The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR is a celebration of the franchise and a fun VR ride in its own right. Developed by Supermassive Games, Switchback VR is a horror rail shooter on PlayStation VR2 where you need to shoot and dodge your way through several courses based on The Dark Pictures Anthology games.
The narrative feels like it’s taking a backseat in Switchback VR, as it’s mostly told through short vague cutscenes that do a good job of setting the mood. At the start of the game, it seems like you’ve been visited by The Curator from The Dark Pictures series following a train derailment. For the rest of the game, you’ll go through different locations where a woman with supernatural powers named Belial is chasing you, putting you and your friends in harm’s way.
What lets the game down the most is the story. You go through each location on rails without practically any story to get motivated by. Four of your friends from the train accident are stuck somewhere in each world, and you’ll have to choose to solve a puzzle to save them. abandon them, or even kill them — it’s your choice. The thing is, I don’t know anything about my character, or who those friends are. I had no interest in the welfare of the player character or his friends, which made the choices sort of insignificant.
But, this game shines in almost every other way. The gameplay starts off like a normal on-rails shooter, as you mow down zombies while riding each of the game’s tracks. There’s a score to be mindful of, and a multiplier that ticks up as you shoot enemies and marked objects on the map. So, even when there aren’t any zombies in a given area, you’ll typically still have something to shoot at, and it’s satisfying to hear the pop or crack of an item breaking or shattering in the distance. There’s even a big collectible gargoyle to shoot on each level.
Switchback VR makes you actively change weapons, with weapon crates strewn about every stage. The guns are fairly simple, with pistols, submachine guns, and shotguns making up your arsenal. Shooting is easy, as it should be, with the PS VR2 tracking and controllers coming in handy here. It feels very natural to shoot and reload, which is good when you need to take a zombie’s head off in a panic. The motion-tracking is fantastic too, as Supermassive uses sections with falling objects to keep you dodging while you’re not shooting, and occasionally forcing you to do both at once.
Speaking of tracking, the eye-tracking is absolutely phenomenal, and multiple areas of the game are designed for it. Some enemies only appear when you blink, or only move when you look at them, and it’s just another way that Supermassive has managed to amp up the tension and make full use of Sony’s new hardware. After the first blinking section, you become very conscious of how you blink when it happens again. The feeling is even worse when you see enemies move in your peripheral vision.
You would think it might get repetitive, but Switchback VR manages to stay fresh with each new stage. Each world is comprised of two stages, beginning with Man of Medan‘s ship, Little Hope‘s foggy roads, the tomb from House of Ashes, and the murder house from The Devil in Me. Because most of the locations are so distinct, I never caught myself bored and consistently enjoyed wherever the ride took me.
Aside from the varied locales, Switchback VR has a few more tricks up its sleeve, as each stage introduces new enemies to take down. Now, this might not seem like a big deal, but I know I would have quickly gotten bored if I was shooting at different types of zombies for hours on end. Instead, there are zombies, dolls, mannequins, vampiric beings, slugs, rats, and more — pretty much anything that struck fear into your heart as a child. Claustrophobic? Don’t worry, there’s an area for that too!
If you think this game is going to scare you, it absolutely will. It’s a horror game through and through, and that might be why the cutscenes don’t give you much information. It seems like every single element of Switchback VR has been designed to entrench you in an atmosphere of horror. There’s the muddled narrative centered around the vagueness of the train fire, a bloody start-up screen, and even the loud flashbacks at the start of each world.
Switchback VR is also incredibly well-paced. Occasionally, your car will come to a stop so you can take everything in, or be swarmed by enemies. There are sections where you speed by at a brisk pace, and others where you are slowed to a crawl. Enemies come from multiple directions, and that can cause some pretty frightening jump scares when you look to your left and suddenly see a zombie slashing at your face.
As someone whose response to being scared is usually cursing, while I was playing Switchback VR, my room might as well have been the set of a Tarantino film. One jump scare got to me so badly that I clenched my teeth way too hard — I think I might need dental work. This game is not for those who scare easily unless, of course, you’re into that sort of thing.
Like most of the other PS VR2 titles, the audio feels incredibly immersive and really adds to the experience. It succeeds at making the player feel tense, simulating the sounds of all the creatures you come across like they are in the room with you. What’s brilliant about it is that while it is directional, creatures will either be roaming in the background or above you. Usually, these enemies aren’t meant to be attacked, but the sounds are enough to keep you on the edge of terror.
But, as much as it is a good time, it’s also a rather short time. With 10 levels, you won’t have to spend more than five or six hours to roll credits on Switchback VR. It isn’t too hard either — I played through the game on its normal difficulty level (called Survivor Difficulty here), and I only died a couple of times. That being said, both the trophies and the scoring system are designed to make you play through it multiple times, so there is some replayability here.
The story and locations branch as well. Sometimes, you’ll need to pick a direction to go in, or as we mentioned earlier, choose whether someone lives or dies. There are different scenes you can unlock at the end of the game, so your decisions do matter and you might be tempted to replay it to experience the road you didn’t go down. Each of these choices is usually accompanied by a fun puzzle that isn’t too challenging, taking a mechanic that you learned earlier in that stage.
Like the dodging, these puzzles force you to take a break from just mindlessly shooting enemies, which gives you a chance to check out the environment and soak in the atmosphere, which really hits new highs if the soundscape is particularly terrifying. However, the visuals do fall short at times. When they don’t stutter or shift as you look around, the game looks fantastic. But, occasionally, you’ll see a pile of rats slightly hovering above the floor, or trees that aren’t textured properly, and these moments take you out of the experience for a second. Thankfully, they are few and far between.
For what it’s worth, I haven’t made my way through any of The Dark Pictures Anthology, though I have played both The Quarry and Until Dawn. But, just knowing what those games are about through osmosis, as I was playing Switchback VR, I noticed how much respect Supermassive has for the other games in the franchise. It makes me wish that more studios would develop fun takes for their own games, not to mention I have the hankering to start Man of Medan.
This also means that you don’t have to know anything about those games to appreciate Switchback VR, though you’ll probably get more of a kick out of all the locations if you’ve seen them before. For me, it was just a fun surprise as I went through all the twists and turns that fans of the series might have seen coming. I found myself grinning from ear to ear, imagining what a version of this game would look like for The Quarry, so I can only imagine that fans of The Dark Pictures Anthology will enjoy this one.
Unfortunately, Switchback VR leans toward being a fun experience rather than a full-blown game, like most VR titles. But, the sheer amount of horrific fun I experienced makes this a must-play for anyone who owns a PS VR2. If you are any bit as susceptible to scares as I am, maybe wear a mouthguard.
This review is based on the PlayStation VR2 version of the game. A copy was provided for review by Supermassive Games.
Switchback VR is a fantastically frightening ride that will have you jumping in your seat and reeling from its horrific sights and sounds, all while shooting your way through an excellent homage to The Dark Pictures Anthology.
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