Crystal Rift from Psytec Games promises a return to the halcyon days where 3D, grid based gaming was at the cutting-edge albeit this time in VR. So what does a retro-inspired, virtual reality dungeon crawler feel like? As the game hit Steam Early Access yesterday as part of their Early Access program, we’ve gone hands on with Oculus Rift version to find out.

As important as the 3D dungeon crawler is in gaming evolution, I must confess that the genre’s golden age somewhat passed me by. I’ve been gaming for over 25 years man and boy, but the 16 bit computing era for me was all about arcade conversions and eye-candy. What can I say, I was a shallow teenager with the attention span of a gnat (some might say not much has changed).

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So as I came to preview the new early access version of Crystal Rift, a game developed specifically for virtual reality and heavily inspired by the likes of Dungeon Master (1987), Eye of the Beholder (1992) and (latterly) Legend of Grimrock (2012), I found my qualifications perhaps slightly lacking. As it turns out however, although Crystal Rift does indeed borrow heavily from dungeon crawling tropes of the past, it wraps them all up in a most accessible, modern and enjoyable package. Furthermore, playing the game on an Oculus Rift, I discovered a level of immediacy missing from those 16 bit classics meaning others just like me may be tempted to give the genre a spin.

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Crystal Rift on Steam Early Access

Escape the Rift! One Square at a Time

Entering the dungeon, one thing strikes you – space is really tight in here. “Well dur!” I hear you exclaim, but I mean REALLY tight. This is seemingly entirely by design, but the scaling in the game took some getting used to. Initially I thought my IPD was out of whack before realising that a combination of low ceiling and object sizing made my virtual presence feel mis-sized. But you soon come to realise, that packing you in tightly is key to Crystal Rift’s tension and in some instances gameplay mechanics.

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Grey stone walls and floors make up your world, scantly lit by the occasional torch and light you yourself project, somewhat like a torch. It’s an immediately oppressive environment, and virtual reality wraps you in the world with no escape to be found in your peripheral vision or indeed in looking away. Darkness is absolute, meaning you dread the lights going out. This is VR’s power, to bring such minimalist environments to life and to terrify you with them – simply by dropping your senses directly into them.

You move through the world in staccato steps (this is a grid based game after all) – pushing once on the ‘walk’ control (be that Joypad or keyboard) advances you a grid square in one of four directions, you can also rotate 90 degrees clockwise/counter-clockwise. As part of a gaming generation fed on FPS tropes used by countless games, re-training your brain to work with the purposely restrictive control scheme took me a little while – but it’s ultimately key to the games charm and core gameplay mechanics. If you’re struggling, movement style can be customised in the game’s options to help you find the sweet spot you’re comfortable with.

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As you explore the environment, you’ll be be on the look out for vertiginous drops, pressure pads unleashing fireballs of death and spiky metal traps waiting to separate your brain from its cosy housing. Yes, we said it was retro, but these time-worn cliches take on a visceral quality when it really feels like it’s your face about to be flayed off, mashed or plummeted. You really do find yourself thinking long and hard before stepping out into the path of that rolling boulder, this automatic investment in your avatar part of VR’s power it seems.

Progress further down into the dungeon is granted by collecting coloured crystals and keys to locked doors, which generally reside at the centre of a series of fiendish puzzles. Collect the crystal to unlock doors of a corresponding colour. As you go deeper into the dungeon, puzzles get harder and you begin to encounter other occupants who are, predictably, not particularly happy sharing the dungeon with you.

What Was That?!

Sound plays a key role in any adventure game and Crystal Rift is no exception. Sound is atmospheric and terrifying at times with whispers, distant scuttling, menacing groans, whirs and scrapes ratcheting the tension as you edge your way through the darkness. Your heartbeat pounds in your ears, heightening the claustrophobic atmosphere and the general levels of dread and doom.

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Use of music is excellent if somewhat inconsistent at times. Unlike the rumbling, brooding, music-free Dreadhalls, you’re constantly accompanied by incidental music. With the background melody occasionally interrupted by bouts of panic-inducing crescendos as you enter particular zones, signifying danger and tweaking your nerves. It generally works well, although the ‘you’re OK now’ melody seems ill at ease with the dark, oppressive surroundings and transitions.

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Interestingly, and something I’ve not come across before, Crystal Rift offers those lily-livered cowards an adjustable ‘scare’ factor. Choose in the options between ‘None’ all the way to ‘Extreme’. When VR comfort comprises a players experience within the game an not just the technical aspects of headtracking, this is a considerate and thoughtful addition.

Who am I?

Narrative is minimal at present, but what’s there is currently revealed via various notes littering the dungeon. They contain cryptic, sometimes useful and often amusing asides or clues as to what lies ahead. However, there’s no real feel of a traditional story-line, at least not yet (this is early access of course lets not forget). As you play, you realise there’s no real reason to connect emotionally with your avatar. Who am I? Why am I here? … and other such tired metaphysical emotes. I’m looking forward to this aspect being fleshed out in the full version as it was always such a crucial aspect of the old 16 bit dungeon crawlers  – especially back then, when realistic visuals and the wow factor of VR were absent.

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