Virtual reality is cool. Even though it is cost prohibitive for most, it’s a great piece of technology that holds a lot of potential for both entertainment and education. Although there have been few games that really take advantage of the medium (Resident Evil VII and the Star Wars Battlefront VR Mission immediately spring to mind), I’m in love with the idea and enjoying showing it off to anyone I can. Symphony of the Machine is the type of game I can use to sell the technology. It’s not the most phenomenal game to play but the VR-ness is a pretty good showcase for its level of immersion.
Symphony of the Machine is built entirely around light and mirror puzzles. Mysteriously transported to a barren land, the player is guided towards a massive tower that functions as a complex weather machine of alien designs. By triggering three individual panels, the machine can create wind storms, rain, and even sunny afternoons. The reason for the player’s existence is left largely unknown but the agency is established by a small robot that guides you through the practice of resuscitating plant life by manipulating a single beam of light to activate the climate triggers. The trick is learning how to maneuver a beam of light around shields that appear when either of the three weather systems is activated. The plant blooms when the right combination of weather patterns are activated and at that point, there’s nothing else to do but set it aside and wait for your robot pal to bring you another bulb.
The challenge of plant growing increases with each successful completion of the previous puzzle. After you're given a pot and plant bulb, the robot tells you what weather pattern needs to happen to make it grow. This is one portion of the game I really liked. Without directly telling you what sequence needs to be activated, it gives you a picture of the end result which forces you to interpret the clue. More advanced flora requires cycling through multiple weather combinations and make use of mirrors and beam splitters. Elemental beam filters also add another of weather combinations.As far as light and mirror puzzle games go, Symphony of the Machine does find a way to make an old and largely unexciting mechanic interesting again.
Interesting--but not necessarily entertaining. After the game’s first hour, I grew bored and restless. The practice of growing plants using complex light paths loses its impact largely because there’s no way to tell what you’re doing has any meaningful impact on the world. It'd be neat if there were some indication that I was bringing life to this place, like seeing the plant I just grew manifest in the barren, Obduction-like setting. The game’s advertisements suggest that I should be seeing a change, however, it really doesn’t go out of its way to call attention to it. Nor can I really see much of a difference. The thing is, your attention gets so focused on solving the game’s puzzles that it’s really easy to ignore the world you’re supposed to restore. It would have been a little invasive but I wouldn’t mind if something interrupted my work in order to call attention to the change I created. I’d even accept a giant painted sign that read, “Hey! Look what neat thing you just did!”
What really impressed me about Symphony of the Machine was the VR experience. The first few hours were very uncomfortable. At first, I played the game sitting down--which I normally do for VR games--with a DualShock controller that caused a great deal of grief. The PlayStation Camera had difficulty following the DualShock controller, I suspect because the light sensor on the device doesn't stand out as well as it does on the Move, which caused the onscreen controller to disappear and force the object I was carrying back to its original position. Frustration grew as did my anger and all I wanted to do was chuck the whole thing out the wind. Screw this world and its plants! On a whim, I switched over to the PlayStation Move wand and holy hell, the experience was a 100% better. If the developers are reading this review, please patch the game to force users to ditch the controller and use the Move.
With Move wand in hand, I got rid of the chair and repositioned the camera which positively affected the experience. While it didn’t make it any more fun than before, the change in setup significantly upped the cool factor. Getting off my butt meant I could walk around the tower (I’m unable to physically turn around a full 360, which is why there are buttons on the controller that switch your perspective), crane my neck, and evaluate the situation from different perspectives. This level of interaction just isn’t possible--or even the same--on a computer monitor or TV. That’s what is so awesome about VR, it forces you (and developers) to change the way you think, interact, and play games in a true 3D space.
Symphony of the Machine is a great VR experience that offers a wonderful sense of immersion as long you use the right equipment and get off the couch. The game itself gets less interesting over time despite the cool factor of the complexity of later trials. With Symphony, it became the kind of game I want to play just to help fill the time. What it needs is to give you a reason to stick around, to show that the time spent growing various plants is worth the time and effort. It doesn’t do that very well and were this a standard, non-VR game, I would have quickly moved on. The VR nature of Symphony of the Machine is definitely where it’s at and should be picked up, preferably at some discount, solely for that portion of the software.
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.