Slowly, VR games are inching forward from demo-like products to full-featured, full-length experiences. Arcade games, shooters, and most recently RPGs with substantial stories and multiple hours of play continue to appear for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, including Left-Hand Path, which has completed a lengthy eighteen months in early-release limbo and has been released as a retail product. Left-Hand Path would like to be the self-proclaimed Dark Souls of VR RPGs, but while it has some similar elements to From Software's franchise, no VR game -- Left-Hand Path included -- comes close to achieving anything near Dark Souls' elegant combat, detailed environments and mythic, enigmatic storytelling.
Like many VR games, Left-Hand Path is saddled with a number of built-in limitations: a small (albeit dedicated and talented) development team and budget, hardware constraints, and a still-evolving-understanding of what is effective in VR gaming. Compared to most any current-gen, non-VR RPG, Left-Hand Path (and to be fair, just about every other VR role playing game) seems relatively primitive, with textures and models that don't favor extended, up-close scrutiny. Creative, often dark, lighting and level design help but don't entirely disguise the blocky shapes and lack of detail. Of course, games do not succeed or fail entirely due to graphics, and happily, Left-Hand Path has one or two gameplay hooks that help pull the player into the world.
At its core, Left-Hand Path casts the player in the role of an increasingly powerful mage, holding a staff in the one hand while drawing arcane, runic symbols in the air with the other, each pattern corresponding to a wide range of offensive and defensive magic spells like invisible barriers or waves of lightning. This is not the first time a game, even a VR game, has used this idea but Left-Hand Path features quite a bit of depth and complexity in its system, even going so far as basing its patterns and spells on "historical" magic. New spells are added to the player's grimoire through books and scrolls found during exploration and while the staff can be used as a (not very effective) melee weapon, casting combinations of spells is the heart of combat. One of the appeals of Dark Souls is the ability to fashion a character with a very specific combination of skills. Left-Hand Path is all about the magic, so players who favor being a heavily armored tank or stealth-loving thief might be disappointed by the game's overall lack of character building.
Certainly, the various elemental and defensive spells themselves are the most interesting aspect of the game and making skillful use of them suggests that being a real-life high fantasy mage would require many hours of practice. Learning to use them in the game takes a lot of precision and memory and the willingness to forgive the game's somewhat glitchy controls and inconsistent response. The way spell casting and movement are mapped to the Oculus Touch controllers mean that it's too frustratingly easy to teleport into a wall instead of casting a spell and I spent a lot of time adjusting my position in game and dying. I died as much as a result from positioning as I did poorly executed combat. Both teleportation and locomotion are supported but keep in mind this is definitely a room scale game with a bigger play area being an asset.
Dark Souls' combat is often misunderstood as being difficult but of course, when it's at its best, Souls combat is a super-precise ballet of timing, offensive and defensive movement, pattern recognition, and rewarded practice. Left-Hand Path's enemies are pretty brain dead, and its difficulty comes too often from the controls, suddenly appearing and sometimes poorly defined enemies, and complexity of the VR environment working against the player. Around the edges of the combat, Left-Hand Path tells a fairly straightforward high fantasy story with a few surprise characters appearing now and again. While the player can level up throughout the game, there is little in the way of RPG depth or much of a feeling of emotional investment in the player character. The game's in medias res opening and workmanlike voice work do little to create excitement in the opening minutes, and after a short tutorial, Left-Hand Path boils down to a 15-hour cycle of light environmental puzzle solving, exploration, and combat. Some of the game's enemies and environments -- and the way a player is forced to re-run a level through a gauntlet of respawned foes -- do suggest a few of the tropes familiar from Dark Souls.
Developer Strange Company is to be lauded for creating a VR RPG that is lengthy and far more substantial than so many of its brethren. While aesthetically Left-Hand Path can't quite overcome the technical limits of the Rift or Vive, it is built on a magical combat system that is robust and challenging (and occasionally frustrating) to use. Now that we're a couple of years into the their retail releases, no developer has managed to produce that killer app that makes virtual reality systems an essential purchase. That said, games like Left-Hand Path are moving the creative progress of gameplay and storytelling in VR incrementally forward.