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Edge of Nowhere Review: The Precipice of Insanity

by David Jagneaux • June 6th, 2016
Platform: Oculus Rift
Positives

- Numerous hair-raising moments of terror
- Expertly paced distribution of action, stealth, and narrative
- Pulse-pounding combat and intense set piece moments
- Well-written, mind-twisting psychological story
- Immersive sense of presence for a horror game

Negatives

- Character development can feel shallow
- Some murky textures
- Use of VR feels a bit awkward at times

When I learned that Insomniac Games, the fine folks behind the legendary Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet and Clank series, were working on a VR-exclusive game, I was filled with excitement. “This is it!” I thought to myself. “This is the validation our infantile medium needs to be taken seriously!” Surely if a studio with such respect and experience as Insomniac were diving head-first into VR, then others would follow suit.

However, when I found out that Insomniac’s debut foray into the realm of immersive, VR storytelling was through the lens of Edge of Nowhere, an intense, mature, psychological horror-thriller set in the mountains of Antarctica, I was more than a bit taken aback. I initially expected something a bit more akin to Lucky’s Tale, but their resume has enough diversity that they’ve clearly got the pedigree to create anything.

And it’s not often that a game can so poignantly remind you of a piece of literature, but much like the case of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness influencing Spec Ops: The Line, Edge of Nowhere is a powerful conduit through which many of the themes, tones, and settings of H. P. Lovecraft’s story, At the Mountains of Madness, are communicated. In that classic tale, Lovecraft writes:

“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.”

Which, without giving too much away, is about as accurate of a plot summary as you can find either on the game’s Oculus Home store page, or anywhere else.

EoN_Totems

In Edge of Nowhere, you take on the role of Victor Howard in a search for his fiancé, Ava Thorne, who is part of a lost expedition in Antarctica. Quickly the journey takes a turn for the worse as his rescue plane crash lands in the mountains and Victor is forced to descend into the depths of not only the environment itself, but the depths of his own mind as well.

“In VR you’re required to face your own vulnerable state of sanity”

Visions, hallucinations, and flashbacks take over as the line between reality and illusion quickly blurs. The use of flashbacks replace many of the traditional staples of game storytelling, like cutscenes, and they serve as a powerful plot device. Given the new medium of VR, it’s sometimes difficult to communicate a narrative without taking away a player’s agency and control. By letting the player physically walk around the flashbacks and hallucinations – almost like you’re viewing a holographic conversation – the developers convey the messages needed, but still let the players maintain a sense of control and presence.

An important part of why this works so well is that Victor often questions his own sanity at several junctures in the story, constantly expressing his sense of uncertainty if what he is experiencing is real or not. Although it does take several hours before you’re able to piece together many of the character’s backgrounds and motivations, the slow-paced unveiling of the 6-8 hour story is an effective narrative tool for players with patience, even if it does end up leaving you with a handful of shallow attempts at building empathy. Just mere days after finishing the game I’m already struggling with remembering the names of anyone other than Victor or Ava, which is problematic considering there’s really only one other named character of consequence in the game.

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Part of this core issue is exacerbated by the fact that you begin the game viewing a cutscene in first-person through Victor’s eyes, only to suddenly shift to third-person when you have to physically start moving around. In doing so, the camera takes a zoomed out “follow behind” approach, similar to that of Lucky’s Tale or traditional third-person action games you’ve played outside of VR like Ratchet and Clank.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a third-person game in VR, but when the perspective shifts between first and third-person, it’s hard to feel attached to the character when it’s constantly unclear what your station as the player is. Am I a floating camera, or am I Victor himself? In the case of Edge of Nowhere, the answer appears to be a bit of both. At once I can freely look around the environment without impacting Victor’s movement, but then his head does twist and turn in the direction that I’m gazing. It’s a clever touch for utilizing the light on his helmet or the aiming reticule of his gun, even if it does bring into question the player’s attachment to Victor as a character.

