Being an early adopter for a new gaming system is always a bit of a gamble. Games usually come out slowly for a while after the initial launch and most current systems launch with an abundance of ports. Third party exclusive games are few and far between these days so it's often up to first parties to make the must-have exclusives for a new system. The PSVita has been sadly lacking in this regard for quite a while, but I think it finally has one such title in Gravity Rush.
Gravity Rush is one of those games that doesn't do everything amazingly, but does one thing so well that it's hard not to enjoy it. You play as Kat, a girl who has fallen into a floating city named Hekseville and lost all of her memories. She is actually given her name by one of the first people she meets, so she truly has no recollection of who or what she once was. Her one constant companion is a phantasmal cat that she names Dusty who gives her the power to change the direction of gravity around herself. Kat quickly decides to use her power to help those around her and thus you have an original PlayStation super hero. Screw you Cole, I like Kat better.
What really stands out in the story are the characters and their interactions, less so than the overall narrative itself. A couple of crazy metaphysical events and some all-powerful but never completely explained characters make the story a bit tough to follow and get into at points. Luckily, through it all, Kat is a charming character and it's easy to forgive a somewhat nonsensical plot when I'm having so much fun bumbling through it. Most storyline segments are told through comic strip still scenes with the odd animated frame thrown in when still shots simply wouldn't cut it. Even though it's all done with text and little in the way of voice acting (and absolutely none in English; what was voiced appeared to my untrained ears to be French), the characters still shine through as interesting and fun to watch.
Between all of those sometimes-difficult-to-follow story segments is some of the most addicting traversal gameplay I've experienced in quite a while. Certain games aren't all that impressive with respect to narrative or battle mechanics, but give you an open world to play in and a mode of travel that's so enjoyable to mess around with that you can forgive them these faults. Some of the best superhero games follow this motif because people with super powers always have interesting ways of getting around. Ultimate Spiderman casts you as a wise-cracking webhead, but swinging through the streets takes thought and skill and actually makes you feel like Spiderman. Playing as Kat doesn't require taking the environment into account as much as Spiderman does, but it's still far more fun than it probably should be.
Controls for the most part are simple. Pressing the R button makes Kat float in mid-air and you can then use the right analog stick to point the camera in the direction you want to go. Tap R again and gravity's direction will change to whatever direction you were looking at and Kat will start to fall. It's an easy mechanic for getting around in mid-air since the fact that you're falling really isn't much different than flying. One interesting point to note is that anything close to Kat will also start floating when you hit R and will fly with you briefly when you hit R again. The developers must have known this is hard to avoid because sending people to (what should be) their fairly obvious deaths in this way has no consequences other than the screams as they fly off into the distance.
Things get a little more convoluted when you touch ground, though, as you now have a frame of reference for where gravity is pointing instead of just using it as a way to fly above the city. When you aren't grounded you can use the position of the Vita to quickly change your view, which is a nice addition. The right analog stick isn't always fast enough when you're flying around losing your orientation and moving the Vita around like you're moving a window around Kat trying to get a better view feels natural.
Kat can also automatically slide across the ground by pressing on the bottom left and right corners of the front touch pad on the Vita. This may take some getting used to because turning is done by rotating the Vita itself and you can't really turn that well unless you stop touching one of the corners and take her into a “drift”. Over time, however, this too felt natural and I looked forward to objectives that required the gravity slide's use. Another useful power in Kat's repertoire is an anti-gravity bubble she can put around herself to make objects and/or people float beside her. This is done by pressing and holding the circle button, and if you do it again after picking up an object it can send it whirling through the air as a makeshift projectile.
These powers aren't limitless. Whenever you have the vector of gravity set as anything other than standard, a meter at the top left corner will slowly get eaten away. If this meter depletes completely you'll start plummeting towards the actual ground without control. Fortunately for you, the meter refills after a brief moment of not using Kat's powers. In fact, the meter refills so quickly that I can't recall one time that I actually fell to my death because the meter ran out, and that's saying something considering how often you float above a void.
