A newly revealed Oculus Touch title from Insomniac Games just shot to the top of our must-play list. Do the words “urban magic fight club” do anything for you?
I’m standing on a pillar 20 feet above the ground, overlooking what once was a construction yard in some dilapidated, forgotten area of Chicago. 50 yards across from me, our editor-in-chief Will Mason is undoubtedly sizing me up, trying to determine if I’ll be a predictable little wizard and launch a charged up fireball the second the match begins, or whether I’ll opt for a defensive hide-and-seek approach, teleporting from pillar to pillar to disorient him, waiting for my chance to strike with a more devastating spell.
As the fight begins, I see his robed avatar cast a glance to the right. Guessing he’s about to teleport, I slowly pull back my arm to my chest and summon a fireball in the palm of my hand. Right before his corporeal form blinks out of existence, I thrust my hand forward, watching my fireball surge violently toward what I think will be his new location, hoping my aim is on target and that it smashes into him before he has time to summon a shield and block the attack.
Fortunately for me, my guess is on the money. Unfortunately for me, Will summons a shield in his left hand shockingly fast, and deflects my spell at such a perfect angle that it comes hurtling back at me and connects with my torso.
This is merely the opening few seconds of a fierce PvP match in The Unspoken, one of three new virtual reality titles Insomniac Games (Ratchet & Clank, Sunset Overdrive) is releasing this year for the Oculus Rift — this one specifically for the system’s upcoming Touch controllers.
“When we saw the Oculus Touch controllers at E3 last year we had a group eureka moment, where we knew we had to make a game about spellcasting,” Insomniac Games creative director Chad Dezern told UploadVR during a recent media event.
Insomniac wants you to forget you’re even using a controller, and the way the Oculus Touch controllers seem to melt ergonomically into your hand helps achieve that goal.
“Urban Magic Fight Club” #SellMeThisGameIn4Words
We talk a lot about video games enabling power fantasies, and that concept was surely at the top of Insomniac’s design document for The Unspoken, in bold print and underlined with a pink highlighter. This game audaciously answers the question “What would real-life spellcasting feel like in VR?” and then gleefully marries “Harry Potter” with Street Fighter in what can only be described as an urban magic fight club featuring supernatural combat.
The Unspoken effortlessly imparts the feeling of casting magic with your bare hands, whether it’s tracing glyphs, grabbing objects, or hurling projectiles, it’s an incredibly physical and expressive game. I’ll even commit a game journalist sin by calling it visceral.
As Will and I spoke with Dezern at Insomniac Games’ Burbank studio, it struck me how frequently we all referenced magic as if it was some real but elusive power humans aspired to learn but rarely harnessed. Debates erupted over the merits of dual-wielding fireballs, and how certain spells are affected by gravity. As if The Unspoken was the result of Dezern and his team of developers actually studying the dark arts, interviewing living magic practitioners, and building a game around what they’d learned.
What makes The Unspoken so cool — aside from it transforming you into a mighty wizard — is its utilization of non-traditional spells.
“You’re manipulating unseen forces,” Dezern said. “You’re pulling elements from the city around you.”
Sure, there’s a fireball because of course there’s a fireball! But there are also 25+ spells (for the purpose of our demo we only saw a handful of these) that seem more rooted in the real world than some mystical one.
We were able to cast a paper airplane that you fold and magically transform into a B-52 bomber that slowly seeks out your foe, a flock of flaming crows that will attack from behind cover, a magic crayon with which you can draw a protective shield, and (my personal favorite) a magic anvil that produces a spear allowing you to hurl it and inflict massive damage if it finds its mark.
Turning your palm skyward opens up a menu of spells that you can choose from, provided you have gathered enough arcane energy crystals from the map to cast it. Overall we found the game’s UI, even in this early stage, to be really fluid, allowing for quick combat and spell changing on the fly.
Each arena also has an unlockable environment based spell. Think of it as an “escalation event” which, if executed properly, stands to be the climax and potentially the end of each match. In this particular arena, you can summon a massive Golem from the surrounding debris and then unleash it, watching it swallow up cover and ultimately tear apart your opponent unless they can put it down first, which is no easy feat. And casting it is far from instant, as you have to assemble the Golem by combining its legs, arms, torso, and head.
We were thrilled to hear that The Unspoken will let its dueling wizards employ various loadouts, too. These can center around offense, counters and defense, or utility spells that warp the world around your opponent. You won’t always know what you’ll be up against, which could lend a nice variety to the matches.
Magic As Performance Art?
UploadVR co-founder Will Mason and I engaged in several matches against each other (or, more appropriately, I served as his magic noob punching bag as he surgically decimated me with his arsenal of spells), but when I needed some respite, I decided to observe Will playing the game’s tutorial.
This was, in a word, delightful.
To cast a fireball in The Unspoken, the only hard and fast requirement is that you pull the trigger on the Touch controller to charge it, then initiate some type of motion where you throw the fireball. I watched people throw it like a baseball, chuck it “granny style,” or imitate Ryu and cast it like a Hadouken.
Will slowly moved his hand skyward as if summoning forth the essence of all power in the universe, watching it with this intense expression on his face (and I swear he was growling!), finally dropping his hand sharply to his side and hurling that ball of deadly flame in a manner which looked entirely badass, as if he just innately knew how this stuff worked. The grin on his face afterward was unmistakable.
Dezern comments that “seeing all the weirdness of human movement and emotion” is one of the most captivating things about VR.
“The spells you cast have enough nuance where if you look cool in your mind while you’re playing, you’re gonna be more effective with the spell,” Dezern tells us later. “Having a little bit of flourish in your actions actually plays into casting. With some spells you’ll hear a chanting, and if you can match up the rhythm of it and the flow of it, you’ll get a better result.”
We still don’t have an exact release date for The Unspoken beyond “Holiday 2016”, because there’s no established release date for Oculus’ Touch controllers. But based on our time with Insomniac’s playful and downright addicting vision of PvP magic dueling, it will be at the top of our must-play list when it releases.
Will even thinks it has the potential to become one of the first VR e-Sports, and I emphatically agree. Keep an eye out for this one!
This article features additional reporting by Will Mason.