A red apple fell from the sky…
Over the years, I noticed that its gotten way easier to tell whether developer has made an effort to create a unique mechanic, and when they’ve just kind of added a gimmick. A gimmick is easy to spot, because it’s uses are often few and short lived, and it tends to exist to simply be an alternative way of dealing with something the player can already address. I actually quite like the Assassin Creed and Call of Duty games as just good dumb fun, but there’s no getting around the fact that most of the tools you receive in those games are obsolete: they’re no more practical than just shooting or stabbing a guy.
Unique mechanics, meanwhile, can usually be seen because they can radically change how you play, or even have entire games based around them. It’s easy to write off these things as someone just having a good idea, but I reckon that it takes a lot of work to fully realise even just a decent idea. While you don’t need a wholly unique mechanic to have a good game, a unique mechanic goes a long way in helping a game to be good.
I say all of this, because flinging yourself through the air in Gravity Rush is not only really unique, but also really damn fun.
The Gravity Rush franchise began its life as a PS-Vita game, one of the earlier games in the platform’s library even, before getting a rerelease on the PS4 and a sequel on the same platform. The series was created and is directed by Keiichiro Toyama, the original director of both the first Silent Hill and all of the Siren games. Oddly enough, unlike everything else the guy’s directed, Gravity Rush isn’t a horror series (though it does have a few spooky moments), and is indeed quite an optimistic and light-hearted set of games.
I’ll freely admit that I was one of the ones that jumped on the bandwagon after it came to the PS4: while I’m sure that the PS-Vita is a perfectly good handheld, I had even less cash than I do now back in 2012, when the thing came over to the Western territories. I had actually completed Gravity Rush Remaster back in 2016, but by that point it was so close to the release of the sequel that I didn’t want to put out a review until I’d played through the whole thing. Having done so, I feel like now’s a good time to put my thoughts and feelings about the series down on paper, especially since I played both games in a relatively short span of time. We’ll start with the Remaster of the first game, move on to the sequel in the next update, and then we’ll do our usual ‘spoiler’ talk for both.
(Just before we start, let me just point out that this review will be done in a fairly different style than we usually do, mostly because we’re trying out different methods and seeing what sticks. Feel free to drop your thoughts/critiques in the comments, since I’d love to know what you guys think.)
That all being said, let’s strap in and get ready to tell Isaac Newton to go suck it, and dive into Gravity Rush.
Gravity Rush starts as it means to go on: enigmatic but highly intriguing. We open on a simple apple tree, growing atop what appears to be a huge, pillar-like formation. After being invited to tap the apple, we watch the fruit as it goes sailing down, and find that the pillar-like formation isn’t just huge, it’s absolutely gargantuan; so tall that it’s impossible to see the bottom of the thing.
The voice of a young girl, speaking in a fictional language, tells us
“There was another way…that’s all I remember.”
This opening won’t make much sense until quite a bit later and even then not a great deal.
In any case, we get a few quick cameo shots of characters that are going to be really important later on in the game as the apple rolls and skips though a city. Even in the brief few shots of it rolling about, it’s clear that there’s something odd about the city’s layout; it seems oddly vertical, as if horizontal space is hard to come by. The apple proves this by constantly finding a new way to roll downwards, until it finally falls into a small park that’s situated at the bottom of a courtyard several stories deep. It rolls on until it finally touches an unconscious girl, who’s eyes open just in time for the title card to drop. This girl, with her oddly out of place outfit, distinctive red eyes and the fact that she’s an amnesic basically has ‘main character’ written on her forehead.
Meet Kat (a nick-name she picks up since she can’t remember her real one), the protagonist of the series, and she’s just as confused as we are. For one, she can’t remember who she even is, or where this place even is. For second, a weird cat made out of what appears to be the fricken cosmos seems to be intent on following her around.
There’s no time to ponder these things, though, because a man claiming to need his son saved rushes up to her, begging her to use her ‘gravity powers’ to save the lad. Kat is, understandably, baffled until the cat that’s been following behind her meows, and then makes its eyes glow a frankly hellish colour. This is where Kat discovers her ability to manipulate her position of gravity and the gravity of objects around her, allowing herself to fly through air in a ‘rush of gravity,’ if you will. After a crash-course in how to fall upwards and walk on walls, Kat manages to save the man’s son from what appears to be a localised black-hole called a “Gravity Storm,” which notably has a giant arm coming out of it. Unfortunately, it appears that “Gravity Shifters” like herself aren’t welcome, since even after saving the guy’s son, they both managed to find an excuse to tell her to piss off anyway. Even worse, Kat discovers exactly why this city seems to be oddly structured: it turns out that that the entire city is built over a never-ending void, with the only thing keeping the thing up is a set of support and girders attracted to an absolutely leviathan ‘World Pillar.’ Kat, quite rightly, takes a second to appreciate that she is literally standing on the edge of a precipice, with no memory of who she is or what the hell is going on, in a world that clearly thinks very little of her.
