In the landscape of sandbox action games, it’s difficult to find anything that deviates from the sarcasm, juvenile sexuality, and fetishism of violence that Western developers are so preoccupied with these days. Enter Gravity Rush, SCE Japan Studio and Project Siren’s first foray into the open-world genre. The game has more in common with the films of Studio Ghibli than anything published by Rockstar, and is defined by an earnest empathy with the human condition that would make Miyazaki and Takahata proud. And, like the best Ghibli films, it’s simply a joy to experience.
Like Miyazaki’s seminal masterpiece, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Gravity Rush is built upon the melding of two core concepts that, at first, seem at odds with one another: the awkwardness of adolescence and the joys of responsibility. You control Kat, an amnesiac in an unfamiliar city, eager to find her place among a society that doesn’t seem to want her. Complicating the situation is a unique ability bestowed upon Kat by her feline friend, Dusty: she is capable of shifting the orientation of gravity at will. Gravity shifting allows Kat to walk up walls and along ceilings, glide effortlessly through bustling streets and plazas, and soar across the vast open spaces that define the skyline of Hekseville, Kat’s new city. Mastering these powers can be an awkward, ungainly, and downright embarrassing experience, and players discover early on that Kat doesn’t exist in a bubble: while she might just barely be coping with her abilities, the people around her are literally flung into turmoil every time she chases something shiny. It’s an obvious metaphor for puberty, and a welcome one, because it attempts to externalize something difficult and familiar that every single one of us has to go through.
The how and why of Kat’s abilities, and the awkwardness they bring to her life, are at the heart of Gravity Rush’s narrative, and as more of the city opens up, players will learn to control Kat’s powers and harness them for the good of those around her. The citizens of Hekseville, once suspicious of Kat and her strange abilities, will learn not only to accept her, but to welcome her presence in their lives. As more and more Heksevillians begin to rely on Kat, her responsibilities grow exponentially – after initially being tasked to rescue a stranded child and stop a notorious bandit, she eventually finds herself charged with the defense of Hekseville from an out-of-control military-industrial complex and the monsters it unleashes.
The beauty of this progression is that Kat’s responsibilities never outpace her personal development. As the story progresses, you will realize you’re no longer wrestling with Kat’s abilities or initially awkward controls – that everything you’re doing just feels right. It won’t be an “aha!” moment, but rather something that grows naturally from your time spent playing the game. It’s the kind of discovery that personifies the emotional connection between player and play that is so wholly unique to this medium: as Kat becomes more confident in herself and her place in the city, so will players become more comfortable with their own relationship with her.
Beyond Kat’s journey of self-discovery, there’s plenty of game here to keep players busy. The story missions will take around 10 hours to complete, but a series of challenges (races designed to help players master the game’s controls), hidden subplots and rare enemies to discover, and tens of thousands of gems to collect and abilities to unlock and level up should stretch the experience out to around 15 hours. A handful of DLC packs, bringing with them new costumes, challenges, and story missions, are scheduled for release throughout the first half of the summer, so players should have plenty of excuses to return to the game once they’ve finished the main campaign.
Gravity Rush is a defining moment for Japanese game development – proof that there are still fresh ideas coming from Eastern developers. It’s a decidedly unique take on the sandbox game, and a breath of fresh air in an industry that seems hell-bent on drowning in its own gore. If you own a PS Vita, you simply must play this game.