A big complaint surrounding a lot of VR games at this stage of the industry is that many of them are just far too short. After an hour or two you can see most everything there is to see in a lot of the low-quality shovelware that’s flooded the marketplaces for Rift, Vive, and PSVR. The Persistence, a part survival horror, part sci-fi roguelike VR shooter from Firesprite Games, aims to solve that problem with some light procedural generation and a heavy focus on replayability.
In The Persistence you take on the role of Security Officer Zimri Eder aboard The Persistence, a massive starship traveling through the stars. Something goes terribly wrong, wiping out the crew, and resulting in various strange dark matter related anomalies. Instead of a crew full of friends and colleagues, the ship is overrun with grotesque, aggressive mutants. You’ve got to explore, repair, and guide the ship back to Earth as the lone survivor.
The nifty thing about The Persistence is that no two playthroughs are ever quite the same. This is due to the fact that each time you die, the layout, item placement, enemies, and structure of the entire spaceship you’re set to explore gets reshuffled. And it’s not just an item reset and enemy respawn type of update, but a complete overhaul. The whole map in and of itself changes. You could explore the first level of the ship 10 times and never have the same experience.
Granted, there are limitations to this formula. For starters, you’ll eventually start to recognize identifiable “chunks” in the world, which is common with most roguelikes. When I say no two games are ever the same I don’t mean the ship’s interior is a different style and you’re playing a different game. Medical bays have a “samey” quality to them across the whole game, some rooms have similar structures, all the doors look the same, and so on. But rather if you’re enjoying the game, then you can rest assured that it’s a bit like an essentially endless stream of content that you can keep exploring and playing.
Unlike a lot of roguelikes though, there isn’t actual permadeath — at least, not really. Instead of having everything you did wiped clean, you get to keep your credits (in the form of stem cells and fab chips), everything you unlocked stays unlocked, any upgrades on your actual character are retained, and eventually you can even fast travel to higher tiers of the ship if you find the corresponding Deck Modules. Death in The Persistence can be devastating depending on the circumstance, but the game does a good job of not making you feel like all that time was wasted. In fact, when a new clone is printed of your character, you get to pick an upgrade to spend some stem cells on that can make a big difference in your next playthrough.
The Persistence (which just so happens to also be the name of the ship itself) is split into five decks. Each deck has a starting point that’s connected back to the starting Recovery room, well over a dozen connected rooms that can contain anything from enemies, items, supply crates (usually accompanied by waves of enemies as a “Challenge Room”), or fabrication stations.
Item fabrication is at the core of progression in The Persistence. Spread across each deck of the ship you’ll find fabrication stations for guns, grenades, melee weapons, and experimental weaponry. At each station you’ll need to spend rare Erebus Tokens to either unlock or upgrade your gear and then use fab chips to craft items and ammo. Once you craft something, that station is out of commission for a long time until it recharges so you can’t just buy a bunch of guns all at once. Between sessions at the Recovery room you can use stem cells to upgrade your personal stats, like shield regeneration or max health. That way you’re always slowly getting stronger over the course of the game.
Even though you lose all of your weapons when you die, the schematics you unlocked and all of your currency are saved. It’s a relatively forgiving system because once you start a new playthrough, it won’t take terribly long to get back on track with some gear. So you might start weak and defenseless other than your Stem Cell Harvester, but it’s perfect capable of landing stealth kills and beating enemies over the head. You’ve also got a shield mapped to L2 that’s great for parrying and blocking attacks.
Firesprite appear to have taken note from other developers such as Insomniac when it comes to their weapon variety. Instead of just dishing out a list of different fire rates and damage types, each and every weapon is significantly different. There’s an amazing gravity bomb that sucks in enemies, a javelin-shooting harpoon stealth pistol that results in amazing ragdoll physics, plenty of pistols and automatic weapons, and — my favorite — the Grav Hook, which has you physically move your head around to slam enemies up and down and sideways until they’re bludgeoned to death. There’s even a device that magically teleports you to safety as a last resort!
Note: The above GIF is extra blurry because it’s been enlarged. The game looks much sharper — you can see real footage in our video review near the top of this article.
Visually, The Persistence leaves a little bit to be desired. Similar to some other titles, like Robinson: The Journey on PSVR, there’s a slight grainy effect going on. It’s lessened on the PS4 Pro, but is pretty noticeable on the standard PS4. This doesn’t really detract from the game as a whole — the lighting system is excellent and enemies look really great, even close up, but when you’re exploring hallways and corridors that all kind of look the same for a few hours, you’ll notice some of the corners that were cut.
I finished the base game in about seven hours. What I mean by “finished” is that after dying well over a dozen times total, I was able to finally make my way to the final floor and complete the last objective, reaching the end of a playthrough.
On the survival horror note, The Persistence is a scary and unnerving game. Enemies have a habit of popping up out of nowhere, scaring the crap out of you and eliciting jumps. The sound design is wonderfully haunting with mutants moaning and groaning around corners. I probably spent close to half of my playthrough slowly creeping along while crouched.
Now since this is a roguelike, it’s designed to be played multiple times. In fact, once you finish it, you’ll have your completion time logged and you unlock a new Survival Mode. In this mode you only get 10 lives (that sounds generous, but it’s not) to finish as quickly as possible.
In a unique twist, The Persistence also has a mobile/tablet companion app that lets others users (up to three others) interact with your game. With the app they can freeze and tag enemies, open doors, inform you of traps, locate items, and more. However, the app also has its own separate XP and progression and sometimes that user will actually be incentivized to hinder you. But as the VR player, you can upload viruses to them to fight back as well. It’s a clever system that works well and adds an extra fun layer if you’ve got someone to play with, but is far from necessary to enjoy the game as a whole.
Unfortunately, The Persistence is a DualShock 4 only game. Mechanically it feels similar to the likes of DOOM VFR (although much slower-paced) and Resident Evil 7. You aim your weapons by moving your head, walk around with the left analog stick, and rotate the camera with the right stick. Vertical camera movement is disabled since you can just move your neck up or down instead to avoid sickness. There are comfort options in the settings, but I always crank any game I play all the way to the most intense since I’m not bothered by motion sickness thankfully. When you press X there’s a short-range teleportation power as well that’s great for evading enemies and stealthily navigating levels.
It wasn’t part of the design, but I’d have loved PS Move support with a control scheme similar to Skyrim VR, or ideally, PS Aim controller support. Farpoint more or less spoiled me on the PS Aim controller for any game that’s primarily about shooting guns and other weapons.
The Persistence offers something fresh and engaging by mixing different genres that we don’t often see melded together so well. On a moment-to-moment basis the horrors lurking around every corner keep you on your toes and the give-and-take aspect of its roguelike nature ensures that no two runs are ever quite the same. The lack of Move or PS Aim controller support is a bummer, but it still plays wonderfully just on the standard DualShock 4. This is a dark, challenging stealth shooter that PSVR fans can keep coming back to for quite a while.