Kat's powers can also be increased by collecting crystals around the city usually hidden in what would normally be impossible-to-reach places, like the underside of overhanging balconies. Leveling her powers allows you to increase the time she can use them before running out of juice and the speed she moves while falling or sliding. These new powers can then lead to even more crystals. Side objectives are strewn around the city and allow you to spend a small number of crystals in order to fix something that has gone into disrepair, like a Ferris Wheel or service elevator. Fixing part of the town not only gives you a sense of satisfaction, but opens up a challenge mini-game that you can compete in to get back far more crystals than you spent.
One might think that Kat would turn into a one-trick pony, but Gravity Rush does a very good job at maintaining variety. Story missions that take away your powers or change their duration or how they work are interspersed between challenges like shooting as many objects into a target square in a given amount of time as possible or racing while only using the gravity slide. It's a testament to good game design that I never got tired of Kat's abilities throughout my playthrough and I was often surprised at the new twists that Gravity Rush would throw at me.
If there's one glaring flaw with the gameplay it'd have to be the battle mechanics, which can get tiresome. Kat has the ability to perform standard attacks while on the ground, but many enemies are too large or mobile for this to be an effective mode of attack. This is where Kat's real standard attack comes in. It's a gravity kick in which she shifts gravity to fall towards a target feet first. I think I used this attack more so than anything else in the game and it probably took up more than three quarters of my battle strategy. It's not brainless, though, and flying between enemies for gravity kicks while avoiding their attacks is often tricky. You also have access to super moves that you can use whenever the cooldown timer is up, which helps break things up and can get you out of tough situations, but most of your time in battles is spent performing the same gravity kick over and over. Ninja Gaiden-type action this is not.
Even if I get tired of kicking things over and over again I'll never get tired of the game's aesthetic. It's not the prettiest cel shading ever but Gravity Rush features some of the best animation work in a cel shading game I've ever seen. Merely watching Kat run around in the world is a sight to behold. There were one or two sections where the framerate died on me, but for the most part the game also runs smoothly.
Progressing through the game unlocks different sections of the floating city Kat calls home, and each one is unique and yet works perfectly with her abilities. I don't think I've ever cared as much about the architecture in a video game as I do with Gravity Rush. Exploring the city is a joy, particularly with the upbeat music that fits the setting so well.
All good things must come to an end, though, and my playthrough of Gravity Rush - while giving every side challenge a couple attempts - took me a little over ten hours. There are online leaderboards for every challenge and getting gold on some of them can be quite difficult so there's certainly more to do with Kat after the credits roll if you haven't gotten enough out of the game to satisfy you. Sadly the challenges don't have a "restart" button until you get all the way through, so if you're trying for a perfect run and mess up at the beginning you've got about a minute of loading, autosaving, and loading waiting for you. I just wish there were difficulty levels, or some other reason to play through the campaign again, but I'll have to be happy just floating around the town when I'm bored every now and then.
Since I preordered Gravity Rush I also got the first DLC pack free, and it's very encouraging. Not only does it contain new story segments that flesh out some of the lesser characters, but it features unique gameplay situations not seen in the main storyline. Trying to save a flaming airship by throwing water towers at it was one of the most challenging sequences in the entire game. If all of the DLC is like this one then there's definitely reason to look forward to more packs being released.
Flying through a Parisian-inspired floating city in the sky is just the sort of unique experience that a new system like the Vita needs. Combat may have be a drag at points, and the story made less sense than reading Shakespeare backwards for hidden messages, but I couldn't help but love manipulating gravity and the general atmosphere that Gravity Rush exudes. Don't give up on this franchise, Sony, I won't forgive you if this is the last we see of Kat and the floating town of Hekseville.
This review is based on a retail copy of Gravity Rush for PSVita.