In the early days of virtual reality games, experiences can largely be divided into two categories: those built explicitly for VR, and those that tack on VR like a promotional bullet point. The latter is a great way to get people interested in the medium — hey, it’s Final Fantasy in VR! — but because of a lack of investment, both in time and forethought, these experiences range from forgettable to terrible. When VR is an afterthought, you can tell. Unfortunately that’s the case with "Blood Ties," the latest downloadable add-on for Rise of the Tomb Raider.
"Blood Ties" is a curious thing. It feels sort of like an epilogue to a larger story. Instead of the action-heavy intensity of the rest of Rise of the Tomb Raider, it’s a much more relaxed experience that has you exploring the crumbling Croft Manor, reading old journals and inspecting ancient artifacts in an attempt to prove that Lara is the rightful heir to her childhood home. It’s a great way to dive deep into Tomb Raider lore.
You can play the new chapter in the standard third-person mode, and also in VR if you have both a PS4 and PSVR. When you play in VR, the game offers two different options. The first option is to play seated, using the controller to both move around and control the camera. But in my experience, playing VR with traditional camera controls has a tendency to induce nausea — I was able to play for about five minutes before feeling sick. The second option, to play standing still, is more comfortable. Instead of directly controlling Lara’s movement with a joystick, you can teleport around. (You can choose to either look at a location to teleport there, or point to it using the controller.)
The problem is that the extra immersion of VR doesn’t add anything to the experience. In most cases it actually makes "Blood Ties" more frustrating. There are some cool moments — like using your controller as a flashlight while exploring dark crypts — but the game is poorly suited to virtual reality. It switches the perspective to first-person, but doesn’t change how you interact with the world. No, you’re still looking at menu screens displaying the text from old journals — just now they’re very close to your face.
Movement feels awkward no matter what mode you choose; the teleportation in particular is finicky, making simple actions take much longer than they should. Not to mention the dissonance of being an otherwise realistic human with the sudden capacity to teleport.
The premise of investigating an old house in VR is promising. But "Blood Ties" doesn’t add engagement, like how Job Simulator allows players to pick through objects, it just switches up the perspective, leaving virtually everything else the same. "Blood Ties" is about an hour long, but I ended up turning off the VR mode three-fourths of the way through. Some of the game’s final puzzles actually necessitated this: in order to solve them, I needed to jot some notes down on paper — not exactly something you can do with a PlayStation VR strapped to your face.
VR has the potential to augment more traditional games. PSVR launch title Thumper, for instance, is significantly more enjoyable in virtual reality; the added immersion turns it from a rhythm game into something closer to a roller coaster. "Blood Ties" goes in the other direction. The wonky movement and plentiful menus made me feel less like Lara Croft exploring her childhood home, and more like someone stumbling awkwardly around a mildly spooky old building.
"Blood Ties" is available on October 11th as downloadable content, and is also bundled with the 20th anniversary edition of Rise of the Tomb Raider launching the same day.