“You’ll often find your heart skip a beat as you breathlessly gaze below in astonishment”

But that doesn’t mean the game would be better without VR as it’s actually quite the opposite. Outside of VR you can easily look around to provide a reminder that you are in fact not in danger. That simple act of recognizing your surroundings provides a sense of security that reminds your subconscious-self that the real world is a safe place. You can look away from the screen when things get too terrifying, or turn the lights back on if the darkness gets too oppressive. In VR, you can’t do any of those things. You’re forced to deal with whatever hellish creatures the developer throws at you and whatever horrendous things you’re forced to do. And above all else, in VR you’re required to face your own vulnerable state of sanity.

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While the tones and themes utilized in Edge of Nowhere’s setting are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s work as a creator of horror, the literal act of playing the game features an amalgamation of game mechanics from Naughty Dog’s popular Uncharted and The Last of Us franchises.

Edge of Nowhere features the most convincing use of 3D spatial audio I’ve ever experienced”

Running for your life, jumping to far-off ledges, leaping from crumbling cliffsides, scaling mountains, and generally defying the laws of physics and human conditioning are all par for the course in Edge of Nowhere. If you’ve ever played a modern Tomb Raider game or any of the Uncharted series, you’ll feel right at home. And every combat encounter is rife with suspense, similar to The Last of Us. You’ll find yourself sneaking and crouching to avoid detection as you utilize your environment and array of weapons to take out monstrosities in the most effective ways possible.

But what those games can’t prepare you for is what VR brings to the table.

Its implementation might feel wonky at first when it’s shifting perspectives, but you’ll quickly settle into a rhythm with the third-person platforming action. In a game like Uncharted, you may look down while climbing a building just to gawk at how beautiful the view is, but in Edge of Nowhere you’ll often find your heart skip a beat as you breathlessly gaze below in astonishment for just how high you are. That sense of scale – the take-your-breath-away impact that games like The Climb are known for bringing to VR – really shines through each and every time you’re scaling a wall in Insomniac’s latest adventure.

That awe-stricken mouth-agape reaction is on display so strongly during some of the game’s larger encounters that I often found myself literally stopping in my tracks to appreciate the sheer magnitude of my surroundings. In traditional games, you can move your right thumb to look up, but in Edge of Nowhere, you’ve got to physically crane your neck to see the full compliment of your surroundings. When what you thought was a mountain starts to move, you’ll start to get some very powerful Shadow of the Colossus undertones, which is far from a bad thing.

EoN_Hanging

While it may be easy to simply close your eyes and pretend like you’re not immersed in a horrifying virtual world, Edge of Nowhere’s expertly crafted sound design won’t let you escape that easily. The bone chilling sounds of darkness will surround you with the most convincing use of 3D spatial audio I’ve ever experienced.

“Edge of Nowhere is an uncomfortably personal and unnerving horror experience unlike anything else I’ve seen inside of a VR headset”

The sounds of the creature’s hulking forms stumbling towards you, the crunching of their flesh and bones, and the hair-raising music, all combine together to consistently bring chills to your spine even after fighting them a dozen different times. It’s an excellent testament to the quality of the Oculus Rift’s built-in headphones.

Visually it gets the job done, but it’s far from the most graphically impressive game I’ve seen, VR or otherwise. Many of the textures look flat or muddy when viewed up-close and the few human characters look a bit stiff when animated, other than Victor himself. Much of the lack of fidelity in the details is hidden well by not letting you get too close or by judiciously doling out long stretches of gameplay with next to no light other than your headlamp, so the sense of lonely despair quickly overshadows the not-so impressive texture quality.

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Final Score: 9/10 – Amazing

Minor annoyances aside, this heart-racing journey is full of stop-and-stare moments of sheer scale and intensity. You’ll find yourself holding your breath in anticipation for whatever the next moment of terror holds as the sweat builds on your palms and the hair on your neck continues to rise. At the story’s climax, you’re left questioning not only the events that transpired, but also your own sanity as well. Edge of Nowhere is an uncomfortably personal and unnerving horror experience unlike anything else I’ve seen inside of a VR headset. This is an Oculus Rift exclusive that is not to be missed.

I’m ultimately left knowing that the best way to end things would be with the legendary words of H.P. Lovecraft himself, as written in At the Mountains of Madness, “I could not help feeling that they were evil things — mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss.”

Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.

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