My first impression of Rhythm of the Universe wasn’t great. The biggest draw for VR games is immersion, and the game designers chose to present the opening cinematic as a flat video projected “theatre-style” with the player watching it in a black play area. There’s nothing wrong with the intro’s content, but it’s strange to start players out in such a non-immersive way. The game also ends with a flat video presentation. It makes more sense here since this ending video is a real-world message and not part of the narrative, but it seems like a missed opportunity to use a 360 video in a VR game.
After the strange opening, I was back on board with where Rhythm of the Universe seemed to be going. There was another introductory area, this time in VR, that oozed the atmosphere and set the narrative’s stage with a story of outside forces invading the land and the struggles of the sacred forest’s protector. It’s nothing Earth-shatteringly original, but it was presented well enough that I was excited to fight back the intruders and save the forest animals and spirits. Unfortunately, this ended up being an unfulfilled promise that only minimally affects the way the game plays out.
Unfortunately, “untapped potential” is the term that best encapsulates my time with Rhythm of the Universe. The game is incredibly short, and every time something seems to be heading in an interesting direction, the game moves on or fails to explore it. There’s a brief cinematic in space, for example, that describes the musical origins of the world. As a fan of both historical and fictional origins mythology, this was exciting! There were talks of different spirits, their relationship, and how they came to be, and it’s all presented in a cool way that had me excited about how the story would use it. Unfortunately, the answer is that it had nothing to do with anything. Nothing from this revelatory moment about the world is referenced again or has any impact on gameplay or mechanics.
This is a running theme in the game. The (few) puzzles seemed interesting at first, but I quickly found that there was only ever one, obvious path to solving them. There are a few climbing sections, but these are also linear and without room for exploration. The closest I got to exploring was early in the game when I found myself trying to get somewhere that I apparently wasn’t supposed to go by climbing some vines. I fell, and the game just teleported me to the next checkpoint and I continued on. It’s also worth noting that, outside of climbing, teleportation movement is the only option, and it’s the kind that quickly fades to black instead of zooming. I understand that this is better for some people that suffer motion sickness, but it’s also the least immersive form of movement. The option to use zoom or true movement would have been much appreciated.
A Short Experience
The fact of the matter is that Rhythm of the Universe: IONIA is just too short to develop any interesting ideas. There are only a small handful of puzzles and a few “cut-scenes,” then the game ends. I’m going to get into spoiler territory for the rest of this paragraph, so skip ahead if you’re going to play the game, but the way the game ends seems to actively exacerbate the game’s length. Once I made my way to the giant dragonfly-looking Harpa and somehow healed it by moving my hand like a maestro for a minute, there’s a big, hyped discussion from an elder character that my newly discovered powers are the key to saving the continent and that it’s time to head out on a dangerous adventure to finally engage the enemy (who are never present in the game, by the way). Awesome, so the simple areas so far were only the intro/tutorial! Nope; the screen went black and the game was over.
The only bright spot that I have to bring up is that the voice acting is fairly good and the motion capture is solid. The game doesn’t look particularly good on the Oculus Quest 2, but the way the two non-player characters move and sound was superior to the quality of anything else in the game. There were also some cool creature designs that gave me major Pandora from Avatar vibes, but each was only briefly around.
A Good Cause
It’s also worth noting that this game is partnered with Wildlife Warriors USA. The theme of saving the environment makes sense in this context (even if it isn’t told well), and a portion of the proceeds are donated to the organization to help them work with wildlife and environmental protection. If the game was built from the ground up as a charity project I could forgive some of the shortcomings, but as of the time of this writing, only 5% of the game’s gross is going towards the cause. While this is still a good thing, it’s not enough to consider purchasing Rhythm of the Universe a charity donation with a game attached.
I really do have a hard time putting down a game that doesn’t do anything actively bad and has a good cause behind it, but the unfortunate truth is that there are much more fulfilling and well-made experiences on the Oculus Quest that players are better off spending time and money on. There are some interesting concepts that are introduced but only minimally explored, and I found myself confused by the unfulfilled promise of a sprawling narrative. I’d be interested to return to this world again in a more fleshed-out game, but right now there’s not enough here to justify a purchase for most.
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There are some interesting creature designs, the narrative presents some cool ideas, and some of the proceeds are going to a good cause.
The gameplay is dull, the puzzles are poor, the narrative never explores its interesting premise, and the game is incredibly short.