Whenever people that don’t play VR games (and therefore have no stake in the conversation) start to complain about the shorter length of VR games, I struggle to explain to them why that’s fine with me. I don’t want longer experiences. I mean, I do like a long game, but that’s not what I go into a VR experience looking for. I often compare having a VR rig to owning an amusement park that fits in your living room; you love rollercoasters, but you don’t want to live on the damn things. I prefer games that let me dip in for an hour or two, have a thrilling time, and then dip back into the real world.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback is a perfect example of what I want out of a VR game. Something that I can’t get in a regular, flat experience; something exhilarating and fun and kind of scary; something that knocks my socks off, putting me into a new place that I would never otherwise visit. And I think that it is relatively certain that I will never visit anyplace like the worlds represented in Switchback. More than once while playing, I thought to myself “If Hell were real, this is what it might be like”. Nope, nope, nope. Don’t want to go there.
Switchback is part of Supermassive Games’ The Dark Pictures franchise, a fun series of short-ish horror games that mix and match various horror subgenres to intriguing effect. The quality of The Dark Pictures games varies between entries, but they can generally be expected to deliver a good time, particularly if the player is a horror fan who will enjoy the way Supermassive plays with various genre tropes.
Supermassive fans will find Switchback VR very familiar; much like the way Supermassive’s previous VR outing Rush of Blood toyed around with imagery from the studio’s first smash hit Until Dawn, Switchback is something of a grand finale to the first season of The Dark Pictures. While the stories of those games are not directly related to this one, the various levels of Switchback are based on the four Dark Pictures titles released so far. Switchback VR almost feels like a dream you would have after playing The Dark Pictures games; characters from those games appear and then disappear again, and aspects of those worlds are remixed into something akin to horror tone poems.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As with Rush of Blood, in Switchback players find themselves strapped into a rollercoaster, which winds through various disturbing settings. The train moves of its own accord, sometimes slowing or even stopping to give the player a good long look at an area (or leaving them sitting in pitch blackness), sometimes careening wildly through twists and turns.
The player is armed with two handguns with unlimited ammo, and is tasked with shooting anything that looks shootable. These items vary, from skulls and pottery to brain-sucking slugs and demon/vampire/clown/mannequin things that rush in from all sides and take swipes at the player. Yes, you can die, but the punishment for dying isn’t too bad; you simply reload to an earlier point on the same track.
This is a game that trades heavily upon the art of the jump scare, with enormous success. The primary emotion Switchback inspires is a lack of control or safety. The player has zero control over the train, aside from occasionally hitting a switch to change tracks. Things come swooping out of the fog to attack, and the player has to keep their head on a swivel to keep from getting killed. Stuff will pop up beside the cart and scream, which has the effect of making you jump out of your skin.
But while jump scares are the flashier moments in Switchback, the game also gets a lot of milage out of simply putting players into environments where they simply should not be. Horror works great in VR; the human brain starts sending out warning “this place is no good, get out of here” signals almost immediately. The combination of that unsettled feeling, the roller coaster, and the awful stuff that appears right next to you pretty much seals the deal; Switchback can be scary as hell.
The only real agency the player has it the ability to blast away at bad things (the guns can sometimes be temporarily upgraded) and the ability to keep from getting smashed in the face. While Switchback is best played seated, the player is rarely still, as they are required to duck and dodge past obstacles or risk getting clobbered. Most of the game is spent shooting wildly, shifting around in your seat, and swearing loudly at whatever terrifying nonsense the game is throwing into your face.
Rush of Blood players will feel right at home here, as the games feel very closely tied together. Switchback VR does have a few interesting new twists up its sleeve though. The mechanic that is getting the most attention is the bit where the PS VR2 tracks the players eyes, only moving the enemies when the player blinks. Yes, it is creepy, and very effective. There were a few other moments in Switchback that gave me the willies, including one segment where the train slid through what can only be described as a birth canal made up of dead body parts and faces, with the haptics on the PS VR2 headset wiggling upsettingly as gross detritus slimes across your face. I had many choice words for the developers during that part, let me tell you.
There’s a scoring element to Switchback, which I mostly ignored. Players get points for shooting stuff, and you can build a multiplier by shooting specific glowing targets – a feature that doesn’t seem to work very well. Once you have seen a level’s tricks, it might be fun to run be fun to run through and beat your previous score. I was far more concerned with seeing everything in the game and simply not dying. Pro tip to see everything: when offered the chance to select a direction, go left every time. Then replay the same level and go right every time.
On the negative side, there are several points where the game asks you to solve some simple puzzles to save characters that are trapped in various precarious situations. I can’t say I loved these parts, but I do give Supermassive points for finding ways to actually make the player think a little bit. I also encountered a few instances of texture pop-in, which felt weirdly out of place and interrupted the illusion a little bit. The game also seems a little bit low-res and blurry compared to what I’ve seen the PS VR2 accomplish in other games. It could just be me though, as Switchback relies a lot on fog and darkness to disorient the player. With the lights on, it might all be crystal clear.
It hardly matters though, when you are careening down a hill with no idea what nightmares might lurk at the bottom. Yes, when you boil it down, The Dark Pictures is essentially an on-rails arcade light-gun shooter. You move forward, stuff shows up, and you shoot it. But both Switchback VR and its predecessor represent massive evolutionary steps forward in the form. Placing the player into the world makes an enormous difference; the danger feels so much more palpable, and the scares are much scarier.
Switchback VR might not be the PS VR2’s killer app, but it is the one I’ve been enjoying the most right now, and I’m delighted to have what amounts to a sequel to one of my favorite PS VR titles.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories. I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS4, PS VR2, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.
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