As far as gaming urban legends go, the story of a Polybius arcade cabinet causing amnesia to its players and being investigated by Men in Black probably takes the cake for me. Described as a psychedelic action game, its mysterious appearance and disappearance in Portland, Oregon arcades in the 1980’s is a crazy tale for sure, but it almost doesn’t compare to the hallucinogenic and mesmerizing arcade shooter that Jeff Minter and Llamasoft have crafted in Polybius – a new game for PS4 with the same name.
Available to play in 2D, 3D and Virtual Reality, I spent most of my time engaging with Polybius in the fully immersive VR space. Hearkening back to classic arcade games like Tempest and Space Invaders – the former of which Minter helped remake with Tempest 2000 – Polybius is a spectacle to behold in virtual reality. With simplistic controls, the game sets itself up as a leaderboard focused title, but quickly turns itself into a precise, yet puzzling action title – one that wears its homages directly on its sleeve.
Gameplay consists of moving forward through vector designs and doing what comes natural: shooting enemies. Each level is comprised of a different environment design and different enemies, sometimes pertaining to the seemingly cute tagline at the beginning of the level. The levels don’t tend to escalate in difficulty, and even going from one level to the next doesn’t have a steep difficulty curve. That is, until puzzle elements start being woven into the previously pure action gameplay. That’s when Polybius really doubles down on its urban legend origins.
Of course, the almost-hallucinogenic visuals are a sight to behold as speeds get ratcheted up to higher and higher velocities. The more you interact with, the more things go insane, and there is nothing like it for PSVR. The closest comparison I have is Rez Infinite, but even that maintains a calmness about it while being epilepsy-inducing. Polybius is what happens when you’re plugged into your nostalgia. It plays like a game you remember, with enemies that feel vaguely (and sometimes overtly) like enemies you’ve faced in your past gaming experiences, but presented in a wholly immersive platform.
You could play Polybius in 2D, but I don’t think the experience even remotely compares. It’s a similar situation with this year’s Resident Evil VII, which should most definitely be played in VR, but if you don’t have that option you’re still going to enjoy the experience. I found it pretty difficult to go from VR to 2D in Polybius because of the distance you have from your ship. I felt like I was in the thick of it when in VR, but with 2D there is a detachment. In VR, it’s hard to care about the score you’re accumulating but more about making it to the end. In 2D, it feels vice-versa because you have so much more information at the ready. You don’t need to look up to see a score, or feel like you are the ship you’re piloting.
The charm for me was how Polybius takes an urban legend and applies it to a new game. It feels like something that might exist in the 80’s, and with two health warnings you must click through every time you start the game, it intricately sets itself up as a game inclined to make people suffer side effects. Then it warms you with familiar gameplay and a timeless aesthetic, only to feature puzzling moments later that undercut what you think you know about the game. Polybius is a fantastic experiment in how to utilize a myth as the basis for something real.
I will say that the moment I hit level 9 came as a complete shock to me as every other level’s mechanics felt fairly easy to grasp. But then it was much more complex than I had originally suspected the game to be. It’s a bit too much of a jump to go from just shooting things to having to incorporate logic all of a sudden, but I get the feeling that the intent is to get you hooked enough that you want to topple any obstacle in your way. In the end, Polybius is far too fun of an arcade shooter that I couldn’t put it down. It is one of the best VR experiences I’ve had and I can’t get over how well it incorporates nostalgia, myths, and great gameplay design.
A PS4 review copy of Polybius was provided by Llamasoft for the purposes of this review.