Developer: Pixel Reef
Publisher: Pixel Reef
Platform: PS VR
Rating: E (Everyone)
When it comes to games that are too artsy for their own good, I immediately check out. Deep meanings and hidden socio-political messages turn me off because they try to convey something that should be forthright instead of snuck in to strike like a smooth criminal. The opposite can also be said where it does not mean anything, and I am left with a nothingburger. The sweet spot in the middle is a hard spot to strike, but very satisfying when done so. Paper Beast does not feel like either extreme nor the center, and I cannot tell why.
Violence: The titular paper beasts are an entire ecosystem of various structures and behave like the real animal kingdom. Predators attack prey in various moments. It is neither glorified or brutal, just a way of life.
It would be an understatement to say that Paper Beast is an interesting game. Upon launching it, I was greeted by a calibration screen that looked like it was pulled from the Disney classic Tron, as a sea of blue pillars emerged from the floor and blocks floated around the screen. The only actual character was a morphing shape with the name SwirlyBeat.
SwirlyBeat took me to a space of lights and colors akin to a nightclub rave only seen in movies. As more shapes whizzed by my head, I grew more confused. The music felt like it would work better as an anime opener than as part of a game. There had to be a mistake; I saw no animals or paper. Perhaps I had downloaded the wrong game. Nope, it was the right one. I had missed the official description of the game. What I was experiencing was the real world of the game. The beasts are from “somewhere hidden in the vast memory of data servers.”
Upon fulfilling some unknown condition, I found myself covered by a curtain and in the company of a tape recorder. Once I pulled the curtain down, the promise was fulfilled. I looked out, and staring me down was a massive paper creature beckoning me to follow it. So my odyssey truly began.
As I trekked across the arid desert, I found myself in awe of what was before me. While it was not the prettiest world I had seen in VR, it certainly was the most unique. Sharp-edged ridges, smooth sand, rippling water and harsh sunlight felt like a whole new take on what I have seen in countless other titles. For what was touted as a simulation inside a digital world in a game, it did not feel that way at all. Creatures interacted in front of me as if their real-world counterparts would if I were on a safari. Even though staring for more than a few seconds would hurt my eyes, I still felt compelled to stare and take it all in.
Something still felt off, though; something was breaking the immersion. I would make my way through sandstorms constructed of letters and numbers. I would look to the sky to see clouds made of these as well. A box cutter tearing through the sky unleashed unknown horrors on the wildlife. These would have brought me deeper into the world had it been all presented as a paper crafts imagination of an origami expert. Instead, it took me out because I was reminded this was not a construct of the mind but of a computer and various data. The interpretation I had of this beautiful world was being torn away by a reality in the game that felt completely different. One thing was being shown while another was being given like a cheap trick pulled by a salesman.
One thing that is not a cheap trick is the Sandbox mode. Unlocked after a few levels of the main adventure, I was given a world to play with and create how I saw fit. Every collectible found in the main game unlocked a new thing to add to my own world here. It felt like playing with action figures after I had saved up my allowance. I was free to run amok with most of the plants and animals I had encountered in my travels. If I wanted to have the sun hit the horizon at a certain angle so my paper deer looked more majestic, I could. Should the scene end up with an army of predators surrounding their prey trapped on a small island, it was a reality quick to come true. Nothing felt truly off-limits and I could easily wipe out everything in an instant just so I could think of something new to do. It was so much fun.
As far as controls go, it plays smoothly. I was able to quickly grasp how to move and manipulate what I had around me, and if I forgot which button did what, I could look down at the virtual controller to view the button layout. There are no menus to slog through; all it takes is just a simple look. Admittedly it was disappointing that I could not just move around and was forced to teleport from place to place, and using the PS Move controllers still only gave me one hand with which to manipulate everything, since the other is dedicated strictly to movement. At least there are no such issues with the DualShock 4 since it all is on one game-pad.
Overall, Paper Beast is a well presented game that portrays something fascinating at first glance, but is undercut by the why of what it is: an artful game, yet one that feels like a collision of two worlds with only a threadbare connection between them. Art does not need to be overly complicated or clever to get a point across, even though it can. Paper Beast just does not know what magic it has right under its nose.
Review copy generously provided by Stride PR
The Bottom Line
Paper Beast is an artistic and ambitious title bogged down by trying to explain something more than needed.