Obduction is an adventure game hailing from Cyan, the same studio that produced the ’90s point-and-click classics Myst (1993) and Riven (1997). The game has been hotly awaited since it netted over $1.3 million on Kickstarter back in late 2013, but despite the fact that it’s officially launching on PC today, fans hoping to strap into a VR headset and start exploring will have to wait a little bit longer. Cyan maintains the VR version of the game is ‘coming soon’, but that didn’t stop us from getting our hands on a so called ‘pre-release version’ for the Oculus Rift.
Available On: Steam (HTC Vive, Rift, OSVR),Oculus Home (Touch)
Originally Reviewed On: August 24th, 2016 – Oculus Rift with XBox Controller
Later Revisited: Oculus Touch, HTC Vive
Release Date: October 31st, 2016 (VR Version)
Update 03/24/2017: The long-awaited support for Oculus Touch and SteamVR Lighthouse controllers has finally been added to the game after many months. Because updating existing reviews is a near-impossible task due to continuous developer updates, both the following text and original scoring have been unmodified, even though the current implementation of hand controllers is decidedly substandard at the moment. You’ll find those impressions at the bottom.
It’s been nearly two decades since I played Myst, but I still remember being entranced by the fidelity of the pre-rendered graphics, yet so disheartened by my inability to progress further in the game when I was stumped. Now that I’m older and have many more games under my belt, finding the determination to grind forward isn’t as hard as it used to be, but the puzzles are anything but easy. Hardly anything is ever handed to you in Obduction, so no easy number sequences conveniently scrawled on the side of the wall near a number door lock. Even a character named C.W. who acts as a sort of quest guide is only willing to give you general directions, and not really much else to go on.
Much like Obduction‘s spiritual forebears, you start the game as a victim of a supernatural catastrophe, an abduction by an organic-looking entity that spirits you away to a strange and wonderful world.
Foot planted firmly in the barren township of Hunrath, you explore a mysterious and impossible place filled with mishmashes of eerily familiar architectural styles and littered with holograms welcoming you to the not-so-bustling town. All of it is flanked by an encroaching alien environment filled with purple mountains jutting at crazy angles and forming seemingly organic shapes, an exterior weirdness held firmly at bay by a large red laser emitter. For the sake of minimal spoilers, I’ll say that there are an additional
two three main areas beyond Hunrath to pound your head against on your search to escape the alien world.
Besides the intensity of the visuals and the massive physical scale afforded by the headset, what stuck me was the density of puzzles splayed out before me. Mine cart tracks crisscrossed the whole map, and the telltale signs of Myst-style object interaction were everywhere. Mechanical contraptions, power lines, and multiple map levels all seemed so close, yet were removed by multiple challenges, each of them warranting a keen eye and plenty of time to examine. That said, the maps are pretty huge, and feature a number of smaller pathways to stumble across.
Live-action characters help fill out the overall barren look of the world, which is done mostly with pre-recorded holograms. A character played by Cyan co-founder Rand Miller, known for his role as Atrus in Riven, also makes an appearance.
Playing Obduction personally took me nine hours to complete, however Cyan told us back at E3 when we got our hands on a demo the first time that anywhere between 5-15 hours are to be expected.
Note 24/08/2016: I was told the version I played on the Rift was considered a ‘pre-release’ version, despite it being the full game.
The environment in Obduction is nothing short of gorgeous, but this does come with a price. Graphically intensive scenes like the world’s giant machines chugging along at breakneck pace might trip you up depending on the guts in your rig. In fact, the minimum suggested card for Obduction exceeds the Rift’s GTX 970 recommended system spec GPU, asking for at least a GTX 980 and 16 GB of RAM at your disposal. For those playing the game with a rig below the game’s own minimum spec, thankfully you’ll be provided with several menu sliders so you can dial down things such as textures, shadows, anti-aliasing, and even modify the sampling level, enough to get things running smoothly.
While under spec GPUs are most certainly to give frame rate issues and prove to be an absolute immersion breaker in VR, one thing I didn’t expect were issues with object interaction. I had several moments when touching a simple button was harder than the puzzle itself. Since your cursor is rendered in both eyes at a fixed distance of maybe a meter away, closer objects that require fine motor skills like rotary phones and switchboards are barely usable due to the cursor not converging correctly on the near-field object.
My last gripe with the ‘pre-release version’ I played was the lack of inventory or notepad so you can easily hold clues for that cross-map puzzle dash. Several times I had to prop up my headset, grab a pencil, and write down a string of numbers or general mission objectives IRL so I didn’t forget. And when you’re in a world that ridiculously good-looking and immersive as Obduction is, you don’t want to fumble with anything more than the puzzle at hand.