Things could definitely be better.
After this point, we meet an oddly crafty but ultimately good-hearted cop called Syd, and catch a glimpse of the only other Gravity Shifter in town, a mysterious girl called Raven (worth noting that Raven has a cosmos… raven to differ from Kat’s…cat). Likewise, Kat has to try and find shelter with no cash and no connections, which eventually finds her creating a little hideaway spot in a derelict pipe. Once that’s all done though, we’re finally free to explore the city, a place we find is called Hekseville and is split into four distinct districts. Not all of the districts can be reached right now, mainly because Kat is still getting used to her new powers. Luckily, this is also the stage of the game where the player is given a chance to really get to grip with Kat’s gravity skills.
I’ll just come right out and say it: I absolutely love the gravity manipulation in this game. It’s a fairly simple system at its basic level, since you just click a button to active Kat’s ‘gravity state’ and choose a direction to “fall” towards. However, it’s the particular details that really make this a fun system to play with. Due to the nature that she’s not flying so much as changing her state of gravity, Kat has a strong degree of control on her momentum and can start, stop and change direction nearly instantly. Since you’re only affected by the gravity you create (at least until Kat runs out of energy), it’s easy to maintain a straight forward path through the sky, which makes it pretty easy to duck and weave through the buildings when you’re not just soaring above them. Hell, even if you hit a wall that won’t completely halt you, since all that’s happened is that you’ve found new ‘ground’ to walk on. Combine this with a gravity slide that works on any surface, and your movement and ability to explore your surroundings is as effective as its fun.
And you are going to want to explore your surroundings, both for practical gameplay terms and just because of the game’s environments. For gameplay, there’s quite a few collectable gems you can gather that can in turn be used to upgrade Kat’s abilities. Kat starts off pretty weak, and can’t keep shifting gravity for too long before she has to return back to her normal state, which can be dangerous if you’re flying over a void. Exploring the rooftops and even the undersides of the city, however, will allow you to gather a lot of gems, and in turn become much more powerful. This creates this nice loop that kind of reminds me of Crackdown in many ways: as you gain more gain more power to shift gravity, you can access areas you couldn’t previously, which in turn lets you become even more powerful, which lets you explore more, etc. It’s a really rewarding feeling when, at the end of the game, you’re just bombing from district to district without stopping, since you can remember how you struggled to get even part way across just one at the start of the game.
Besides the gameplay, however, the environments in Gravity Rush is surprisingly engaging. The layout of the various areas creates some beautiful vistas, and the odd appearance of the setting is exquisitely designed: it’s quite modern in design, but none the less has this timeless look about it, like the buildings could have been plucked from any era. I think another point in its favour is the sheer attention to detail. While it is made primarily so it’s fun to shift gravity around them, care has been taken to make the distracts actually feel like places where people live and work. Despite being a crazy city in the sky, Hekseville has a pretty sensible train system and a lay out that means even non-gravity shifters can get around. Every distract tries to maximise the small amount of space available, which means you got cafés and parks crammed into the cosy spaces between buildings. Likewise, each district features not only its own unique theme song, but also it’s own colour scheme and environmental details. Hekseville, for its fantasy elements, feels like very much like a lived-in city, and one that’s got it’s own set of quirks. The only real problem I have with them is that, for all its attention to detail, no one ever stops to ask where the hell everyone’s getting the food and water to keep this place running: it’s not like there’s exactly room for farmland in a world that’s 70% empty void.
But to be fair, there’s slightly more pressing matters to worry about for the people of Hekseville, namely that a lot of Hekseville itself is missing. You see, when a gravity storm hits the city, it drags not only people and objects into itself, but also entire sections of the city away into weird ‘Rift Planes’ that normal people can’t reach. If that wasn’t bad enough, the last couple of gravity storms have left behind a series of monsters collectively known as “Nevi,” grotesque looking creatures who want for nothing but to destroy everything around them. So not only are people’s homes, families, and livelihoods gone, but the ones that remain are constantly at threat of a sudden appearance by the Nevi. To make things even worse, there’s a criminal by the name of Alias running around, somehow controlling Nevi while he tears up the place. Kat, realising that her gravity powers are particularly effective at disposing of Nevi, decides that she should do something to help the people of Hekseville, even if they don’t want her help at first. Along the way, she meets with an eccentric old man by the name of Gade, who claims that he knows how to restore the missing parts of Hekseville.
