Platforms: PC - HTC Vive (reviewed), PC - Oculus Rift
Heart of the Emberstone is the second chapter in The Gallery, Cloudhead’s episodic virtual reality narrative puzzle game. The first episode, Call of the Starseed, is considered by many to be a VR classic. The second chapter in the story manages once again to capture the imagination and deliver a satisfying adventure beyond expectations. It manages to do it in a way that feels even more fun and engaging than the original.
The first game showed off a glimpse of the immersive narrative potential of VR within a basic science fiction themed adventure. Heart of the Emberstone polishes off many small technical issues from the first episode. It creates an involved, interesting world where the mechanics of an alien civilization quickly begin to feel like a natural extension of your hand as you sprint through the 4-6 hours of gameplay.
It’s immersive VR at its best. It’ll leave you staring at your hands when you finally remove your headset, wondering where your gauntlet went, and whether you should consider investing in fingerless gloves as a regular fashion statement.
Puzzles, Tech, and Dancing Skeletons
Ultimately The Gallery is a puzzle game. You proceed from objective to objective, collecting clues and items that you use to proceed through the story. HotE follows the same formula while mixing things up significantly, including the powers of the Gauntlet, an ancient alien cybernetic hand, and the puzzle mechanics.
The Gauntlet is one-part gravity gun, one-part keyblade, and eventually gets functionality as a high-tech slingshot. Each of these mechanics play a role in unlocking the secrets of the Emberstone. As you progress through the story you’ll find yourself lifting rubble to clear paths, carefully guiding the core of your gauntlet (the Hex) through complex mazes, and using your gravity gun powers to make corpses dance the salsa. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
These puzzles are challenging enough to make you take pause, but straightforward enough to master that they rarely keep you from progressing. The feeling that you’re doing something entirely unique to a VR experience is ridiculously strong during these puzzles. Whether you’re guiding your Hex through a complicated locking mechanism or trying to quickly slot gears into place in response to an auditory timer, the sense that you’re doing something unique and solving the problem intuitively is extremely strong.
Generally, the key to completing the more complex puzzles can be found in various journals and cutscenes that play out as you traverse the area. Even then, you often find these clues hiding in unexpected alcoves. You can only access these areas by ducking beneath a table, or otherwise using VR mechanics to interact with the environment in surprising ways.
Occasionally, these clues fall short of directing you to the next area or objective. This could be more of a personal failure on my part to understand the instructions in the moment. It could be because this episode has you backtracking through several stages. Either way, not all the pieces of the puzzle are present in the area relevant to the puzzle you’re currently working on.
This occasionally leaves you rolling a ball around a large room for several minutes. You’ll spend some time trying to figure out if you need to use the magic glove powers to roll it around and break a statue or uncover some secret room. Later you may find out that the massive stone ball wasn’t used until you return to that area much later in the game.
It may not be the failing on the part of the studio. Although the magic of VR often lets you intuitively solve most of the puzzles you encounter on your travels, Cloudhead’s world has a distinct set of rules about what’s possible. It isn’t afraid to reward you for following those rules, or making you feel like a bit of an idiot when you try something that doesn’t make sense. It’s a slight shift in perspective from an objective to shoot bells with a flare gun to open the door to the next area. It’s a welcome change that builds into your sense of reality within an otherwise fantastical setting.
To a World Beyond Imagination
The setting itself is easily one of the most pleasant elements to Heart of the Emberstone. Cast away on a planet in a galaxy far far away, your objective is to first retrieve a gadget as part of a trial from your mysterious captor, Sebastian. Along the way you recover memories from your lost sister. You also slowly uncover the culture of the planet through a number of data logs and cutscenes.
You find yourself lost in the mystery of a long dead culture, and the total immersion the series offers to even experienced VR veterans. Every door, every gadget, every puzzle, and every cutscene helps you visualize a broken world. A world that’s long been lost to time and past cataclysmic events.
Each new puzzle reveals another scene where an ancient piece of advanced technology spins to life. It’s beautiful in its intricacy and fascinating to watch as your work breathes life into something that feels long forgotten.
The longer you play, the more involved you get. The more involved you get, the deeper the mystery seems to go. It’s no wonder that the game occasionally makes you question whether there are secrets hiding around every corner. The plot and the sense of immersion within the game’s atmosphere actively encourage it.
Even as you find yourself answering questions, you find yourself lost in a situation that feels much larger than you. You’re quite literally a character that’s being held in the hands of a giant. The game actively uses its mysteries, and the stories along the way, to drag you deeper and deeper into the world itself.
Heart of the Emberstone takes easily 4-6 hours to complete. It flies by as you sprint through puzzles and lore until suddenly you’re staring down at hands that aren’t your own. It leaves you confused that it ended so soon, because you still have so many questions left to answer.
A Bit Too Much Waiting
Heart of the Emberstone’s rough edges tend to rear their ugly heads as you transition through one area to the next. There’s a certain satisfaction to returning to an area after completing a puzzle to start up another puzzle you finally unlocked. There’s no doubt that it treads a fine line with elements of backtracking that starts to feel repetitive, and a bit boring towards the end of the game.
This is primarily due to the loading screens that occur as you constantly transition between one area and another. Even simple level transitions sometimes involve a ten to fifteen second loading time. After a while you start to dread the beautiful vistas offered to you like an apology, as you wait because it represents a break from immersion that’s otherwise so lovingly crafted. The transitional cutscenes between levels, when your sister addresses the massive creature that carries you from location to location, start to feel especially frustrating. These demand an extra loading screen when you enter and exit the scene.
Although these loading screens don’t take a huge amount of time away from the core gameplay, a ten to fifteen second break from the experience is more than enough time to get a little annoyed. This is especially tedious late in the chapter when you have to transition from area to area quite a bit to collect the items you need to finish the game. I’m sure the issue would have been even more noticeable if I didn’t have Heart of the Emberstone installed on an SSD. If you have the space, consider swapping some files around or upgrading to a larger drive to smooth things along.
As mentioned earlier, occasionally vague instructions and a focus on subtle storytelling sometimes make this issue significantly more pronounced. When you’re not sure where to go next, you’ll find yourself either backtracking around a lot or stubbornly analyzing the last room you solved a puzzle in. Generally, these problems were few and far between, but it happened often enough to be more than a little frustrating.
That said, many of these issues felt minor, and could also have been somewhat intentional. The loading screens could easily be built with general game stability in mind. The subtle storytelling also forces you to pay close attention to the surroundings. This should help you key into when you should focus on a puzzle or jump to another area to continue the plot down another path.