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Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Gravity Rush

PS Vita

Gravity Rush
Kat awakens in the squalid depths of Hekseville, a city drifting around a massive gnarled pillar. Bereft of her memories, she's joined by a shadowy cat named Dusty, and the creature gives her power over the forces of gravity. It's enough to make her a local celebrity—and the target of a master criminal, an unfairly hostile rival named Raven, and a host of dark-matter monsters. All the while, she unearths little mysteries about Hekseville and just why it's hanging there in a void.

The best part of Gravity Rush is never distant. Press a button, and scrappy superheroine Kat will hover in the air. Aim her, press the button again, and she'll fly just about anywhere. She'll race across the side of a building, shoot up to ride on the giant video screens of a passing airship, or rocket high above the whole metropolis. She'll drift, flail, and stumble as she bends gravitational forces to her will, but she'll soar when the time is right. And so will Gravity Rush.

At first, Kat doesn't do much beyond gawking at the unknown. Upon awakening in the floating city of Hekseville, she can't remember her real name, her past, or the fact that high heels are really uncomfortable when you're jumping all over the place. But Kat has a valuable friend in her mysterious feline companion Dusty, and her gravity-controlling powers let her rescue citizens and fight off amorphous creatures called Nevi. The populace embraces her as a “shifter” superhero, and she's all too happy to accept the identity.

Kat begins her journey with small steps. Her gravity bending is limited by a power meter, and the initial charge barely gets her up a building. It's just enough to experiment with the game's rules and work out its strategies: how to find the right launching points for Kat, how to let her meter replenish mid-fall, and how to look at her hair and cape to tell just which way is up. Once Kat completes a few missions and gathers some of the purple gems that seem to be everywhere, her powers expand into gravity-based attacks and force fields. There's a lot of Hekseville to see, and each of Kat's major victories pulls some new district out of oblivion. A university, a nightclub sprawl, and a bustling downtown all emerge from the ether, and Kat doesn't stop there.

As the city grows, so does Kat. She's an awkward novice at first, contorting and crashing as she flies from one building to another. Yet every new chapter gives her better footing. Told with both shaded cutscenes and comic panels that recall Moebius and his imitators, Gravity Rush is a tale of an amnesiac soul finding a powerful new identity, and Kat's a likeable heroine whether she's protecting passersby or playfully levitating them with her powers.

It's a shame that the combat of Gravity Rush can't keep up with Kat. When fighting off the Nevi, she has mundane ground kicks, a powerful diving attack, and a grab-and-throw gravity field at her disposal. The Nevi come in various animal and humanoid shapes, and all of them have big glowing cores for Kat to strike. They seem to be easy targets, but the game's spastic viewpoint often makes them hard to hit with Kat's best weapon: her dive-kick. Unshakeable auto-targeting would make the game too simple, so players can merely re-aim Kat in the air. The problem is that she's almost too quick, and all too often she'll brush narrowly by an enemy's core and hurtle off in the wrong direction. And if she's fighting in close confines, the so-called camera is all but guaranteed to have a seizure as it tracks her. The game also gets desperate to show off the PS Vita's touch-screen in some areas, and it ruins one of Kat's lesser-used moves.

And somehow, Gravity Rush can be fun even when you're screwing up. If Kat's flanked by evasive Nevi and pelted by their bullets from all sides, that button's still right there. Tap it, and she'll dash away from the whole fracas and set herself up for another savage dive. The Nevi themselves aren't particularly bright, and there's an easily deduced method to defeating their various forms. The boss encounters show more invention, particularly when Kat chases a reckless orb through the city or stalks a flying centipede through the columns of a starry underworld. Fighting seems less the point of the game and more just another step in Kat's adventure. Perhaps that's no accident. Gravity Rush is really all about its world and what Kat sees of it.

There's the real point. Many games have more places to go and more secrets to uncover, but the journey's rarely this enjoyable. Kat's surrounded by strange, subdued beauty in the colors of Hekseville and the twisted realms beyond, and exploring it brings a remarkable sensation. It'll come when Kat leaps through the underside of the city, hunting down gem caches and a pair of ghosts unstuck in time. Or maybe it'll emerge when she plunges from the edge of the world, drifts in space for a contemplative moment, and then swoops upside-down through the city's lower levels. Perhaps it'll be there the first time she races to the top of a skyscraper and gazes across the city that's all hers to discover. Then it'll hit: Gravity Rush is like nothing else.

This doesn't extend to the story, as Gravity Rush feels like a common superhero origin in abstract guise. Creator Keiichirō Toyama is known for the creeping horrors of Siren and the original Silent Hill, and there's a similarly uneasy element just beneath Gravity Rush's comic-book cheerfulness. It's said in hints and prophecies, made all the stranger by a fictional language which sounds French and Russian and alien all at once. But for every haunting idea, there's a dopey cliché to reel it back and remind us that this is a fun game no matter what. To that end, the ending's abrupt and portentous, turning the whole thing into Gravity Rush: Episode 1.

It's lucky to have Kat at its center. She's a stereotype with a series of ridiculous outfits (most of which are available in extra mission packs), but she's more than just a cipher for your city-hopping amusement. Far from a brooding waif, Kat tackles her role with bravado, sarcasm, and a believable dash of naivety. It's easy to sympathize with her, and it's easy to feel insulted when the game lets a male character accidentally glimpse her naked and ashamed. That's a terrible, misogynistic routine used in lazy comics and anime, and it hurts a game like this more than it would a Lollipop Chainsaw.

Gravity Rush isn't a smooth trip. In its most intense moments, it's chaotic and acutely frustrating. Yet it remains a marvelous, standard-setting creation, and the proof is only a button-press away. In the free-floating splendor that follows, it's hard to hate any part of Gravity Rush. As Kat shows, no one flies perfectly on the first try.

Overall : B+
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B+

+ Flying never gets old, and the world never gets dull
The combat system and camera hate each other

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