Gravity Rush could be described as the Vita’s first “AAA” new IP, and given that it comes from Sony’s Japan Studio, it cleaves closer to the unconventional side of their IP catalog. This is to its benefit however, because it distinguishes itself as a strong original voice on a platform that both needs strong original titles, and also allows for unconventional game design through its myriad control options and welcoming interface. Imagine Spider-Man set in “The Triplets of Belville” and you have a vague idea of the crazy, joyful places that Gravity Rush will send you.
Yes, Gravity Rush is in many ways the perfect title for the Vita. It’s not bereft of problems, but it’s endearingly weird, unique, and fiercely likeable.
Gravity Rush puts players in the shoes of Kat, a young, be-amnesia’d woman who acquires the power to shift gravity in any direction she desires. This power is bestowed upon her by a plaintive black cat, named “Dusty,” who appeared from nowhere to be her constant companion. They live in the floating city of Hekseville, the three districts of which have splintered and become trapped in a front of encroaching gravity storms. As if that weren’t enough, malevolent amorphous beings of negative energy called the “Nevi” have descended on the city, wantonly attacking its citizens and rousing general rabble. With nothing better to do, and the vague promise that it could lead her to figure out who she is and where she came from, Kat sets out to rescue Hekseville from its various plights, along the way, encountering incompetent police detectives, another woman with similar gravity shifting powers, and the creator of the Universe itself. Japan, ladies and gentlemen.
In practice, Gravity Rush starts with a gameplay mechanic that hasn’t been done before and wastes no time legitimizing it. By pressing the R-trigger, Kat will float softly and a cursor will allow the player to choose where gravity should be directed. Players can use the right-stick or the Vita’s gyroscope to acquire their intended targets, and once Kat knows where to go, another press of the trigger sends her “falling” towards the new ground. The L-trigger will revert things back to normal gravity, no matter where Kat is, and players can judge their orientation at any time by the direction of Kat’s hair and scarf. While suspended in midair, Kat can also launch herself at enemies for a powerful gravity kick, which is often the only way to damage their weak points
It’s a gameplay mechanic that is cautiously introduced and nurtured. Kat can only shift gravity for as long as Dusty’s power gauge will allow, but pretty soon the game opens up and lets players upgrade nearly every aspect of the gravity powers, from gauge duration, to shifting speed, to recovery time, to how well Kat tracks an enemy when she’s targeting them for a kick. These upgrades don’t just embellish the player’s familiarity with the controls, they’re absolutely necessary for progressing in the game. Gravity Rush’s difficulty curve starts high and then descends to a plateau that matches the player’s technical skills with Kat’s maturation as a gravity shifter. By putting the players on the same learning curve as its protagonist, the game wonderfully synthesizes Kat’s attitude towards her abilities, confidence, and responsibilities with that of the person behind the controls.
While it starts off with a simple-yet-disorienting gameplay mechanic, Gravity Rush soon blossoms into an experience that makes masters of its children. At the outset, players will be slowly trying to navigate the game’s open world- overshooting destinations, running out of shifting energy, and clumsily trying to fight the Nevi; but by the end, Kat is a dervish- careening through the open skies, accurately tearing through her foes, and shifting gravity in a way that’s as graceful as it is dangerous.
Gravity Rush has wonderfully designed cel-shaded visuals, notable for the way they leverage terrific animation and effects with the technical limitations of the Vita. It nails the sensation of falling through the air, with a camera that whips around Kat at all angles and an excellent use of physics and particle effects.
This being an open world title on a handheld console, the problems that could have been frame-loss and draw distance have been addressed in an ingenious way: when Kat is far away enough, objects in the distance take on the heavily-inked look of a comic book background. As she flies through Hekseville, people and architecture fade in smoothly enough that it doesn’t jar the sense of speed or disrupt the art design from one district to the next. It’s visually cohesive in a way that supports both its gameplay, and the inspiration it takes from manga and films of the Studio Ghibli stripe.
If Gravity Rush has any fault, it’s the sense of disorientation that comes native with the powers it grants to the player. The camera never orients itself to the true gravity of the world, which can waste precious seconds needed to get Kat’s bearings when she’s trying to escape danger or line-up the perfect approach to a target. The way the Nevi are designed, with one glowing weak spot that’s often hard to focus on, can also test the player’s patience in some irritating ways. Taking thirty seconds to line up the perfect gravity kick, only to watch the Nevi avoid damage by moving slightly to the left is maddening. While upgrades to the lock-on fidelity and shifting speed slowly alleviate this problem, there’s no denying that it drains much of the enjoyment from the game’s early hours.
Fortunately, Gravity Rush never truly pushes the player away. It’s far too charming, and the emergent exhilaration of its gravity shifting mechanic is much too enjoyable to keep its audience away for long. Even the story, which loses steam late in the game, keeps things rolling at a quick pace and trades on the unflappable optimism of Kat and her trusty companion to keep players invested. Despite the well-known trope of amnesiac heroes in Japanese games, Kat never descends into the misanthropic gloominess that tends to overshadow such characters. She remains upbeat, honest, and written well for her age. There’s little to no voice acting in the game, which advances the plot via comic-panel cutscenes that use the Vita’s motion controls to add a sense of momentum and liveliness that hasn’t been seen in this style before. It works quite well, and handily conveys Kat’s friendly disposition without seeming cheap or under-realized.
This is the Vita’s killer-app. It’s an odd thing to say, given its niche aesthetic appeal and unproven gameplay formula, but it acquits itself well by ensuring that players grow into the same skills as its refreshingly winsome heroine. It’s a different kind of power-fantasy, encouraging players to become practiced in something unique instead of just accruing might, and it feels like it could only be done on on this hardware. Gravity Rush uses all parts of the bull, from motion to touch controls, and none of it feels ill-suited, unnecessary, or poorly crafted. For Vita owners, there’s no reason not to give this a shot.