Red Matter’s iron claws, with which you grab objects, are a fitting allegory for the wider game. They’re strong and steely, providing an authentic sensation of having a firm grasp on something. Developer Vertical Robot demonstrates that same iron grip on its handling of VR and immersion all the way through this sumptuous sci-fi short.
Here you travel to a moon orbiting Saturn amidst a prolonged Cold War against the fictional state of Volgravia. Tasked with infiltrating a top-secret base, you’ll solve puzzles and piece together the story using environmental clues as you get closer to the truth. True, the format is familiar (especially in headsets), but every element of Red Matter’s design, from the movement to the user interface to the storytelling has put VR front and center.
Take the locomotion, which mixes low-gravity space hopping and smooth movement at the player’s whim. The latter option works well but its the jumping that really stands out thanks to the context of the environment and the fact that it’s just a fun, immersive and surprisingly speedy way of getting about. It gives the exploration a welcome punchiness; rather than slowly slogging back and forth between levers and buttons you can quickly skip and hop your way over while still not breaking the immersion with a black to fade. As a result, you come to the game’s puzzles with an eager sense of discovery rather than slight dread for the busywork ahead.
Perhaps its the UI that’s the real winner, though. Red Matter has you holding a pair of interchangeable devices that can switch between claws, scanners and flashlights. Button layouts, especially on PSVR’s Move controllers where things can get tricky, are expertly mapped, providing some of the most natural interactions I’ve had with a VR controller. Look at the device and you’ll see buttons that correspond to those on your controller, doing away with the momentary confusion we can all experience. Crucially, it kept me rooted in the game’s world, rather than trying to think outside of the headset to press the right buttons.
Finally, there’s the atmosphere, which is masterfully layered on. Red Matter’s environments are intricately detailed with decorations and notes that flesh out the story in an authentic way. It’s more of a short than a fully developed narrative, and it’s a shame there isn’t more of it to see, but its ability to get right to the point is appreciated too. As the plot starts to dip into the supernatural Vertical Robot shows admirable restraint, resisting the temptation to dip into the pure horror that works so well in VR but can alienate some players. Instead, Red Matter uses its spookier elements to pile on the intrigue.
The sum of these parts is a game that’s simply a joy to be engrossed in. Granted that’s largely because Vertical Robot has stripped away elements rather than faced them head on; there’s no human characters to interact with or shootouts to panic over, but this is very much a case of less being more. Save for a few hiccups such as accidentally pressing the wrong button, Vertical Robot keeps VR’s awkward bumps to an absolute minimum and doubles down on making you believe you really are in the space you’re standing in. It’s a focus that a lot of other developers could afford to pay more attention to.
There are some duff notes with the puzzling, especially in the later levels where Vertical isn’t as generous with clues as it should be. That said, there are a few real winners in here too, some of which, again, have VR design at the front and center. But the puzzles aren’t what I’ll remember Red Matter for; it’ll be the unshakeable sense of having true autonomy over my actions in VR and not to be at the mercy of the virtual barriers so many run into time and again.
Red Matter is nothing short of a textbook example of how to do VR adventure games right. It emphasizes design and experience, putting immersion front and center, making a bullet-proof case for why it needs to be seen and played in VR. Short length and some troublesome puzzles betray its winning streak to some degree, but don’t change the fact that this is one sci-fi story you shouldn’t miss out on.
Red Matter is available now on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Windows VR and PlayStation VR for $24.99. Check out these official review guidelines to find out more about our process.