The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR is an exclusive title for PlayStation VR2, available now for PlayStation 5. But does this rollercoaster shooter scare us to death or hit the bullseye? Read on for our full Switchback PSVR 2 review.
Typically, rollercoasters aren’t the best fit for VR experiences. They’re fast moving yet physically stationary experiences that can quickly create a recipe for motion sickness in VR, especially if it’s a first-time experience. Despite this, I came away quite impressed with The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR, a new rollercoaster-based horror shooter and PlayStation VR2 exclusive. It features a 4-5 hour campaign that’s an entertaining and arcade-y romp through some fantastic horror scenarios, with engaging combat and spooky scares.
Switchback is a VR-exclusive entry in The Dark Pictures anthology series, but as someone with zero prior experience with the franchise, I can assure you context isn’t needed. The basic premise is that you’ve been in a train crash and in between intermittent flashbacks, you’ll be transported onto a mystical rollercoaster to trudge through some scary scenarios. There’s a very basic story that plays out across each level, but it’s nothing to write home about and that’s fine. The concept is, by and large, acceptably ridiculous – you’re on a horror-themed rollercoaster with magical guns, so anything goes.
The levels in Switchback take you through a couple of different settings – a decrepit boat, a creepy hotel, an underground ancient tomb and more – which you’ll explore across one or two levels for each. The entire experience is seated and on-rails, with the coaster varying in speed and intensity. Some sections are fast moving, but most are fairly slow. The cart will also often stop at sections of the map during combat or for other environmental interactions.
So while it’s not quite a fun-blown, intense rollercoaster simulator, Switchback is nonetheless a game with near-constant artificial movement. That said, as someone who can be fairly prone to nausea in VR, I felt fine for most of the experience and was able to play for hours at a time with no problem.
This has been a common experience for me when using PSVR 2 and I suspect it’s thanks to the 120Hz framerate offered by many experiences on the headset, including Switchback. There is a subtle (and very tolerable) ghosting effect during lateral movement, suggesting the game runs at 60 frames per second reprojected up to 120Hz. Everyone’s tolerance is different, but running at 120Hz (even if reprojected from 60fps) should hopefully help make this a comfortable experience for as many people as possible. However at present, there’s unfortunately no comfort options, such as vignetting, available at all.
If you feel you’ll be able to play comfortably given the above, then it’s time to sit back, relax and get ready to shoot. On your journey, you’ll be confronted with a plethora of creepy zombies, monsters and undead beings. The variety in enemy design is really fantastic, themed perfectly to each area and often genuinely terrifying in nature. Some enemies will even use eye tracking to determine when you blink, only moving when you’ve got your eyes shut. It’s a well-implemented mechanic, clearly taking inspiration from the terrifying Weeping Angles in Doctor Who.
To combat enemies, you dual wield a pair of pistols with infinite ammo. To reload, all you have to do is shake your guns, which it confirms with a delightful and elastic-y reload animation and sound. It’s incredibly satisfying to use and the first indication that, although this is a scary horror game, it also has many fun arcade elements to it. There’s three difficulties to choose between and during each level, your current score will be displayed in front of you on the cart. Levels can be replayed to achieve a high score and there’s leaderboards to compare with friends online.
The environments themselves are well-designed and offer the player a few extra challenges to deal with while staving off enemies. Obstacles will require you to lean left, right or forward to avoid damage, while pentacle-marked items are scattered across every area and offer a bonus score if you can shoot them before they’re out of sight. Across the campaign, you’ll also come across red boxes that, when shot, transform your pistol into a different weapon type with a limited set of ammo. These range from the basics – shotguns and submachine guns – to more original weapons, such as stun guns or fuse guns that can be used to solve puzzles or enable environment aids.
While the horror elements of the game are quite unsettling and dark, the gameplay itself is a thrill and the guns are super enjoyable to use. Unlimited ammo means that you can go wild and the aiming system is generous. There’s often a rush of enemies in your face or rapidly approaching the cart, meaning that precision is less important than shooting as much as you possibly can. That said, headshots will take down enemies quicker, so there’s some value in taking your time when you’re able to.
The Good, The Bag and The Ugly
Switchback isn’t the longest game, coming in at around four or five hours for one run of the campaign, but there’s likely lots of replayability for those who want to chase high scores across different difficulty levels. That said, even at a fairly short four hour length, the horror elements do start to wear a little thin and feel more predictable as you get towards the end.
In our Resident Evil Village review for PSVR 2, we said that its focus on bursts of high-tension moments and terrifying monsters was VR horror done right. In the case of Switchback, it isn’t VR horror done bad by any means, but it is often a bit cheap. Expect lots of sudden jump scares, classic horror strings building to shocks, and moments where you’re terrified purely through being overwhelmed with enemies all around you. This is horror in its most basic and raw form – those whose heart can’t take sudden scares will definitely want to sit this one out. At the same time, there’s also a fair share of horror moments that don’t quite land, feeling a little underwhelming and not quite as spooky as the game thinks they are.
The gameplay itself remains mostly engaging throughout the campaign, if also a little repetitive in the latter stages. Likewise, the environments feature some items that can be interacted with or will respond to being shot, but only very specific and clearly marked ones. It would be nice to have more dynamic interactions with the levels that weren’t so clearly signposted. As it stands, the environments often feel like static movie sets, but that’s also part of the charm – the experience is often reminiscent of a Disneyland dark ride mixed with The House of the Dead arcade games.
In terms of visuals, Switchback puts out a presentation that is pretty good but not absolutely stunning. The stylized environments work well and everything feels cohesive, but it’s not the most visually impressive PSVR 2 game we’ve tried by any margin. While performance is generally solid, I did notice quite a bit of pop-in during fast-moving sequences and textures often visibly resolve from low to high resolution as you move along the track. There’s also loading screens in between the limited cutscenes and each level – they’re fairly quick, but it’s somewhat strange to see on a platform where they otherwise rarely exist.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR – Final Verdict
The main hurdle with Switchback VR remains the question of comfort. While it’s not as hectic and intense as a fully-blown rollercoaster simulator, it is nonetheless frequent artificial movement without any comfort options to reduce potential nausea. Whether that’s acceptable will vary from person to person.
However, the experience itself is good fun and a mostly engaging horror shooter from start to end. It blends together arcade gameplay elements with intense horror action, bringing some fantastic enemy designs and brilliant settings into the fray. While the visuals might not be the most stunning we’ve seen on the platform, it’s nonetheless competent and what lacks in fidelity it makes up for in style. Though probably not a system seller, The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR is a good PSVR 2 exclusive and an easy recommendation for fans of horror and arcade action.
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