I am surrounded by a sea of shapes, twisting and pirouetting through a tangle of vines. As I leave them behind, I approach a room of boxes that suddenly come together into stairs and platforms. I dash up them, then dance through a field of floating globes, ever closer to my goal.
Bound is a dancing platformer / art world on the PlayStation 4. It was created by a small Polish developer named Plastic, working with Sony’s Santa Monica Studios. It is a platformer, where you run and jump through a landscape, looking for the way forward to the end. Here, though, through motion capture, the protagonist is a dancer who moves with grace, who not only does the running and jumping with beautiful agility, but also has a dancing button to move through tangles of vines, overgrowth of plants, and other obstacles.
Gameplay wise, it is pretty standard platforming stuff from the last 20 years, though the dancing mechanics add some variety. What really makes Bound different though, is its world. The game starts as a pregnant woman walks onto a beach, then gazes out at the waves. You then go to a surreal world in her mind. You are on floating platforms made of squares, a sea of white cubes undulating far below.
Level by level, you encounter more surreal uses of shapes and colors, chaotic rooms and twisting floors. Particles float everywhere, landmarks fly around, and levels spiral through the air. The geometry shakes and breaks as you gracefully move. There are towering monsters throughout the game that may attack you or attack one another, more overwhelming presences in an unreal landscape. It all helps offset the repetition of the gameplay.
This place of shapes and memories and chaos is one of the most gorgeous locales for a game I’ve ever seen and it is amazing to traverse it in virtual reality. Dancing through this artistic construction is a unique experience, like discovering what the mind of a person obsessed with art and plagued with conflict would really be like.
The camera does not update often, at times staying where it is just long enough so that you watch from a distance as the dancer crosses a series of platforms, just further emphasizing the world she is in. You can adjust the camera using the right analog on the controller, and discover an enlightening new angle on this wondrous space.
As the story unfolds, you realize the the frantic fantasy world you’re experiencing is tied to important or traumatic moments from her childhood. She is literally journeying through the chaotic metaphor of her upbringing, trying to find peace with her parents before she becomes one herself. It is wonderfully told through moments of fragmented memory between the platforming levels. And the glimpses of her calmly taking it all in at the soothing beach stand as a stark contrast to the geometrical madness of her mind.
The core gameplay, the running through spaces and jumping along platforms, finding elevators or ladders or ropes to climb, is enhanced greatly by virtual reality. Having a real sense of the three-dimensionality of space and the scale of the surreal world elevates the basic gameplay. And since it doesn’t use the PlayStation Move nor the motion controls of the Dual Shock, the PlayStation VR has no issues in tracking your head movement. You are there, looking around an unbelievable space.
Plastic provided a few features that supplement the gameplay. There is a photo mode where users can capture and modify images of this gorgeous game. The levels themselves have optional sections. A Speedrun mode unlocks when you finish the game, which has various settings to play with. You can even play the levels in a random order, changing up how you experience the story.
Bound can be played in 2D outside of VR as well. In fact, that switch creates a powerful juxtaposition that sums up virtual reality perfectly. The game loads up and you see this flat, distant image of the dancer sitting and waiting to move. When you toggle virtual reality on, this flat image is gone and this world of chaotic geometry surrounds you. The flat dancer is now tangibly there before you. You can lean in to look over her from other angles. You are not just gazing at a world that is distant. You are inside it.
Interestingly enough, this game was originally released on PlayStation 4 back in August. With the release of PS VR however, the game has been updated to use the headset’s unique properties — and what a difference that makes. After finishing the game, I went back to try it in 2D and it felt like going back to play a game made in the dark ages. There is a visceral loss when I experienced it on a flat screen from yards away. Anyone who tried Bound back then simply played a game rather than experienced a dream world of shape and movement. It is a profound contrast.
The fact that the game was updated for PlayStation VR does open a world of possibilities. Will other games get the same treatment? There are countless titles that would be made more amazing and immersive by virtual reality, imaginative titles like Journey or Unfinished Swan.
There have been games that had some basic VR support on the PCs, often only with the Oculus Rift development kits, that could use full VR releases on PS4, such as Alien: Isolation or the The Witness. So many games could have a second life on PS VR. So it is that much more impressive that Bound is the first to do this and succeeds so well in virtual reality.