Wilson’s Heart may be a bit derivative, but it is nothing short of daring when it comes to narrative virtual reality games. The black-and-white title, from developer Twisted Pixel, mashes up a diverse array of game styles and film genres. It uses these popular tropes from pulp horror and the psychological thriller and blends them with first-person shooter combat and old-school point-and-click exploration, all while relying on the perceptual sleights and hand-motion tricks that only VR allows to make it all feel new.
As far as VR games go, Wilson’s Heart feels like a bigger step forward and an essential addition to Oculus’ Touch-supported library. The game, an exclusive for the Rift headset due out April 25th, is not just a two- or three-hour experience revolving around a single idea. And it’s definitely not an arcade game you’ll be playing in short bursts. It’s a full-blown, eight-hour narrative title that is attempting to deliver activities and storylines on the level of a standard console entry.
As my colleague Adi Robertson pointed out after her demo at E3 last year, Wilson’s Heart is a bit like The Twilight Zone and Shutter Island meets ‘90s point-and-click horror game Sanitarium. You wake up in an abandoned hospital with no recollection of how you got there or what treatment you underwent. As you progress, which is done by teleporting around the scene to predesignated locations, you discover more about the nature of the facility and begin encountering some horrific and supernatural elements.
In my time with Wilson’s Heart, which involved exploring deeper into the abandoned hospital outside the initial first level, I got a taste of how Twisted Pixel is handling combat. For a game that consists mostly of rifling through drawers, pulling levers, and moving around to static parts of a map, the handling of combat is important. Wonky controls and shoddy design could make or break the game’s genre-blending appeal if it works better as a point-and-click game and not something more.
Fortunately, the combat works for the most part. With a dash of sci-fi thrown in, a magical device residing in your chest becomes a projectile you can hold in your hand and throw at incoming enemies, which in my experience were quite terrifying zombie-like beings that approached at irregular speeds. Your projectile can be controlled after you throw it by weaving your hand in wide arcs using the touch controllers, choosing how the ball travels back to your hand and allowing it to destroy anything in its path. In another combat scenario in which my mechanical “heart” was taken from me, I had to fight a masked enemy by tossing back grenades and landing physically punches in close quarters combat.
In most cases, Wilson’s Heart still revels in the tricks that only VR can pull off. Early on in the game, you’re asked to stare into a mirror, revealing a face you do not recognize (voiced, it turns out, by Robocop’s Peter Weller). Yet because you can remove the implants on your forehead and see your head tilt in the reflection, it gives you an eerie sensation of existing inside the game world like few other VR titles have accomplished.
Twisted Pixel also makes constant use of perspective to make puzzles harder to solve and exploration slightly more cryptic than it would be otherwise. A common theme during my demo was being told by Twisted Pixel reps simply to look up or to turn around so I could see something I wasn’t quite able to perceive from a previous angle.
In other instances, the game sheds its VR trappings and dares to throw you into disorienting combat scenarios. Dying in VR is not very fun, and is almost always more frustrating than a standard game. Upon my fourth or fifth attempt of trying and failing to slay a small horde of zombies using the floating orb weapon, I was tiring myself out and could feel sweat building up on my neck and underneath the headset. These kinds of workouts can make VR a great physical experience, but repetitive or frustrating combat can also turn a video game into an exercise some players aren’t really interested in having. Finding that balance is difficult, and it’s unclear what route the game will take as players get farther along.
I’m not sure how the average VR consumer will receive Wilson’s Heart, which is trying many different things and may only really succeed at a few of them. We won’t know for sure until we get the full game and can experience it start to finish, but it’s most certainly one of bolder titles I’ve ever experienced on the Rift. With its blend of horror, detective, and action elements, it could very well become a must-buy Rift game that further helps Oculus stand apart from the competition.
Wilson’s Heart is available for the Oculus Rift on April 25th for $39.99.