Jeff Minter’s quest to induce trance states in play continues in VR
The apocryphal Polybius arcade machine was said to induce amnesia and bouts of night terrors. It’s something of a relief, then, to find that developer Jeff Minter isn’t interested in replicating any of the urban legend’s defining characteristics in his PSVR game of the same name, and is, in fact, working to avoid inflicting psychological distress altogether.
Which is probably why Polybius feels so comfortable to play, despite our early fears after seeing the first videos of this psychedelic conglomerate of retro arcade aesthetics and farm stock thundering past at what appeared to be an entirely unreasonable speed. Strapped into the HMD, however, and surrounded by Minter’s surreal vision, the effect is one of trance-inducing relaxation.
That’s not to say it’s devoid of challenge. While Minter tells us he’s dialled down the difficulty for early showings, there’s still plenty to do. Anyone who’s played his earlier work should settle in quickly: hold X to fire a stream of lasers while you move left and right across variously shaped pathways, avoiding or destroying obstacles as you go. Here, though, rather than enemies coming to you, you’re perpetually moving forward into the level. Some stages see you rotating around the inside or outside of a cylinder, others are ‘U’ shapes with impassable edges, and still more trace gentle curves across the screen.
Each surface is populated by a riot of colourful things to shoot, including bouncing polygonal balls, bright red obelisks, and creatures that look suspiciously like Space Invaders. In among them, a pair of dotted lines trace an optimal (though also optional) path through the noise punctuated by gates that look like a pair of tusks set into the ground. Each one you successfully pass through will provide a little kick of speed until you’re hurtling along at an unnerving pace, while giant bouncing pills offer up score bonuses and powerups – including one that sets everything into slow motion for a time. Your score multiplier is directly tied to how fast you’re travelling, and clipping the sides of gates or any indestructible scenery – which is introduced with greater frequency as you move into later levels – will reset your speed to what feels like a comparative crawl and cost you one shield, the equivalent of a life. While there are some subtle variations to your main weapon (one sees your barrage split into two streams, the first of which fires directly in front while the other reacts to the geometry of the level by curving across inclines), we struggle to notice it changing much during our demo. This is partly down to the fact that most enemies burst with a single hit, meaning that you feel pretty powerful from the outset. Minter doesn’t want to create too much friction, however – the game is at its best when you’re flowing through its rapidly changing collages, and losing speed recalls the disheartening jolt of hitting the trackside in the original Wipeout.
This sense of unbounded progression is underscored by a second type of gate, also introduced in later levels, that throws you into the air for a second or two. You’ll score more points for everything you destroy while aloft, and each hit will briefly reduce your rate of descent, keeping you airborne for longer.
Polybius doesn’t make any particular gameplay case for VR, and it can be played on a TV screen, too. But the pleasure of being enveloped by Minter’s irrepressibly cheerful digital narcotic is such that using a headset just feels like the right thing to do. With Rez, PSVR has already given new life and context to one trip-pedalling auteur’s work, and with Polybius the process looks set to repeat.
The legend of the Polybius arcade machine includes the notion that the game was built to influence players behaviourally, triggering something within them by using subliminal messages. Minter’s game also features subliminal messages, but they’re benign and not particularly wellhidden. However, he tells us that in an earlier build they were much harder to spot, and as a result he had to point out some colourful language to Sony’s QA team. In the interests of keeping things family-friendly, he has since removed anything that might have caused offence.
Rather than enemies coming to you, you’re perpetually moving forward into the level
Developer/ publisher Llamasoft Format PS4, PSVR Origin UK Release 2017