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Feral Rites is a big VR brawler that misses its chance at originality

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Nostalgia is fun, but it’s also a crutch

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For months, Oculus has been arguing that ordinary console gamepads, not fancy motion controllers, have a real future in virtual reality. But so far, there haven’t been many VR-only projects that prove this theory true. The latest attempt — and one of the last before Oculus gears up to release its Touch controllers — is Feral Rites, a colorful brawler from Ratchet & Clank studio Insomniac. Feral Rites is supposed to help build the Oculus Rift’s catalog of long, complex games, and it’s certainly one of the most substantive and polished pieces I’ve seen lately. But for something meant to promote a brand-new platform, Feral Rites is a strangely retro affair in many ways, a throwback project that is by turns fun and self-defeating.

As with most current Oculus Rift titles, Feral Rites didn’t need to be VR-only. It’s a third-person action game with fixed camera angles, played with an Xbox One controller. But it looks good in the Rift, and it’s very comfortable, even after the 10-plus hours I put into it. Thematically, developer Insomniac has described the game as an over-the-top adventure tale influenced by works like The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Lost World, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. Mechanically, it’s reminiscent of the PlayStation 2 game God of War: a fast, violent combo-based beat-em-up peppered with simple puzzles.

Like God of War (and, to be fair, basically half of all video games), Feral Rites is a revenge story. Your protagonist Kai, whose gender you pick, is the heir of a murdered chieftain on the fictional Stone Fang Island. After escaping from the suspected killer, you’ll have to fight your way across the island, from half-submerged temple ruins to the villain’s volcano lair. Along the way, you develop the power to turn into a mystical were-beast of some sort, and explore the island for money, health upgrades, and other resources.

Feral Rites’ combat can be satisfyingly messy, both literally and figuratively. It relies on a standard formula of grabs, blocks, rolls, punches, and kicks, but their effect changes greatly when you perform them as a nimble human or a powerful, slow-moving beast. Chaining enough blows will charge up a gory execution that restores both health and "spirit," which fuels your beast form. Both modes have unique advantages and a couple of special moves, and you’ll switch between them on the fly during a good fight. (You can also turn into a non-fighting panther to run through the world faster. I did this maybe twice on purpose, and a million times by accidentally triggering it during combat.) With the cartoonish graphics and catchy soundtrack, it’s lightheartedly bloody — you’ll smash skulls and break necks, but it feels more nostalgic than shocking, a callback to times when enemies were low-poly cannon fodder instead of hyper-realistic virtual humans.

But "a good fight" is a major caveat, because most of Feral Rites’ enemies are sprinkled in twos or threes around the maps. In small numbers, they’re more like speed bumps than challenges, and encounters are over so quickly that the execution system becomes nearly ignorable. Even the pitched battles end too soon. Ironically, the tutorial — which teaches moves by throwing waves of opponents at you, before you develop beast powers — is tougher than the vast majority of the levels that follow.

In fairness, one of the reasons for this is that Feral Rites is trying to be more than a series of battle arenas. It’s set in a large, multi-stage world that can be explored at your leisure, where just about every object can be broken down for upgrade materials. You’ll end most fights by systematically punching apart all the plants, torches, or pottery in the area, which remains entertaining for a surprisingly long time. It’s an admirable goal that elevates Feral Rites over many VR games, especially because of some interesting transportation mechanics that let you teleport across gaps and up to ledges as you get more powerful.

Still, it would have been nice to see a denser game that played to its strengths better, from a studio that didn’t seem spread so thin. In addition to a new Ratchet & Clank and an upcoming Spider-Man game on PlayStation 4, Insomniac signed up to release three Oculus Rift titles this year, spanning genres and aesthetics — besides Feral Rites, it’s behind horror platformer Edge of Nowhere and upcoming multiplayer dueling game The Unspoken. Feral Rites is far better than the disappointing Edge of Nowhere, but it still feels a little immature, full of solid gameplay mechanics that aren’t given an equally solid world to exist in.

The game’s retro stylings sometimes feel like a way to disguise this. They justify its flat, stilted voice acting, ponderous illustrated cutscenes, and ham-fisted exposition — characters routinely interrupt your game to repeat bizarrely obvious quest goals, even when they’re marked prominently on a map — as campy homages instead of missteps. And above all, they make the game’s tired "exotic" setting more palatable.

Feral Rites doesn’t aim to offend. It’s a pastiche of jungle-y, vaguely Amazonian visual cues and archetypes, its characters clad in loincloths, body paint, and lots of bone and tooth necklaces. Its shamans and human sacrifice cults are broadly drawn, and the game contains only slight nods toward the pervasive colonialism of turn-of-the-century adventure pulp: you buy armor from a genteel explorer with a British accent, and one of the antagonists is a conquistador-like treasure-seeker who fights with a cannon and a hunting rifle. Even so, the design feels awkward and outdated, especially for a game that puts so much emphasis on its story. There’s no unified original style that makes Stone Fang Island seem like an independent fantasy world, and it rarely satirizes or examines its sources of inspiration, leaving only a collage of tropes that were once used to depict groups of people as subhuman, even if they’re not being used that way here.

It would be one thing if Feral Rites were a 20-year-old franchise dealing with its own historical baggage. But we’re talking about a totally original game developed for a new medium. Leaning on these themes seems like a way to cut corners by adopting a prebuilt aesthetic, just as Edge of Nowhere relied on paint-by-numbers Lovecraft. Combined with the uneven gameplay, Feral Rites’ derivative design makes it harder to compare the game with sophisticated non-VR titles, even if it still stands above most of the Oculus Rift competition.

Feral Rites is one of the best and meatiest Rift-only games out right now. But it’s still primarily there to sate the hunger of Rift early adopters, not draw people to the platform. In a format that’s supposed to let us conceive of things that never existed, it’s frustrating to see such a promising project fall back on quick, easy answers, instead of blazing a trail forward.

Feral Rites is available now on Oculus Rift.