HTC Vive games have to overcome a fundamental barrier: they've got to be good enough to justify flailing around at things no one else can see. Anyone walking around the Verge offices late last week, for example, would have caught me standing perfectly still in the middle of our VR room, raising a controller over my shoulder and jerking it forward like the world's most expensive fly-swatter. Sometimes, this would be followed by a few minuscule but triumphant steps forward. Almost as often, it would end with several seconds spent whirling around for no apparent reason while muttering "No no god no no no no no," a full minute of nearly fetal crouching, and another, more careful controller swat. Such is the fate of anyone who ventures into the pre-alpha demo of Budget Cuts, a motion-based stealth game coming out this year for the Vive.
At first glance, Budget Cuts looks a lot like Valve's first-person puzzler Portal, and it's not an unwarranted comparison. Like many virtual reality experiences, your character in Budget Cuts can walk a few feet in any direction but relies mostly on teleportation. Instead of just pointing and warping to a destination, though, you'll use a gun whose shots open extremely familiar-looking blue-rimmed portals. This is the central conceit of the demo: playing some kind of spy, you must teleport through several floors of an office building after hours, sneaking through empty hallways and fighting deadly robots. In the game's cold, dystopian future, you do all of it just to surreptitiously add an "approved" stamp to your job application.
Like Portal, Budget Cuts sometimes asks you to get through a tiny vent or up to a high ledge. The portals' real value, though, is in letting you invisibly scope out locations before deciding to move. You can shoot holes around corners to scan for enemies, waiting for one to walk by before popping out and throwing a knife into its back. Teleporting in VR is a solid way to avoid motion sickness, but it sometimes feels like a compromise in other games, a consolation prize for losing the ability to walk with keyboards and analog sticks. Budget Cuts makes the mechanic feel totally central, turning it into a fresh way to explore the environment.
You've got a few seconds to fight or hide before enemies kill you
There's also a bit of Portal in Budget Cuts' theme of deadly corporate impersonality. Sterile white walls connect aggressively cheery cubicle farms and conference rooms, while crawlspaces let you creep above the drop ceilings, where you'll have to really, physically duck in order to move. If Budget Cuts' robots don't have the charm of Portal's soulful machines, they've still got personality, pacing around levels muttering "I-am-a-ro-bot" and going into an adorably apoplectic frenzy if they see a comrade harmed.
But where Portal is a maze of puzzles, Budget Cuts is a simple but satisfying stealth game in the vein of last year's excellent (non-VR) Neon Struct — which shares both its low-poly aesthetic and its combination of extreme dexterity and vulnerability. The teleportation gun lets you move almost anywhere with ease, except for some barred grates you'll unlock in order to progress. If you're seen, though, you have a few seconds to either fight back or warp away, because a robot's gun will kill you in one shot.
Many stealth games reward ghosting around without so much as touching an enemy, but Budget Cuts feels built for people who love methodically clearing out levels full of mooks. While you start without weapons, you helpfully find a box of throwing knives that can short-circuit your mechanical foes. Once they collapse with an electronic wail and a geyser of oil, you pick the knife out and keep it for next time, an activity that makes much more sense when you can actually root around with your hands.
Even unfinished, it's one of the most fun demos on the Vive
Unsurprisingly, aiming is an acquired skill. A substantial part of my game involved sneaking up behind a robot, sending a knife flying right past it, blindly hurling the rest of my arsenal as it noticed me and prepared to shoot, haphazardly teleporting away, and huddling in a virtual corner until the thing had forgotten me. The demo isn't particularly difficult, but these moments give the game a pleasantly frantic pace, especially because the punishment for failure is just getting set back a few rooms. And once you've repeated a section a few times, you start feeling like an agent from Mission Impossible, gracefully slipping into the perfect location for each shot.
Outside this central stealth system, the Budget Cuts demo is clearly still waiting to have large pieces dropped in. The game's espionage consists of picking up keys to unlock grates, and there are only hints of the longer narrative it promises. But as a proof of concept — and a fun half-hour of gameplay — it's one of the best reasons to be excited for the Vive.