This is where we meet the real meat of Gravity Rush’s story. For a large part of the game, we mainly focus on Kat’s efforts to slowly restore some semblance of order to Hekseville, meeting the varied and always entertainingly odd residents of the city. The story is primarily delivered via character portraits with dialogue, though it also often goes into a comic-book like appearance of still images in panels to help bring the narrative some life. Interestingly enough, the whole thing plays out more like a super-hero story: Kat seems to be unable to turn down the call to help others, and in turn the residents of the city start to admire and respect the girl for her efforts. Kat even gains two arch-nemesis villains in the form of Alias and Raven, though both characters have their agendas surrounded in mystery. The pacing and details about the story are, quite honestly, kind of odd: while the story definitely doesn’t kick its heels or slow down too much, it never the less feels like it’s taking it’s time. Some of the beginning quests aren’t connected to the overall goals at all, and we don’t meet the actual villain of the game until at least half-way in. I don’t think this is actually a bad thing, since the slower pace allows you to take in the settings and characters you meet more intimately, and helps to sell the idea that Kat is just doing what she can, day by day. This contributes to the ‘super-hero’ feeling from before, since it feels like the main story is less of a super huge single narrative, and more of a lot of smaller narratives that join together to make Kat’s story.
In addition to the main story, there’s a collection of sub-missions. These were actually DLC in the original Vita release, but come as part of the package for the Remaster. These follow a similar trend of the main story, namely that they’re not worried about taking their time. Make no mistake, all of the side missions have their moments of action, but at the same time they’re all very small, very focused stories, often with low stakes. Hell, one of the sub-stories starts off because Kat is just looking for a job! Like the main story, I actually quite like the kind of pacing they use, since each one feels like it was designed to help bring out aspects of Kat’s character, and to make her a more endearing protagonist.
In fact, let’s take a second to talk about Kat specifically. There’s one trait of Kat that the game absolutely runs with that I find pretty interesting, namely that she isn’t overly concerned with finding out about her past. To be fair, most amnesic protagonists don’t worry too much about the pasts they can’t remember until it becomes relevant, but Kat really takes the cake. Apart from some failed attempts to investigate at the start of the game, Kat really is more concerned with just living her life day in and day out in Hekseville, doing what she can to help out. She may have been dumped into this city without her memories, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of making the city her new home, even if she can’t actually remember her old one. It’s honestly quite refreshing to see: most of the reason Kat makes for a good protagonist is because her earnest will to help others is just highly admirable, but even without that Kat acts quite believable, and her sheer optimism is pretty infectious.
…No, she’s not my ‘waifu,’ despite the fact that she is perfect. Shut up.
Anyway, while Kat and the overall story are both pretty good, I will admit the story has its faults. For one, while Kat doesn’t seem too worried about her past, it becomes pretty infuriating just how much the games will string the player along before they start revealing facts. The greatest criticism I can level against the first game is the fact they will tease the player with hints and suggestions, but leave all of the actual answers in the second game. This must have been especially bad for the original Vita players, since back then nobody even knew if the game would actually get a sequel. I don’t think this rests on Gravity Rush too badly, since even if the destination isn’t the greatest, the journey of the game makes is highly enjoyable. That being said, while the slower pace of this series is one that I enjoy immensely, I kind of wish the game writers had prioritised their focuses on the important parts of Kat’s past a little more than…well, not at all.
While we’re talking about criticism, let’s just accept the fact that the combat isn’t that good. While they do include some neat ideas to vary things up, like three different super attacks and a way to engage in ranged combat, the minute-to-minute fights aren’t really that interesting. This is mainly because you start the game with a ‘Gravity Kick’ attack that works on any enemy, allows you keep on the move and avoid enemy attacks, and has a generous amount of homing. There’s a reason I’ve been gushing about the world and characters but only really talked about the flying mechanics in gameplay, namely that combat is mostly by the numbers. It’s not necessarily boring, but I’m super glad that the game doesn’t feel the need to include random encounters, and keeps combat to only pre-scripted situations. There are some interesting boss-fights in the game, but they’re mostly interesting by the virtue that you can’t just Gravity Kick them into submission. While we’ll talk about things in more detail in the next entry, I got to say I’m glad that they really changed up the combat in the second game.
