There’s a moment in my playthrough of PSVR 2 horror game The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR where everything you think you know about VR gaming is pushed out the next window and the game actually changes depending on where you’re going You look and if you blink. Yes, but flash this game can affect the world and, well… it suggests a whole new way to experience gaming.
Switchback VR is one of the best games for PSVR 2 and it’s not even out yet (this game is out on March 16th). These are already my personal favorite games on the new Sony headset. The Blink mechanic was developed after the game’s director, Alejandro Arque Galladro, first saw the PSVR 2 specs and decided that eye-tracking will be crucial. He wasn’t wrong.
read my PSVR 2 Review for a general overview of headset performance.
The pitch for Switchback VR is simple: stuck between life and death after a train wreck, you must ride a roller coaster out of Hell to escape a demon who really wants you to stay. This simple setup sends you through locations made famous in The Dark Pictures Anthology games for PS4 and PS5, so I find myself rolling through the bowels of a ghost ship, ancient temples, a misty forest and an abandoned hotel that is not so empty. Here “Blink” catches my eye.
Switchback VR and PSVR 2 – a game made in hell
The Blink mechanic comes into play a few stages, so by this point I’ve gotten used to Switchback VR’s mix of jump scares, rollercoaster twists and turns, and the need to shoot everything in sight (this is a PSVR 2 update of the classic Light -Gun shooters like House Of The Dead). Upon entering the abandoned hotel stage, the roller coaster’s cart slows and stops to stall in a room with a few mannequins.
“Ah, I guess,” no problem, “I’ve been shooting creepy dummies in games for decades.” My easygoing confidence is shaken as I dare to blink my eyes, and one moves with an eerie crack. I blink again and two more appear; More and more mannequins begin to surround me, creaking and creaking. It’s unnerving and made me feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Basically it made me feel something. Switchback VR is virtual reality at its best.
The eye-tracking technology in PSVR 2 is so advanced that, according to Alejandro Arque Galladro, the game will even monitor and react to things in your peripheral vision. He explains how “we can [monitor] the movement of enemies in the corner of your eye [and] not only the enemies, but also the environment”.
Galladro explains how a scene I played through before (I’m playing a pre-release version of the game at developer Supermassive Games’ UK studio) could have been so much worse. It comes to that moment when my roller coaster cart crawls slowly down a corridor of mirrors, past mechanical mannequins dripping with rotting flesh and contemplating their own reflection in large, dusty mirrors. These enemies will multiply and attack when I blink, but what’s also amazing is how the environment changes too, with the tone of the lighting and the overall atmosphere changing depending on how I react.
In the prototype stage for the use of eye tracking. The team created a room full of bodies hanging on walls, and more bodies would spawn every time a player blinked. Galladro says they wondered if that would even work, “that fear you have when you start embracing something new,” and recalls how “our minds exploded every month” as the idea was pushed further . “[We] I’ve never seen that before,” he says excitedly.
Switchback VR has a message, try not to blink
Switchback VR uses eye tracking in more subtle ways than you think. Of course there is the shock of the Dr. Who Weeping Angel via the mannequin scene, but eye-tracking is everywhere in this game, including an encounter where enemies come to life when you look at them, or remain frozen when you stare back into their dead eyes – this generates late In my playthrough, a tense and even tactical moment where I have to juggle enemies by staring at them to try and manage a dose of insane surgeons.
“We do a lot of this stuff to make you feel like it’s your journey,” Galladro explains. This is where PSVR 2 can really make a difference in new approaches to game design, adapting the gaming experience to a person’s behavior and offering a new level of immersion.
This idea of immersion isn’t new in VR, but Switchback VR and the use of eye-tracking, along with the implementation of Supermassive, point to a future where horror games and VR really are an ideal combination, one that’s in the Hell was made if you will.
When playing Switchback VR, I encounter many moments that another player might not spot simply by where I look and when I blink, having to physically duck to avoid dangers, or even into puzzle rooms that can only be solved by looking explore the environment with a ray of UV light.
Galladro tells me: “We always try to give you something to explore and nothing is ever the same”. If you think about it, bespoke horror experiences in VR can offer something that few other genres can match – pace. Jump scare is a matter of timing, and that means the nausea that can plague many VR games (read my article on PSVR 2 motion sickness) is absent in Switchback VR. I played Switchback VR for 40 minutes straight and felt good.
Switchback VR feels good to play. The tempo is balanced and surprising, but also allows for moments of calm. A fast-paced section of rollercoaster that rumbles you through a dark tunnel and up and down, then slows to a crawl before turning to the shooting or puzzles. This game is all about shocking but also balancing the senses, and horror is an ideal canvas.
Switchback VR on PSVR 2 shows how new hardware can inspire inventive game design. After playing the game I became obsessed with the new eye-tracking technology and how the team at Supermassive Games are approaching design for VR with this core use.
After some tense early moments, I began to lean into my newfound freedom to look around this horror world and find my own personal experiences. I naturally started tossing a torchbeam down dark corridors and searching their dark corners for fun surprises.
There’s a moment on the stage of the abandoned hotel where I’m being wheeled through an audience of zombies. On stage, a petrified couple is dancing in the spotlight, but all eyes are on me. Every face in the room slowly turns to stare at me with a broken, audible “crack”. This is the kind of uneasy feeling that only horror in VR can evoke. Supermassive Games could be here.
Supermassive Games’ The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR will be released on March 16th for PSVR 2. You’ll also need a PlayStation 5 to play it, and quite frankly I can’t think of a better reason to buy Sony’s new console and headset.