I’ve done some crazy things in PSVR – guided an adorable mouse to help her uncle in an epic adventure, stacked blocks Tetris-style and driven a vehicle on ridiculous courses. But until ESPER I hadn’t been seated in a room and subjected to a barrage of telekinetic tests while someone berates me for not being one of “the smart ones”. That’s exactly what will happen if you don your PSVR, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headset and start up ESPER, a unique, incredibly thematic puzzle game.
Developer: Coatsink Software
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by developer
Interface: PSVR, tested with both DualShock 4 and Move controller
Available on PS4 (PSVR required) and Steam (Windows; Oculus Rift or HTC Vive required)
Esper is a puzzle game set entirely in a single room. As one of a small number of citizens who have been endowed with the power to move objects with their minds, you have been enrolled by the government to undertake a series of tests to show that you are in control of your powers. Use your psychic abilities to solve increasingly challenging tests and demonstrate that, despite the concerns, you are not a threat to the fragile fabric of society.
One of the most memorable scenes of any movie for me was the beginning of Ghostbusters when Peter Venkman is giving the ESP test. Venkman is testing two students, a boy and a girl, by holding up a card and asking the students to use ESP to figure out what’s on it without being able to see the face of it. To make things even more interesting, the students are given electric shocks if they get it wrong, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Instead, he uses his power to punish the boy – even when he’s right! – and plays as if the girl is always right while flirting with her.
Don’t worry, Geoff won’t be flirting with you (or shocking you!) while you go through the ESPR training program, but he will be a constant source of humor. ESPER begins by challenging you to – using only your mind – grab a Rubik’s Cube out of a drawer and solve it in 21 moves or less. When you’re able to pick it up but absolutely unable to even make one move toward solving it, Geoff quips, “I thought the psychic thing only happened to the smart ones.” Thus begins a series of increasingly challenging puzzles that all involve moving things with your mind (or in my case, a move controller or DualShock 4 controller).
The controls are simple enough – you press a button to grab an object, and then press it again to release it. You can move it up, down, left or right using your head (which I didn’t attempt) or the controller, and you can even move objects closer or further with additional buttons. Finally, there’s one final button to throw the object you’re holding. Things are far more complex than that though – you can’t move objects behind solid objects or certain types of glass, and the tests use these limitations in just about every way imaginable. You’ll have to deal with using multiple objects, buoyancy in water, buttons and more if you want to prove your abilities.
The game can be beaten in an hour and a half, but it took me about double that time due to how much I got stuck on levels. These truly are challenging tests, and you’ll have to think outside the box (even if you never leave your desk) to complete them. There were also times that I would set things up and almost complete a test only to have an object roll off a platform or accidentally drop something, forcing me to redo a solid couple minutes of work to get back where I was.
While I didn’t try out using my head as a controller, I can definitely say using a Move controller (with PSVR) is incredibly beneficial. I started with the DualShock 4, but it didn’t quite allow me the reflex speed that’s needed to toss an item in the air and then catch it over some thick glass. The Move controller also makes it much easier to aim downward at objects, which is often necessary to aim from above a wall or if you drop something on the floor. For the moments when you drop something somewhere you can’t reach or otherwise break a puzzle, you can always hit a button on the desk to reset it.
I found ESPER to be a really interesting game, and while it was a bit too hard for me, I did have a good time. What makes ESPER, a game that could otherwise be an ordinary puzzle game is how the puzzles are set up – walls bend, puzzles slide out from behind panels, and the room itself comes to life robotically. While I was stuck at my desk, the room’s ever-shifting shape and the puzzle presentation absolutely brought the game to life and made it something terrific in VR instead of just being a game that really doesn’t need it. Geoff is also terrific, and I can only imagine how much the folks at Coatsink were laughing writing his lines. He’s humorous, absolutely, but he also makes casual comments about how your skills aren’t standard so they’re stuck throwing puzzles together on the fly. There’s even a bit of story woven into it, although I wish it presented itself earlier in the game; most of the twists start around two-thirds of the way into the game, and people who give up early will miss them entirely. Thematically that makes sense, though, so I really can’t consider the minor qualm much of a negative.