At this point, if you’re going to release yet another wave shooter in VR, you better have a darn good reason for it. Granted Secret Location’s Blasters of the Universe has been around longer than most, beginning life as an Early Access title all the way back in July 2016, but even by today’s standards, it holds up as one of the most distinctive and enjoyable gun games on any headset out there right now.
That’s because Blasters of the Universe is a love letter to a lot of things. As its name implies, it’s got the cartoonish visuals and charm of a Saturday morning cartoon, with a story that pays tribute to gaming’s arcade origins. More importantly, though, it smartly adapts one of the arcades best-loved genres, the bullet hell shooter, into VR whilst also providing an expansive weapon customization option that allows you to fine-tune how you play.
Taking a cue from Tron, Blasters of the Universe is set inside an arcade game ruled over by a — no other word for it — dick-ish tyrant. Across four campaign levels you’ll survive his onslaught of minions and bosses and then, should you so choose, you can go high-score hunting in an Endless Mode.
What separates the game from the rest of the pack is the focus on dodging incoming bullets. Enemies fire bright orange spheres in intricate patterns and you’ll have to duck and weave around them, or block them with a rechargeable shield. Secret Location has wisely opted to make your head the only vulnerable part of your body in the game, so you won’t have to worry about your virtual torso nor your hands.
In any levels’ opening moments you’ll be dodging like a pro; bullets come at you with little urgency and it’s easy to side-step them when they arrive. But Blasters soon heats up and you’ll find tens of bullets all vying to chip off your five-heart health bar. The game becomes a hectic balancing act of thinning out the enemy’s numbers whilst also being aware of incoming attacks at all times.
It’s largely so much fun because it’s fair; you’re given plenty of time to step out of the way of attacks and, even when the odds are overwhelming, there’s usually enough of a gap somewhere to give you space to evade. Blasters had me moving faster than any VR game I’ve played in some time: I was often throwing myself to the floor or diving onto the couch next to me to avoid bullets and at one point I even narrowly dodged an attack with a well-timed hop. Suffice to say it’s a hearty workout that you’ll need to make space for, but if you have the energy and the room it can be a pulse-pounding good time.
Frustration can rear its head from time to time, though. Secret Location has done its best to telegraph enemy locations with spatial audio but there are times when they’re just a little too far out of sight for you to properly register their presence, and little spider-bots that crawl up to you then pounce can often be obscured by your gun. These instances aren’t anywhere near common enough to be a significant problem, though, and there’s a new casual mode on PSVR for anyone that wants to take it easier.
It speaks to the strength of the game that you can make it this far into the review without detailing one of its key aspects: the weapon customization system. Refreshingly, Blasters is not a dual-wielding shooter, but instead gives you one gun that you can customize in various ways. You can alter the ammo type, magazine size, shot speed, shield type, special ability and more from an armory that provides new options the further you progress through levels. A handy shooting range built into the menu even allows you to test modifications out the moment you pick them up.
Many of the interchangeable parts provide meaningful differences depending on how you want to play. Often you’ll be trading off damage for the speed of a shot and vice versa, and special abilities allow you to select between dealing damage to groups of enemies for effective crowd control or enhancing your single shot to take care of the strongest foes first. I largely found that focusing on the latter got me through levels with much less trouble.
The system isn’t without its redundancies, though. The game’s base shield, for example, is perfectly capable of providing all your protection needs without customization, while some of the cooldown-based magazine types are so slow they’re practically impossible to use. Reloading with standard magazines can also be a little too finicky in the heat of battle no matter how intentional that is.
Blasters’ biggest flaw, though, is that there isn’t more of it. The four campaign levels are a joy to play through but each take less than ten minutes to complete meaning, depending on how many times you fail, you could see the thing through in just over half an hour. There are interchanging challenges for you to compete in and the Endless Mode does provide some great high score chasing for those that want it, but I would have loved to have seen at least double the level count here, especially with the inventive boss design.
A short running time doesn’t stop Blasters of the Universe from being one of VR’s most delightful wave shooters. The hectic bullet-dodging action hurls you into a deadly ballet that feels fun far more often than it is frustrating. This is a finely-tuned and charming game that stands out from the sea of survival shooters out there right now.
Blasters of the Universe is now available on PlayStation VR via the PSN Store as well as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for $14.99. Check out these official review guidelines to find out more about our process.