The phoenix is a symbol we can all easily recognize. It signifies rising again and being born from the ashes of what came before. It’s about making something great from a fresh start. It’s fitting, then, that the first game from UK-based Penny Black Studios, formed by game industry veterans, be about riding on the back of one of these fabled creatures.
It also helps that How We Soar is a pretty wonderful experience.
In this PlayStation VR exclusive, released weeks back though seemingly flying under the radar for many, you follow the story of an author that’s suffering from an existential strand of writer’s block. He’s struggling to come to terms with what makes a good story, while also building his own narrative around him as he raises a family. You’ll see both sides to his life by gliding through beautiful paper craft levels that evolve as you collect orbs to open up portals to new areas.
Skimming the skies on the back of this bird is a joy, showcasing VR at it’s whimsical best. Your companion is a brilliant blend of orange and blue, and his fluffy feathers are just asking for you to lean in and pet him, something I caught myself thinking about doing several times. If you’ve played The Last Guardian and wanted to comfort Trico in VR in the past few weeks, How We Soar is as close as you’ll currently get.
Equal praise must go to the game’s levels, which you can paint by sweeping in close to the paper islands that depict both the worlds the author creates and his life outside of those books. As you gather orbs these sheets will bend and fold to make new scenes and objects that are often there to be marveled at. Flying through the belly of a paper dragon and bringing life to his scales, or squeezing inside of an asteroid orbiting a small planet are wonder-filled experiences. I often want VR to move past these early fantastical tones that focus on style over substance, but How We Soar’s presentation truly enraptured me and gave me memories.
What it doesn’t have is the kind of mechanical complexity and gameplay loop that many will be looking for. This is a peaceful experience, and each of the 10 to 20-minute levels only ever ask you to fly through rings, gather a certain amount of orbs, and then chase and catch a paper bird that spawns when you pick up all of one type of collectible.
Controls are deliberately sluggish, which can be a source of frustration when you’re hunting levels for the last orb. You can boost by thrusting the DualShock 4 forward, but it’s only slight and you occasionally wish for a more dependable option. One nice touch is seeing the pad within the game world, also made out of paper and attached to the reigns of your companion. It almost made me wish for entirely tilt-based gamepad controls, though ancient experiments like PS3’s Lair are a good reminder of why sticks are more dependable. Since you’re riding the bird and not embodying it, tilting your head like in Eagle Flight wouldn’t have made very much sense.
The hook here is the atmosphere, not the gameplay, but I appreciate that not everyone will be looking for that type of experience. For me, though, it made How We Soar one of the more memorable games seen on PS VR to date. It’s design understands the current limitations of VR — especially PS VR — but proves that developers don’t need to make compromises to create fulfilling content.
How We Soar is one of PS VR’s most uplifting experiences, and won’t soon be forgotten by those that enjoy something more in line with the pace of a walking simulator, as opposed to the action-packed intensity of EVE: Valkyrie or Driveclub VR. It’s a breezy ride that will leave you missing the wind rushing through your hair. If it’s flown under your radar thus far, make sure to right that wrong soon.