Grav|Lab, despite its Early Access status, might well be the surprise star of the Oculus Touch launch lineup. It doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of the bigger releases – and many of its rough edges are in need of smoothing – but its intriguing blend of fun, challenging, physics-puzzler gameplay is compelling.
Developer: Mark Schramm
Publisher: Mark Schramm
Available On: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive (Oculus Home & Steam)
Reviewed on: Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch
Release Date: Dec 3rd (OH), Oct 21st (Steam) 2016
Grav|Lab plays out like nothing so much as a reverse Lemmings (1991). Here, in your bid to get a set number of balls from their spawn point to the goal, you are building the world for them to traverse. You will lay out gravity defying plates that allow you to gently coerce your charges onto the right path, one that may well be above you as the game makes full use of 3D space. You will use accelerators to fire them on ballistic trajectories, and property modifying fields that can make them especially heavy or as light as bubbles.
As with all the best puzzlers, the devil is in the details. Getting your balls from A to B is only the beginning. Getting them there efficiently, with the minimum number of component pieces, is something else altogether. Each challenge has an easy, medium and hard variation that will impose restrictions on you that force some real out-of-the-box thinking.
One notable example introduces you to the accelerator, a useful tool not unlike a tennis ball machine that accepts balls into an opening and then shoots them out at high velocity. You use this to solve a puzzle in a satisfyingly direct way: by firing something from its origin to its destination. Great! The very next challenge looks like it could be solved the same way, only it suggests that you try it without the accelerator. Because you’re human, and because you can’t resist a challenge, you do exactly that.
There are more wrinkles to come as you move out of the six Basic Challenges into the nine Advanced Challenges. Here a lot of new toys are added, including sensors that will make other machines pump out new balls that you need to get to their destination. Each ball has to get to a specific collector, which needs a certain amount of them before declaring you victorious. Whereas before it was about getting a ball from A to B, it now additionally has to pass through a sensor to allow another ball to spawn that you must get from C to D, and yet another from E to F. By the end the room is chock full of your contraptions, and the air is thick with balls arcing gracefully on their way. It’s hard not to giggle gleefully at this point, and it’s a game where I’d love to share some footage of my wilder solutions – although in 2D I don’t think you’d get quite the same impact from this chaotic and vaguely ridiculous ballet. Add a spectator mode to the wishlist for the dev.
I keep referring to ‘balls’ but the objects you must direct aren’t spherical. They’re multifaceted geometric things, about the size of a baseball, and that brings an element of unpredictability into the mix because the flight paths now can’t be deterministic. Each ‘ball’ isn’t guaranteed to fly along exactly the same path as the last, which injects some welcome chaos and character to the experience, where often physics based puzzlers can be rather dry.
What’s most wonderful about this experience is how active you have to be to get the most from it. When lining up accelerators to blast the ball to the other side of the room, I’d use the now standard press-aim-release teleportation movement system (which also has a ‘nudge’ you can do on the stick to take small steps forward and back and rotate) to get myself in position and then crouch behind it and sight down it to line up my ‘shot’. It makes the whole thing more engaging and personal. It’s like tuning a hot rod. For people new to ‘room scale’ type experiences this is going to be a real eye opener. It does expose some of the tracking flaws of two front mounted Touch sensors, but nothing you can’t work around.
The game is not without its niggles – placement of items is entirely by hand, including the microscopic adjustments needed to coax a wayward trajectory into line. I’d love to see a tool whereby I could make micro-adjustments without relying on having a rock-steady hand. That might be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ though, as a lot of the fun I had here was in this careful alignment. There are also some times when the otherwise very intuitive UI lets itself down. Tools are selected from a menu that appears above either hand with a button press, with the usual laser-pointer method of navigation and selection. Some tools have parameters that can be tweaked by pointing at them in the lab and then selecting said parameters from the menu that appears. From time to time the tool itself occludes these menus, meaning you have to rotate it out of the way to tweak its function. This is something that will no doubt be smoothed out as development progresses.
There are community features, whereby you can construct your own challenges and share with others. I’m not sure whether that’s online yet, as can’t tear myself away from the challenges, but other connected features like the leaderboards don’t appear to be functioning yet so that might all still be work in progress. One community level is included by way of example, to complement the 15 standard challenges – each of which has three difficulty levels, don’t forget.
On the rendering side there are more options than your average VR game including supersampling. Given that it’s not the most visually advanced game out there, you should find that you can push these settings a lot higher than you’re accustomed to, resulting in a very clean, very readable presentation.
Grav|Lab is already very enjoyable as an Early Access title, and I am very keen to see where they take the game from here. It’s a rare thing to be so surprised and delighted by a game nowadays. While I haven’t yet polished off all of the challenges at all the difficulty levels, there’s already more than enough here to make it a comfortable recommendation. User reviews are also very positive. If physics based puzzlers are even slightly your thing, you should check it out.
Taking place in a single environment, the titular Grav|Lab, the game doesn’t exactly wow with its setting. That is, until you realise that each room is basically a blank canvas that you can use to paint spectacular solutions, then it fades into the background as all your mental energies turn to solving the puzzles. There’s a wonderful sense of being on the inside of a machine, observing inner workings that are usually hidden from view. Setting up a production line of balls being fired from one side of the room to the other, and then teleporting to the far side, turning back, and watching them hove into view is excellent as you set up the next devious part of your master solution.
I have lost hours to Grav|Lab. The VR immersion is almost secondary to the mental immersion in eking out the best solutions to the problems.
With step movement and teleporting, the game is perfectly comfortable at all times. You might find yourself performing some contortions to line up components, and to take a different view on the problems at hand, so a muscle warm up before you play wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.
Road to VR does not award scores to early access titles as development is often still underway.