Gravity Rush is an interesting series. Originally intended as something of a flagship title for Sony’s Vita handheld, its first installment was well-received but passed a lot of people by.
Fortunately, it managed to get a second chance at success thanks to an enhanced port for PlayStation 4 by Bluepoint Games, the company previously responsible for the PS3 versions of God of War and Team Ico’s classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. And, from there, it did well enough to spawn a true sequel, this time specifically designed for the PlayStation 4.
The two games are both excellent, but both suffered somewhat from poor release timing and, in the case of the first game, the somewhat niche-interest status of the Vita as a platform in the West. Consequently, they haven’t had nearly as much love as they deserve from the general public.
What better reason to take a closer look at where this series came from and why you should check it out, then?
Gravity Rush is the brainchild of Keiichiro Toyama, a director and writer who previously brought us the original Silent Hill on PS1 as well as the unusual horror series Siren. His aim with the new game was to buck the trend for photorealism that most Western developers were going for at the time — and still are, in most cases — and instead produce something that evoked the distinctive feeling of French cartoonist Jean Giraud’s work and the broader Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées tradition.
Toyama’s desire to combine European influences with quintessentially Japanese anime and manga styles was an attempt to give Gravity Rush a sense of global appeal and ensure that the characters were “accepted” outside of Japan.
Indeed, the final result of the team’s work was so successful in this regard that it’s hard to pick fault with it even from the strictest and most unforgiving of modern “progressive” perspectives: the game features a protagonist who is not only female but also dark-skinned, and the overall narrative sees her demonstrating her capability in the face of adversity without sacrificing her innate femininity or indeed her most endearing traits and flaws.
Kat, as we’ll explore more later, is an immensely appealing heroine, and one of the most compelling reasons to check out Gravity Rush. But let’s look a little more generally at the game first.
Gravity Rush began life as a PlayStation 3 project called Gravité — the original French title and numerous French-inspired aspects of the game’s overall aesthetic are almost certainly references to Toyama’s desire to produce something evocative of 20th century Franco-Belgian comics — and actually hasn’t changed a huge amount from its original incarnation. Cancelled and prototype game archiving site Unseen64 has a good series of screenshots and scans that show the recognisable figures of central characters Kat and Raven, the distinctive comic-style cutscenes and the game’s strong use of signature colours fully intact.
The shift to Vita came about partly due to the game’s unusual control system and the platform’s inherent suitability for Toyama’s overall vision for the game. Speaking with Gematsu in 2012, Toyama described the Vita as being perfect for creating “the impression of a different world existing beyond the screen” through its motion controls; indeed, the augmented reality-style way in which you can move the game’s camera by simply pointing the Vita in different directions made for a surprisingly effective illusion that the device was a “window” to another world that continued far beyond the direction in which you happened to be looking at the time.
The newer PS4 releases still support motion controls, but the effect is not quite as convincing on a static screen that you’re not holding in your hands like a camera viewfinder; it’s a shame that the series, at this time, doesn’t support PlayStation VR.
Speaking with Siliconera in 2011, Toyama noted that Gravity Rush had been a long time coming, with his desire to create a game of this type predating even his work on PS1 classic Silent Hill. Toyama claims that Gravity Rush was actually the first game he wanted to create, but the fact the fledgling survival horror genre had become fashionable at the time thanks to Resident Evil led Konami to suggest he work on a horror game first. “After that I was labeled as the horror game guy,” mused Toyama, reflecting on the fact he followed up the original Silent Hill with three titles in the disturbing Siren series. “Finally, the opportunity to show people I can make something different came up and I got to make Gravity Rush.”
It’s clear that Toyama used some of the lessons he learned in producing Silent Hill for Gravity Rush, though. Both games incorporate a semi-open world, for example, though Gravity Rush’s greater freedom of movement thanks to protagonist Kat’s ability to simply “fall” through the air in any direction doubtless made it a much greater challenge to design in a way that will still tax the player and “gate” areas of the game until a suitable amount of progress has been made. In Gravity Rush’s case, this gating is handled as a plot element; part of Kat’s overall quest is to bring back missing segments of town that have been pulled into otherworldly, surreal “rift planes”, with various areas and challenges being inaccessible until this rescue mission is complete.
Perhaps a more important lesson learned from Silent Hill, though, is the matter of making the protagonist a very “human”, relatable sort of character. The whole Silent Hill series has primarily been based around very mundane, non-heroic protagonists with no real special powers and a certain reluctance to get involved with the events unfolding around them, and this makes it easy for the player to relate to them — “normal people can be heroes too”, is one message you can take from it, although in the case of Silent Hill’s numerous tragically flawed characters from over the years, “hero” might not be quite the right word here.
Gravity Rush, meanwhile, adopts a somewhat different approach by making Kat inherently “special” thanks to her abilities, but it also humanises her immensely through her distinctly immature, girlish personality and the strong impression that she’s neither entirely comfortable with her powers nor sure that she actually wants them.
Rather than gracefully flying through the air like a superhero, she twists, turns and tumbles, arms and legs flailing, and typically lands rather heavily, sometimes even falling flat on her face. Couple this endearing clumsiness with her distinctly upbeat personality (and disproportionate obsession with obtaining approval and validation from everyone around her) and you get the impression of someone who has been suddenly provided with powers that they don’t quite understand, but are willing to explore and experiment with.
Kat is a character filled with the optimism of youth and a strong desire to do the “right” thing despite not being quite sure of her place in the world, but she never crosses the line into overblown melodrama; she’s simply an immensely likeable, relatable young girl who happens to be able to fling herself through the sky in whatever direction she pleases thanks to her magic gravity-shifting cat.
In terms of actual gameplay, Gravity Rush and its sequel are both quite challenging to define neatly using established genre descriptors, and this fact is one of the many things that makes them so appealing. They have elements of open-world games, for example, but don’t litter their map with excessive amounts of “theme park” activities just there to pad out the game length. Similarly, they have elements of role-playing games in that Kat gains in power over the course of her adventure, but they’re not games in which you can “grind” easily, nor do you need to.
There’s a bit of character action gameplay in there, too, but combat is relatively infrequent rather than the main focus. And the collectibles and timed challenges scattered around the game world give a feeling of classic platform games ranging from Rare’s collectathons of the N64 era to slightly more recent titles such as Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter.
Ultimately, it’s probably counter-productive to attempt to define Gravity Rush and its sequel in terms of existing games, because although they both have common elements with many different genres, they’re distinctive experiences in their own right — even from each other. Gravity Rush is Gravity Rush, in other words, and that’s what makes these games so interesting: they have a clear vision of what they want to do, even if that happens to be bucking the trends and laughing in the face of gaming’s conventions.
Next time, we’ll look in more detail at the various influences on the series’ aesthetic, ranging from Jean Giraud’s comics to broader cultural influences drawn from both European and Japanese sources.
In the meantime, Gravity Rush is available now for both PlayStation 4 and Vita, and Gravity Rush 2 is available for PlayStation 4. Both are eminently worth your time, so if you’ve been looking for a way to occupy yourself this summer you could do far worse than jumping head-first into this series and promptly forgetting which way is “up”.
More about Gravity Rush
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