It seems weird to think that only 12 months ago a popular pastime was getting locked in an enclosed space with several of your mates, and you weren’t allowed out until you solved a puzzle. Obviously in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis, Escape Rooms and other such sociable activities have hit the entertainment equivalent of a brick wall. Fortunately, VR is there to pick up the slack with Red Matter, a sci-fi, Cold War themed adventure, putting you in the shoes of a Russian cosmonaut on an abandoned mining base. In space, in case you weren’t already interested.
One of the biggest issues I’ve encountered in VR is the movement. While the Quest is great in that it doesn’t have a wire tethering you to a great big gaming pc, in theory allowing vast freedom to explore the virtual world, in practice this is sadly limited by the room size available. Thus, movement inside the virtual world will always have this disconnect between virtual and real world movements, and although there are ways to mitigate it, these usually involve a trade off. Movement using the thumb sticks often results in motion sickness, due to the player seeing themselves moving without the accompanying sensations, while teleportation reduces discomfort, but can decrease immersion.
Red Matter, by positioning your character as an astronaut in a low gravity environment, allows movement via the thumb sticks in the form of a jet pack. This slight up and down ‘jump’ motion while travelling takes some getting used to (the urge to compensate as you stop is overwhelming at first leading to a lot of scary wobbles), but once you’re used to it it becomes second nature to fly through the air, zipping to your next clue like some kind of slow motion Boba Fett, and I personally felt like this added an extra level of immersion that is lost when teleporting. It’s not for everyone of course, and if you feel your dinner making a surprise reappearance you can always switch to teleport in the settings. More experienced VR users may find this easier to deal with of course.
Once you’re used to the locomotion however, you can explore the base. You have a helpful multi tool on your non-dominant hand you can use to interact with the environment through scanning and activation of various moving parts. This is a little clunky to use for my part, but the functions it provides are plentiful and useful so the trade off is acceptable. You also have an info screen on this hand which is an interesting feature, and useful if you need to refer to a schematic or instructions while solving a puzzle. The game is pretty linear; solve puzzle A to get to room 2 where you solve puzzle B and progress to room 3 etc. Occasionally you backtrack through an area you’ve been before, but largely it’s straightforward.
As far as the puzzles go, they are both immersive and challenging. Having a virtual environment removes the physical constraints of escape rooms built into empty office spaces in city centres. Although there were a couple of times I felt frustrated, ultimately the puzzles were satisfying and understandable. I’ll be honest, I did cheat once after becoming stuck, only to find that the instructions were on the other side of the card I was looking at, and let’s face it, that’s on me.
At this point I should also note that I am reviewing the Quest version of this game. Unfortunately, although the developers have done a great job with the game, my understanding is there are a few graphical downgrades when compared to a system like the HTC Vive. While this went unnoticed by me for the vast majority of the game, there is a puzzle involving reflecting lasers over long distances, and at this point the limitations of the port became noticeable, as I was unable to easily make out the targets. Although still doable, I was very aware during this section that I was playing on a lower resolution than intended, which is the first time I have experienced that on the Quest.
Across all systems however, the plot encourages the immersion in the game, wherein you are a Soviet investigator trying to find out what happened to the crew of an abandoned mining base. Combining mystery, sci-fi, and even horror, the journey of your character is one of intrigue and suspense as you are haunted by the ghostly astronaut who appears at specific moments in the game. The clues and other explanatory materials are scattered around the base, and it is only through active exploration you can figure out what’s going on. As you progress, there are several stand out ‘hairs on the back of your neck’ moments as well, which I shall not spoil here.
Although the game does well to create this sense of dread and intrigue, sadly I feel the denouement of the game is somewhat unsatisfying. While certain elements and conclusions are heavily insinuated, I don’t believe there was an explicit explanation for the events of the game. For me, this is a little disappointing as the game had done so well setting up this existential premise, that when the reveal comes it just feels a little… underwhelming. There is a genuine and palpable sense of tension as you reach the climax, but after a couple of interesting revelations it all falls away a bit and you’re left feeling like they could have done more with it.
Now to be clear, at no point did this make me regret buying the game. The whole thing was a thoroughly enjoyable, if occasionally frustrating, romp through a retro future styled mystery. Although I would say the conclusion is the weakest part of the plot, it potentially lays the ground for a sequel where they could explore some of the more under utilised themes, and also even prior to that point you’ve had several hours of enticing gameplay. The main thing is that although a little underwhelming, it doesn’t sour the rest of the experience in the same way a certain dragon themed TV show did.
Red Matter Review
To wrap up, if you like VR puzzle games, sci-fi mysteries, and have a soft spot for Soviet era architecture, this is an absolute must have. If only 1 of those is true it’s still definitely worth a bash, but it’s not exactly genre defining. If it doesn’t grab you off the bat then to be quite honest it’s probably not for you, but if you’re even a little bit interested, it’s definitely worth a bash, and I don’t think you will come away feeling disappointed.
- Great atmosphere/immersion
- Clever and challenging puzzles
- Interesting and unique story
- Story ending is a bit anticlimactic
- Occasional low resolution graphics (on Quest at least)
- Movement takes a bit of getting used to
- Graphics 0
- Gameplay 0
- Narrative 0
- Audio 0
- Technical 0