Fortunately, even if the combat isn’t mind-blowing, the game’s battle theme helps to keep combat feeling appropriately energetic. In fact, the game has a pretty damn great musical selection. While the whole OST uses a broad range of styles to cover whatever it needs to, the game’s music overall has this wonderfully jazzy and adventurous tone, which keeps it in line with the mostly optimistic nature of the game. The developers definitely knew where their strengths lied, because they really put their best foot forward with the game’s opening song, wherein it’s somewhat sombre opening gives way to a more uplifting tone. The OST especially features some amazing brass-work, such as in my personal favourite “Pleasure Quarter,” which naturally acts as the theme for Hekseville’s entertainment distract. It really gives a feel of the somewhat frantic and chaotic energy that only the night-life can produce. The game earns double points from me for including a song with lyrics that are composed entirely of a made-up language that the game uses, which I always enjoy (for those curious, the language is made to sound like a odd mix of French and Japanese, though the words don’t mean anything). Even a total pleb like me can recognise when a game’s soundtrack really is a cut above the rest, and Gravity Rush really goes the extra mile.
In any case, if you’ve heard the entertainment districts theme that definitely means you reached the part of the game where Kat is starting to tackle the Rift Planes, which are another highlight of the game, mostly because of how trip-tastic they are. Unlike Hekseville, which has some logic in its fantastical setting, the Rift Planes are almost completely alien in design and appearance. You’ll have what appears to be a world formed out of molten rock and magma, a world full of odd ruins completely unlike anything in Hekseville, a world of floating fungi in space. It’s pretty nuts. Beyond the designs, though, the Rift Planes also present a greater challenge than anything you’ll face in the normal world, with more enemies and a greater variety of obstacles. The Rift Planes therefore aren’t just cool because of how they look, but also because they’re great fun to actually tackle and overcome. It also helps that the only time Kat will go to a Rift Plane is to try and recover a missing piece of Hekseville’s city, which gives quite a narrative/emotional pay off for completing the mission, since you get to see first-hand the relived family members being reunited with their lost loved-ones.
Unfortunately, Kat swiftly finds out that not everyone is eager to see Hekseville get put back together. The mysterious Raven definitely doesn’t approve, which she expresses by ramming Kat through a brick column before stamping the poor girl’s head down onto the ground. While Kat manages to get through the encounter without drastic injury, she’s left with the question of why Raven would want to stop the restoration of Hekseville, and more importantly the question of how the heck she intends to defeat Raven, a Gravity Shifter with much more power and experience than her. Kat’s call to heroism won’t allow her to back down to Raven’s threats, but at this juncture it’s a struggle to imagine Kat ever being able to overcome the other Gravity Shifter, a fact that Kat is all too aware of even as Raven once again disappears.
And with that, the stage is well and truly set: Kat must continue to help Hekseville and grow her strength in preparation for the inevitable clash with Raven. Meanwhile, even as the town’s troubles are finally being fixed one by one, there’s another force growing in the shadows, one that could unbalance the peace even more than the Nevi. And all the while, the World Pillar seems to loom over the town with a foreboding sense of inevitability. After all, this is a video game: you don’t put something that grand and imposing in a game unless it’s to be conquered by the player. The secrets the Pillar hides, however, are more connected to the present plot than one could easily guess…
If I had to sum it up, Gravity Rush Remastered is definitely a product that shows it’s hand-held heritage, probably more so than other games that made similar jumps (like Final Fantasty Type-0). The overall length of the game is pretty damn short even with all the DLC bonus missions, the story meanders from place to place with a ending that’s kind of lacking, and there’s definitely a feeling that developers didn’t have a lot of budget to really expand on their ideas.
That being said, the game doesn’t really suffer because of the above points. While it is short, there’s a lot of quality that’s crammed into every minute that the game has, from its wonderfully designed environments, to its beautiful comic-book narrative delivery. The overall narrative definitely feels like the writer was banking on a lot more development time to get it finished, but the strength of the moment-to-moment character interaction and the great tone and setting help to make even the journey to get there worthwhile. And while some of the ideas definitely needed more time in the oven (combat primarily), they made the smart move of making sure the fundamental action of moving around from point A to B felt really fun and engaging, which definitely shows someone on the team knew where their priorities lie.
If you get Gravity Rush (either the Vita version or the Remastered version), you’ll most likely be getting the game primarily on the strength of it’s interesting setting, characters, and the core action of shifting gravity than for any other reason. The game doesn’t feature combat that’s too interesting, and sometimes the story can feel kind of all over the place, but the game nails the simple fact of being good clean fun better than a lot of titles made with far bigger scopes and budgets. For that, Gravity Rush has my full recommendation. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to rush ahead and pick up this hidden gem of a game, and to see just how much you can play with gravity.