Editor’s Note: I have way too many video games. So, in a completely selfish effort to supply content to the blog while simultaneously cutting down on my backlog, I’ve introduced a recurring segment devoted to taking some of those games off the shelf and discussing them. Today, I’m cheating a bit because I don’t “own” the game, just have access to it through my PlayStation Plus subscription; that makes it not quite backlog material, strictly speaking. But what the hell, I loved Gravity Rush and I feel like writing about it. So here it is. – Z.H.
God, I miss Japanese games.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know they still exist. Indeed, there are probably more Japanese-developed games available in America than ever, including some of the most interesting games I’ve played in the last decade: Demon’s Souls, Valkyria Chronicles, everything Shin Megami Tensei, and the majority of Nintendo‘s output, for starters. The problem is that the wheat-to-chaff ratio for Japanese games in the U.S. has arguably never been worse.
We still get our Zeldas and our Metal Gears and our Final Fantasies, of course, but we’re also overburdened with the kinds of games that never used to come across the Pacific, for good reason: the Senran Kagura, Conceptions, and Akiba’s Trips of the world. It’s gotten to the point where I have to wonder, when I pick up a niche Japanese game, if it’s going to be ruined by a surfeit of heaving bosoms, lame sexual innuendoes, and destructible clothing systems intended for the sort of “people” who buy love pillows and mousepads with boobs. For someone like me, who grew up during Japanese video games’ ’80s and ’90s golden age–a time when “Japanese games” were just “games”–it’s a sad thing to see something I love pandering increasingly to shut-ins and borderline pedophiles. But that’s also what makes a game like Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio’s Gravity Rush so precious.
To be clear, Gravity Rush isn’t free of contemporary Japanese games’ moe plague. Its protagonist, a perky, amnesiac “gravity shifter” named Kat, is deliberately cute and lovable, and the game finds a few too many opportunities to catch her in some state of undress. Compared to the leering, predatory nature of the games mentioned above, however, Gravity Rush is downright demure; this may be a game with cute, lovable anime girls, but it’s not a game about cute, lovable anime girls, at least not in the way most games these days seem to be about them. Instead, it’s a callback to a time, not so long ago, when niche Japanese games aspired to more than just thinly-veiled animated kiddie porn: when they aspired, for lack of a better word, to art.
Those artistic aspirations are evident most immediately in the game’s visual style: a surreal, ornate, and whimsical cel-shaded look, heavily indebted to the French comics artist Moebius, that sticks out like a sore thumb amidst a sea of generic anime designs. Most story sequences are rendered as comic book panels that both show off the PlayStation Vita‘s gorgeous OLED screen and create a paradoxical illusion of three-dimensionality, as you can tilt the system and view the flat images from different angles. And the world and character design have that fluidity of genre that I love in contemporary Japanese visual works, from Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Amano Yoshitaka’s art for the Final Fantasy games. It’s not quite steampunk, not quite fantasy, but a dreamlike synthesis that fires the imagination in this era of rote medieval, futuristic, or gritty modern-day designs.
And the game plays (almost) as good as it looks. I mentioned Kat is a “gravity shifter”: this means, as you might expect–at least if you’ve been raised on video game logic–that she can control her field of gravity to allow her to fly through the air and walk on walls and ceilings (technically, it’s her magical cat sidekick who controls the gravity, but I’m trying to simplify things here). The result, at its best, is the kind of vertiginous, mind-bending gameplay previously hinted at by Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy games; and if Kat doesn’t control as tightly as Mario (who does?), that ceases to matter once you get the hang of launching her into her own personal orbit, falling upwards, and careening into the game’s creepy, enigmatic “Nevi” monsters with gravity-powered karate kicks.
In case the magical cat sidekick and gravity-powered karate kicks didn’t tip you off, Gravity Rush is breezy and light-hearted enough to come as a breath of fresh air after a moody, self-important game like my last backlog entry, Starbreeze’s Syndicate. This may come as something of a surprise to those familiar with the game’s development team: Project Siren, led by director Toyama Keiichirō of Silent Hill (and, well, Siren) fame. But Toyama and co-writer Sato Naoko make the transition from survival horror to lighter fare with aplomb, taking their cues equally from American superhero comics, manga, children’s stories, and dystopian science fiction. The game’s episodic structure both succeeds in carrying on the comic-book theme and breaking up the story into handheld-friendly chapters; at times, it felt like I was playing through a real serialized comic or anime. But Toyama’s authorship still makes itself felt in the story’s many mysteries: just like in Siren and Silent Hill, much remains unexplained, from Kat’s actual identity to the vaguely-defined cosmology of shifters, Nevi, “Creators,” and “Dream Guardians”; the game’s somewhat abrupt ending certainly doesn’t help in that regard, though I imagine at least some of these ideas will be more fully explained in the inevitable Gravity Rush 2.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to make someone nostalgic for the things they loved as a kid, and I’ll be the first to admit that when a game “clicks” with me like this one does, a lot of the time that’s exactly what I’m experiencing. But what I find so impressive about Gravity Rush is its ability to make me nostalgic for an era of video games I didn’t especially appreciate at the time. It reminds me of nothing so much as the quirky, artistic Japanese games of the PlayStation 2 era: the Dark Clouds and Icos and Shadow of the Colossi that I mostly ignored during a time when my interest in video games had temporarily lapsed. Now, though, when the things I treasure about Japanese games are becoming more and more rare, I have to give a game like Gravity Rush the appreciation it deserves. Bless you, Gravity Rush, and thank you, Japan Studio. Just please, please, don’t ruin the sequel with a Kat-touching minigame.