Blasters of the Universe Review: A VR Hell of Bullets
Ben Sheene / Mar 29th, 2018 No Comments
After my first night watching glowing red bullets whiz past my head in Blasters of the Universe, I awoke the next morning, muscles aching. With a PSVR strapped to my head and two Move controllers in hand, I had ducked and dodged in ways my body is rarely familiar with. Despite the exhaustion, I was left exhilarated by this engaging experience that shows off the better qualities of virtual reality gaming.
Rage in the Machine
Blasters of the Universe is a game focused on the action at hand. Story is given little concern because it bears hardly any impact on players’ enjoyment of the core gameplay. Does it really concern anyone that a former local arcade wizard who calls himself Grand Master Alwyn uploaded his consciousness into a 90s virtual reality machine? Probably not. Would it come as a shock that you’re the one tasked with dethroning his decades-long reign in a virtual world? Probably not.
Though the concept has whispers of Tron and budget techno-thrillers of yesteryear, Blasters of the Universe makes no effort to tread much farther from its introductory cutscene. Alwyn taunts players off and on throughout levels and makes a few passing quips and intentionally eye-rolling puns, but nothing more.
Developer Secret Location instead drowns players in the vibrant neon hues of a world where late 80s aesthetic is blended with early 90s technology. In this world, blocky robots made of sharp polygons roam the battlefield. Featureless glowing green faces sit atop mechanical suits of armor while featureless blue faces zip around in the sky. It reminds one of a time when CGI was coming into its own. Think less Toy Story and more Reboot.
This isn’t to say that Blasters of the Universe looks bad, however. Where those old CGI cartoons and characters show their age, the enemies here embrace their dated creepiness. Robots are hulking pieces of steel, reflective of the nerdy mind that created them. Here I see flashes of old arcade games like Robotron: 2084, Defender, Centipede and Tempest; the kind of games Alwyn likely is obsessed with.
It’s all very crude, but is not lacking in charm, which also helps the graphical fidelity. As the weakest of the main three virtual reality headsets, PSVR can sometimes struggle to bring out the detail in its games. Blasters of the Universe’s distinct style allows colors to pop. The harsh edges feel more polished and, thankfully for a game like this, the framerate does not take a hit.
Make it Rain
Blasters of the Universe is being marketed as an intensely difficult bullet hell VR shooter. This is a genre known for being mentally taxing on players because it requires deep concentration and nimble movement. Enemies flood the screen with projectiles and it’s up to players to try to navigate their tiny character out of harm’s way.
Bullet hell games, despite their brutality, can provide a thrilling rush when players conquer seemingly impossible odds. But how does it work in virtual reality? The proposition seems vomit-inducing. However, Secret Location pulls it off.
The main trick is that players’ heads are the only part of the body susceptible to damage. One bullet, beam, rocket, spider or sword to the head and you lose a heart. Lose all hearts and it’s game over.
Each enemy type has a different behavior and shoots out a pattern of bullets. Tiny spiders shoot one or two bullets at a time straight at your face. The creepy floating blue heads fire out a circle of bullets that require you to either move out of the way completely or put your head in the center of the circle. Other enemies shoot walls of bullets or zig-zagging patterns that are harder to avoid. Then, flying robots that sweep the room with a beam come into play. Then, robots that shoot rockets that can’t be avoided enter the fray and must be shot down.
Within seconds, players learn that anything on the color wheel between yellow and red that comes at their face needs to be avoided or blocked. For a few minutes, I tried playing Blasters of the Universe in my chair, only to realize how futile that was. This is the kind of VR game that takes advantage of the fact that you can move around a room. I started moving my feet to get of of the way of one hail of bullets while keeping my head focused on another enemy who was already shooting its next volley.
Because the scenery doesn’t change during a level and players stay in a stationary spot, it’s fair to call Blasters of the Universe a wave shooter or a shooting gallery game. Like similar titles in the genre, the levels take advantage of the three-dimensional space and have enemies pop behind cover or appear on multiple fronts. The factor keeping this game from feeling bland is that you are never not on your toes. So many times I found myself pointing my Move controller at an enemy I knew was there and blind firing, while the whole time I was facing another enemy to make sure my head passed safely through its cyclone of bullets. Just keep in mind: Blasters of the Universe is an extremely hard game.
I decided to tackle the first level on the “Hell” difficulty and struggled. I dialed the difficulty down to “Casual” for the second level and struggled a modicum less. The difference between the two difficulties is that enemy attacks are slightly easier to follow and much less relentless.
Unfortunately, the game is a bit shallow on content. With only four levels, many enemies are repeated and the environments don’t offer much outside of just being backdrops.
However, the climactic boss fights at the end of each level punctuate how creative the concept of a bullet hell game can be in virtual reality. The first boss literally had me squatting down to avoid barrages of lasers while another had me swiftly dodging from side to side to avoid being hit by a sword.
A handful of levels would have allowed for more enemy variety to be sprinkled throughout the game, but the welcome addition of a score-attack endless mode, leaderboards and weekly challenges give players a little incentive to come back for more.
To curb the spikes in bullets and difficulty, players have two handy tools: a gun and a shield. Thankfully, Blasters of the Universe has made shooting an incredibly enjoyable mechanic that doesn’t feel humdrum.
Kudos must first be given to the accuracy of shooting. PSVR doesn’t have the tracking benefits of the Vive, but I never found myself fighting with getting the Move controllers to sync up where I wanted to point my gun. Players are treated to an armory fully equipped with a shooting range to test out their firearms and can really get an idea for the tightness of aiming.
The real joy of shooting in Blasters of the Universe is due to being able to customize five parts of the gun. Magazines, bullet types and barrels allow players to approach combat in the way they see fit. One part makes bullets fire slowly but with more damage, while another part can allow those bullets to have splash damage or bounce off surfaces. With a shooting range in the armory, testing different loadouts is seamless.
As players progress through a level, they will gain experience toward unlocking new parts, whether they beat the boss or not. This means that a player can try out a few new parts to make fights easier before they are required to beat a boss to progress for more upgrades.
Players use their other Move controller for a shield that is capable of blocking bullets. Each shield has its own recharge rate and benefits. I expect that many players will enjoy the one that allows three small shields to be placed in any direction, or the one that builds up energy to release a bullet-melting discharge.
Just like any game featuring an upgrade path, later unlocks are going to yield better results. I hit a wall in the third level, but I eventually reached a point where I unlocked a part that turned my bullets into a beam to increase damage at the cost of magazine size.
Out of all the parts of the gun that can be customized, the magazine is the most frustrating. Some magazines require players to use their shield hand to load and move it into its slot on the gun. It can be problematic and a bit inaccurate, especially in the midst of trying to dodge bullets. I would often end up just waving my left hand around my right trying to reload. Plus, losing ammo capacity for a slight damage buff feels like a pointless trade off.
Since each level in Blasters of the Universe lasts around 5 to 10 minutes, it’s easy to hop in for a few quick rounds and experiment with new guns or just have some fun. There is little about the gameplay that I would consider casual, especially with how often your heart will be racing.
Virtual reality is not an easy concept to nail but when risks are taken, the payoff can be great. Making a VR wave shooter has been a common practice for a few years now. Secret Location’s decision to translate the challenge of bullet hells into this space certainly pays off. Though it left my body rattled, Blasters of the Universe is calling me back for more punishment.
Blasters of the Universe was reviewed with a PlayStation VR headset on a PlayStation 4 Pro using a code for the game provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
tags: Blasters of the Universe , Blasters of the Universe Review , ps4 , ps4 review , PSVR , review , Secret Location , sony