The Gallery’s first episode was more of a promise than it was a game. It was Cloudhead Games’ pledge that, if you trusted them and took Elsie’s outstretched hand, both she and the team would take you on an adventure like no other. Well, it took a little longer than expected, but it’s finally time to dive deeper into the rabbit hole, and it was well worth the wait.
Just as with the first game, The Gallery Episode 2: Heart of the Emberstone is an adventure game at heart. Last time around we left protagonist Alex in a pretty weird predicament. Now off-planet and armed with telekinetic abilities, you continue the hunt for his sister — Elsie — and discover more about the mysterious Sebastian, who you briefly encountered at the end of the first installment. It’s about exploring new locations, solving environmental puzzles and following the story. All three of these key elements have been greatly enhanced in Episode 2, though, resulting in an experience that feels considerably evolved over its predecessor while still very much one part in a bigger series.
The story, for example, is much more fantastical and better executed, leaning heavily on ’80s adventures like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. While you’ll continue to gather cassette tapes left by Elsie that document her adventures, you’ll also often see virtual projections of both her and Sebastian that play out like memories right in front of you. In Elsie’s case in particular, it’s a clever way of bringing you that bit closer to a character we still haven’t really met and yet feel like we know well.
Both Elsie and Sebastian’s stories have several touching and shocking moments that make clever use of VR, whether it’s sympathizing for one’s loneliness as you stand beside them, or coming to terms with the other’s reasoning as they drift apart from their family. You’ll meet some other characters too, including one particularly lovable creature that serves as the game’s transport system. Though all the players haven’t yet come together, The Gallery has built one of VR’s first great cast of characters and introduced me to some incredible figures I won’t soon forget.
Though the first episode consisted of very grounded locations, its detailed environmental design still made it fascinating to explore. Heart of the Emberstone’s ancient planet is even more compelling to behold, though. Cloudhead has managed to do a lot more with just a handful more environments this time around; there are only three key areas, each consisting of a number of rooms, but you’ll spend the two-to-three-hour it takes to complete journeying between them and discovering something new each time. You come to know each location’s features intimately, to the point where you’ll instantly know where to go and what to do next when you earn certain new abilities. In that sense, there’s a hint of Metroidvania-style exploration to it, injecting a little of your own initiative into the exploration.
Heart of the Emberstone really makes you feel like you’re exploring an alien planet. Wonderful little details populate each scene, from space hermit crabs that scurry around your feet with skulls for shells, to doors that strangely twist open in a fashion that genuinely makes you wonder what’s on the other side every time. The sound design does wonders for giving you a sense of place; gigantic stone doors roar and creek as you shift them aside and the soothing soundtrack fuels your curiosity. And yet there’s a welcome touch of humanity in there; Elsie’s notes give the world a sort of living annotation where you’ll find helpful notes left behind. It’s truly a unique place to explore and easily one of my favorite worlds I’ve visited in VR.
All that said that said, it still feels like Cloudhead is building to something here. Episode 2 is all about history, with a story very much rooted in exposition. Though a big step up from Episode 1, there’s a lingering feeling that the developer is keeping its aces up its sleeve for when the fireworks really start to fly, and I’m longing to see what will happen when everything comes to a head and the storytelling becomes more immediate.
Gameplay-wise, Heart of the Emberstone features easily some of the best puzzle design I’ve seen in VR so far. Like Charm Games’ Form before it, the challenges here are incredibly intuitive and are often a joy to solve with a few exceptions. Fitting cogs of specific shapes together against a time limit is an intense thrill, and there’s something brilliantly charming about the Operation-like activation puzzles in which you move a small puzzle piece into position with your hand while avoiding obstacles. Even if you aren’t interested in the story, I’d say the game is worth playing for these moments alone.
There are a few duff notes, like the long-overused puzzle in which you repeat musical notes in order and one infuriating challenge towards the end that acts as a speedbump at a pivotal point in the story, but overall it’s a huge relief to be playing puzzles that don’t slow the game’s momentum.
The Gallery’s second episode isn’t a great deal bigger than the first, but it’s a heck of a lot richer. You won’t visit many more locations or even spend dramatically longer with it, but the entire package feels grander and more considered. Though it’s still very much one installment in something much bigger, it’s evolved to meet our heightened expectations of the second year of VR content, and yet again left us begging for more. This is one adventure you won’t regret going on.