Getting around is mostly comfortable, considering there are two options in the menu: either hotspot-based teleportation, or smooth forward movement with 90 degree snap turn. There are times however when hotspots just aren’t in convenient places, and you need to switch in and out of the two modes to maneuver around an obstacle or cut a straight path through the map, a particularly annoying occurrence when you just need to get around.
There is a standing and seated option, but I found myself much more comfortable seated with a gamepad than standing (given the lack of hand controllers currently), and used my swivel chair when I wanted to get a better look at the monolithic structures of the world. While the blink mode brings back some of the point-and-click magic of the old days, in a perfect world I would rather have Vive-style teleportation, a real ‘point and click’ with motion controls. Seeing that it’s not an option on Rift currently, I can’t really knock the game on this regarding comfort.
Vehicle movement is by far the least appealing part of Obduction. A powered minecart and later a tram were fairly tame if you’ve been around VR artificial locomotion for a while now, but it can feel lurchy at times for newcomers, of course keeping in mind that both immersion and comfort issues could be tweaked by the full release of the VR version.
On the whole, Obduction actually does live up to the hype. It was a refreshing dive back into a classic that captured the same air of wonder I felt back then, especially when tinged with the frustration of having to backtrack to previous areas to collect a browsed-over clue. This, to me, isn’t a con though. It’s a feature that begs your attention, demands your critical thinking skills, and punishes you for not trying your best.
Updating scores to games, whether it be raising or lowering them, sets a precedent that we don’t want to follow. It says to the developer that we are willing and able to go back and change our impressions to fit whatever update they consider worthy of a few more points at any moment after launch. In Obduction’s case though—if we actually did that—I would probably lower the score to reflect the currently poor integration of motion controls and level of VR optimization. I won’t be lowering or raising any scores however, because I firmly believe that ‘what you get is what you get’ at the time of initial review with little exception.
This too is a ‘what you get is what you get’ moment, where I will be listing my grievances with the full knowledge that updates are likely to follow. I do this because the studio is both advertising motion control support as a non-beta feature (“full motion control support”) and selling the game for money in its current form. If you don’t own it already, then this is the studio’s big push to win you over with new features and get your $29.99, whether it be on Steam or Oculus Home.
I’m sad to say the long wait for motion controller support has not been worth it—not in its current form at least, and that you should hold onto your money until they fix the game, especially if you’re looking for something with adequate motion controller support.
It all starts with diminished hand presence.
The HTC Vive controllers can only offer so much hand presence, or the illusion that your hands are actually in the game, and that just comes down to the controller’s button layout. Vive controllers on principle seem to provide adequate hand presence once you’ve actually gripped a mobile object, but this is usually never the case in Obduction. When your hands look ‘frozen’ while using a Vive, it’s mostly par for the course.
Oculus Touch however provides a number of variable finger positions, including full-handed grips, pointer finger and thumb extensions. Seeing a flat and frozen hand while using Touch is about as alien as Hunrath. The hand mesh used is both massive and way out of the correct position of where it should be.
This is all pretty off-putting, but interacting with the world is an even greater challenge. Once you get to a lever or door handle and try to open it naturally, your hand then follows a pre-set opening animation which entirely disconnects you from the sense that these are actually your hands, instead making you puppet them to open or activate whatever it is you need to. So not only are your hands unnatural in form and function, but the world around you is mostly ineffectual.
Performance has been an issue too it seems. My computer has an Intel Core i7-6700K running at 4.00 GHz, an NVIDIA GTX 1080 graphics card, and 16 GB of ram—well above the recommended specs for the game—and jumping into Obduction I was given a mix of custom graphics settings supposedly matched to meet my systems requirements to get a solid 90 fps.
Everything seemed great at the beginning. But after messing with the settings to see what each one looked like, I started noticing dropped frames evidenced by asynchronous spacewarp reprojection similar to what reddit user kommutator reports. This resulted in stuttery hands and sort of ‘melty’ look to objects even on medium settings, not something I’d expect considering my setup. Putting up a frame rate counter via NVIDIA’s own screen capture software, I found that even on the lowest setting I was dipping into the mid ’80s fps-wise.
This isn’t exactly the focus of my revistation of the Obduction review, but there are a few updates outside of motion controller support that make the game more appealing to a larger VR audience. The user now has the option between node-based teleportation, user-guided teleportation and smooth turning along with the stock snap-turn ‘comfort mode’.
Since any and all of these issues mentioned could be resolved in successive updates, you should keep an eye on the game’s Steam page for more info.
We partnered with AVA Direct to create the Exemplar 2 Ultimate, our high-end VR hardware reference point against which we perform our tests and reviews. Exemplar 2 is designed to push virtual reality experiences above and beyond what’s possible with systems built to lesser recommended VR specifications.