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Edge of Nowhere is a competent but frustratingly generic ode to Lovecraft

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The summer's biggest VR game could have been so much more

Insomniac Games

I would like to propose a committee.

The name is immaterial, but for now, let’s call it the Miskatonic Cliche Board. The purpose would be firm: to mandate a high level of spark and originality in any fiction that draws from the incredibly overused work of H.P. Lovecraft. And whatever it’s called, it would have some strongly worded comments for Edge of Nowhere, the most anticipated Oculus Rift game — and arguably the highest-profile virtual reality game, period — of the summer.

Minor spoilers for Edge of Nowhere ahead.

Though it’s played with a virtual reality headset, Edge of Nowhere is an otherwise traditional third-person platforming and action / stealth game, developed by Ratchet & Clank studio Insomniac. Your protagonist is a begoggled 1930s explorer named Victor Howard, who finds himself stuck in Antarctica while following the trail of a scientific expedition. Initially, he’s seeking his absent fiancee Ava Thorne — a plan which, unlike in every single horror game that’s already used this setup, will surely end well. Before long, he’s deep in an ancient city populated by hideous monstrosities, including one of Lovecraft’s many-tentacled, sanity-draining Great Old Ones.

Lovecraft readers might recognize the ancient Antarctic city from At the Mountains of Madness, one of his most arrestingly creative works (albeit something that’s still hard to separate from its author’s notoriously virulent racism and xenophobia). It’s an excellent starting point, but Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors are so omnipresent in pop culture that any adaptation needs to bring more to the table: a unique narrative, a subversive twist, or some particularly brilliant art design and character development. Edge of Nowhere, meanwhile, takes a straightforward and workmanlike tack. If the best Lovecraftian stories mold his Cthulhu Mythos like clay, Edge of Nowhere uses it as a coloring book.

Especially in the first section of the game, Edge of Nowhere’s Antarctic landscapes can be beautiful. You’ll jump across ice floes, climb vast walls of ice with a pickaxe, and slide ever deeper into a void that’s all the more forbidding in a VR headset. The fast-paced running and jumping sequences can invoke a fantastic sense of scale, sending you through huge caverns and snowfields at a breakneck pace. But the areas in between often feel half-hearted, repetitive, and generic, and they never coalesce into the alien ruins that made At the Mountains of Madness so interesting. It’s got real moments of effective grotesquerie, albeit using the sort of body horror that’s been honed to a point by countless other games. But partly due to VR’s current graphical limitations, the environments are too bland and stylized to include many of the weird, creepy little details that abound in good survival horror.

This could still be fine if Edge of Nowhere were focused purely on tight, innovative mechanics instead of narrative, but it's just not that sort of work. In the game’s defense, its mechanics aren't bad. It’s a solid platformer, with a protagonist whose movement always feels satisfyingly rough, if frustratingly slow; you’re very clearly hacking your way around with an icepick, not nimbly swinging from ledge to ledge. The rare moments of absolutely unavoidable combat are some of its best, featuring a blend of shotgun and melee fighting.

Edge of Nowhere

Edge of Nowhere’s sneaking sequences, which become increasingly common as the game progresses, are also serviceable, and you can at least partly shoot through them if necessary. The problem is that, like the environments, the stealth becomes repetitive. At its best, the game is a series of room-sized puzzles. You can throw a rock to stun a poison spore-dropping creature, for example, then sneak around the slithering monster that’s been attracted by the sound, or stab its bulbous, staggering companion in the back. At its worst, it feels like you’re scurrying around variations of the same room over and over, getting around the same five or six enemies. They’re a combination of incredibly perceptive and ridiculously oblivious, sometimes to the point of absurdity: what kind of predator can hear a man tiptoeing behind its back from several feet away, but literally walk straight into him for several seconds without noticing?

The answer, of course, is "the kind that’s actually fun in a video game system." Total failure is particularly frustrating in virtual reality, where your world crashes to a halt with every death, and Edge of Nowhere minimizes it. On normal difficulty levels, it’s decidedly on the easy side, which keeps a decent flow through most of the game. It’s short, but not extraordinarily so: the developers are targeting three to five hours of play, and I finished in about three and a half, putting it in the range of horror exploration games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. At the same time, it feels much less dense than Amnesia, with little to do but move straight forward.

In places, it feels like the game patches over slightly annoying areas by simply breaking itself. The checkpoint system is so generous that it’s possible to just die your way through parts of it — my preferred stealth method became barreling through a room full of enemies, staying alive barely long enough to reach the exit, and resurrecting on the other side with the monsters meandering placidly behind me. I never actually made the game’s climactic final jump, because it decided that falling to my death in the general vicinity was good enough.

Like most of the Oculus Rift’s early games, Edge of Nowhere could easily be turned into a non-VR game. But there are two good reasons for it to be on the Rift. The first is that Oculus needs at least one big tentpole game in the months after its headset’s release. The second, sadly, is that Edge of Nowhere wouldn't distinguish itself outside the virtual reality hothouse. It’s certainly a functional piece of work — I got through without noticing any bugs or framerate issues — as well as a solidly crafted one. But the best reason to recommend it is just that so few other options are available. It doesn’t have the scope and satisfying design of a big action game, the artistry and character of modern indie horror, or the sheer weirdness of games that only work in virtual reality.

Insomniac has two promising Rift titles coming out this year, one made for Oculus’ yet-unreleased motion controllers. They’re being positioned as big, ambitious projects, while Edge of Nowhere’s creators have always presented it as fairly small and self-contained. In this light, Edge of Nowhere seems like a stopgap, a decent idea tossed out for a tiny market on a system that won’t be finished until later this year, when the Touch controllers come out. But for anyone who owns a Rift right now, it means that one of the platform’s most important games is so much less than what it could have been with more time and ambition. And in the event of a sequel, the Miskatonic Cliche Board will have a lot of paperwork ahead of it.

As of today, Edge of Nowhere is available through the Oculus Store.