Since the release of the King’s Field franchise in 1994, From Software has delighted and vexed gamers with their unique brand of notorious and punishing gameplay. The thrill of overcoming insurmountable obstacles drive players to games like Demon’s Souls, and each new Souls and Souls-like game finds new ways to harass players with more ridiculous monsters, bosses, and gauntlets. One element of these games that’s easily overlooked is story. Who has time for plot when you’ve failed another corpse run? Games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne hide some amazing stories that are just too easy to miss and serve as a reward only for more persevering players.
From Software’s games are built on non-traditional narratives that primarily involve sleuthing context and backstory from item descriptions, environmental design and hanging onto every word spoken by NPCs. Those who seek out clues will be rewarded with context, though none of that is necessary to enjoy the games. That’s why I was intrigued by Deracine, a first-person adventure game created exclusively for the PlayStation VR. As a narrative-based game, the story had to be clear and understandable, right? Kind of. The game was born from Hidetaki Miyazaki’s desire to make something different, a game that’s quieter and doesn’t cause people to break out in a cold sweat at the mention of the Souls series’ most brutal challenges (“Anor Londo Silver Archers”). Deracine exchanges titanite chunks, soapstones, and Lovecraftian monstrosities for an atmospheric (and easily accessible) adventure about a group of orphan children and the magical presence that unites them.
At first glance, the posh, 19th century styled British manor house Deracine is set within looks to be the perfect place to raise five orphans. Well-stocked classrooms, a library, and meal room ensure that the boys and girls have everything they need to be raised into responsible adults. On closer inspection, however, there are certain elements that raise suspicions of something else going on, such as the padlocked front gate, a uniquely designed chapel, and locked doors with a “Keep Out” sign hung out front. There is a mystery to uncover in the mansion and it’s up to you, a faerie, to find out what’s going on and keep the children safe from what lurks beneath.
Deracine is built as a first-person adventure where you wander the halls of the manor house, solving puzzles to advance you further along the story. As a faerie, interaction with the world and its young inhabitants is limited because you navigate the “space between time,” which is a fancy way of saying that the world is frozen in place. Only by interacting with physical objects, like a pair of glasses, a book, or snatching up a child’s bookmark, will time resume for a brief moment, allowing the kids to react to your presence or give insight to whatever it is they’re doing at a given moment. Time plays a large factor in the story because of the faerie’s ability to travel through it, and as the situation grows more complex, you’ll have to think in four dimensions.
Gameplay is tied directly to the PlayStation Move wands which are used to interact with objects and help you move around the manor house. Movement works like teleportation, meaning you can’t move freely and have to use the face buttons to turn the camera thirty degrees to the left or right to look for small, blue swirling portals that indicate where you can move to. You can zip over to larger objects, like beds, dressers, and tables, to get a closer view of the items that can be manipulated, turning the camera to the left or right for a better view of the tableau. Your interaction with an object is easy as reaching out with the wand and grabbing it, sending it to your inventory, or triggering the appearance of a small sprite that functions as a sort of spiritual audio diary, giving you a sound clip of what the character is thinking at that particular moment.
A lot of the character interaction are small vignettes, some of which reveal clues as to what you should be doing next. The benefit of the world stuck in time is that you’re afforded opportunities to reach out and grab things without people getting in the way. The thing is, though, as the game went on, I had a harder time figuring out what it wanted from me because of classic, adventure game leaps of logic. Without spoiling anything, there comes a moment in the game where you’re constantly revisiting time periods, fixing a small thing in each trip back to ensure a safe future. It got really frustrating because it was hard to tell what exactly I needed to do to complete the time period. There were a few instances of walking through the manor house several times, hoping I’d catch something new or perhaps find a stone left unturned. It all made the game going through a few tedious valleys in between peaks.
As far as adventure games are concerned, Deracine is fairly pedestrian. I love it when developers go against the type and do something new, even if it doesn’t work out. Deracine is an okay adventure that doesn’t reform the genre or create new conventions and mechanics like the Souls series did for action-roleplaying games. The story, accessible as it is, is pretty good and no matter what, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that maybe, possibly, it could exist in the Bloodborne universe - it doesn’t though, so don’t get too excited. The story has some occult themes that put off a similar vibe, though it does a fine job of standing on its own. If anything, it reminds me a lot of Rule of Rose, an old PlayStation 2 game that also dealt with orphans (only they were tiny little psychopaths) and a paranormal mystery that bind them together. Graphically, Deracine looks fine on the PSVR hardware and while a lot of areas in the manor house come off a bit bland, the areas like the classroom, chapel, and kitchen show off From Software’s great set dressing skills. I loved exploring the cluttered, lived-in spaces in Bloodborne (like the classrooms and lecture halls in the Nightmare of Mensis area), so to experience similar attention to detail in a first person virtual reality setting was really cool, if not a little unsettling. I half expected to turn a corner and see one of those Amygdala monsters hanging from the ceiling or the sky turning a deep, sinister purple once the bad stuff started to settle in. Not that Deracine’s late game atmosphere needs any help.
For a studio with a reputation for making impenetrable video games, Deracine is an accessible adventure that doesn’t require endurance or quick reflexes. The storytelling is still mostly vague and the developer doesn’t break its habit of putting significant clues inside item descriptions. On the whole, Deracine is entirely different from what they’ve made before. And that’s great, as I love seeing From Software getting out of their comfort zone. It’s a nice change of pace and a good way to challenge themselves creatively, but I would have liked to see a little bit more out of the game. I want them to play against the expectations of the genre a bit more because if you strip away the atmosphere and the story, there’s nothing here you haven’t played before.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.