We’ve been here a fair few times now. The dingy confines of dungeon hallways have become a second home to VR fanatics. Their hidden keys are our lost TV remotes, dislodged stones are neglected renovation projects. The dungeon crawler is VR doing what comes naturally to it; sword-swinging, arrow flinging action, with a good bit of inventory shuffling and pretend food eating in the mix for good measure.
That seems to be The Morrigan in a nutshell.
This is the VR debut from The Pixel Mine, a UK-based indie developer that includes Framestore VR developer, Micheal Cable. Cable is working on the game in his spare time. It is, for all intents and purposes, Vanishing Realms with a slightly fresher coat of paint. You get the same core thrills here that you did in 2016; locking blades with skeleton warriors, lighting up corridors with a torch in-hand and trading arrows with archers. That spark of authentic adventuring is still there, though The Morrigan does show threatening signs of a genre turning stale.
“VR is really hard to do well and I wanted to fully immerse myself in the problems and look at solutions,” Cable tells me over email. “I wanted to challenge myself and explore more of the VR space in terms of interaction and gameplay than I had in the past.”
Levels come in snackable sizes, usually revolving around a featured setpiece or hook. Cable tells me he wanted to capture the spirit of films like Indiana Jones and the swashbuckling sword combat of Errol Flynn battles. One mission had me navigating a maze-like garden with sharp corners hiding lumbering skeletons that give you a fright. Another channels its inner Lord of the Rings with a fight sequence across an enormous bridge. It’s a slideshow of different design tropes, a greatest hits of fantasy cinema and gaming stuffed into a VR headset. There’s the leap of the heart when a set of spikes suddenly springs up in front of you, the undeniable satisfaction of a successful parry and the unbeatable immersion of nocking an arrow onto your bow.
One appreciated touch is the ability to pick up enemy’s weapons once they’ve been defeated. Your arsenal will quickly fill up with an assortment of swords, shields and even a hammer or two. At its very foundation, simply existing in The Morrigan’s world, holding a torch up high to light the way and keeping your sword at the ready, feels great.
All of that is well and good, but it’s been seen before and, in some areas, surpassed. The Morrgian’s combat system is a familiar face at a time when others are breaking new ground. It works soundly on paper; you need to align the sharp end of your blade with your foe and then take a proper swing (not just a wrist-waggle) to do damage. Enemies generously telegraph their sword swings, giving you time to parry before swiping at exposed body parts. It works well if you show patience and stick to the rules. There’s a play time joy to holding your blade out to defend an incoming attack and then retaliating.
But, like most other VR melee systems, it runs into awkward spots. There’s lots of unintentional contact that gives way to chaos and you can also simply avoid most attacks by taking a step backward. Games like Blade and Sorcery are unearthing new, more tangible melee systems for VR and The Morrigan’s offering feels somewhat dated in comparison. It doesn’t help that enemy AI is a little spotty. They simply march toward you regardless of what stands between you. At one point one threw itself off of a stairwell to fight me. I simply climbed over some vines to avoid him, knowing it couldn’t get back up.
I’d also like to see some more complex level design in the later missions. While some of the game’s setpieces are thrilling, there are also a handful of levels that go by without much to say.
The Morrigan’s Early Access release will consist of about an hour of story-driven content. There’s also a wave-based arena mode. Cable and team will add more levels and arenas over the course of pre-release. He also says he wants to try new weapon mechanics.
“One of the benefits of not [going for] realism is it gives you freedom to add what is fun, rather than what is historically accurate,” he says. “I’m doing some tests with magic, but it has to feel as good as the swordplay before I commit to moving in that direction. There are some great VR magic titles out there already so I don’t need to add to the pile unless it really adds to the game.”
For now, what’s here is enough. An hour trekking through The Morrigan’s stone-walled labyrinth left me satisfied. Whether or not the full version can raise the bar beyond that remains to be seen.
Cable says the game may be in Early Access for around six months. That said, he won’t fully release it until it’s ready. It’s coming to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for now, but PSVR and Quest are possibilities for the future.