing of note is happening, you can’t help but notice how drab, low quality, and blurry the visuals are. It’s most apparent in one particular non-interactive sequence that takes you from the roller coaster to a train carriage in the midst of some horrific accident. You can’t reach out to examine the items on the table seat in front of you, leaving you to stare at the shoddily rendered passengers opposite. The atrocious loading times when cutting to these scenes makes us doubt that this is even a PS5 game.
As much as we enjoy the immersive haptics, we find the actual shooting lacklustre, owing to a lack of visual feedback from enemies. They seem unaffected by anything except headshots, and even these don’t always seem to register. While you can also reload your weapons by shaking the Sense controllers, we also had problems with this being recognised so had to rely on pressing a button instead.
Considering Switchback VR had already been delayed from the VR2’s launch date, we were hoping Supermassive Games would have ironed out any technical issues. That they continue to persist only makes an already underwhelming game even more disappointing.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR verdict
For all the creepy and unnerving thrills afforded by the new PSVR2 hardware in terms of its haptics and audio, Switchback VR is undermined by low-quality visuals, unengaging combat and puzzles that feel at odds with its roller coaster framework. We’ve seen the interesting ideas it does have executed better in leaner arcade shooters.
Given how its spiritual predecessor is regarded as a fun and frightening showcase for Sony’s previous headset, this really isn’t the game that’s going to make you hop on board for this new generation.
Roller coaster thrills dragged out into an underwhelming rail shooter
Interesting use of haptics and eye-tracking
Some stomach-churning roller coaster moments
Sub-par visuals and feedback
Levels drag on with too much filler