We all know how on-rails shooters go, right? They’re those noisy coin thieves in the arcade whose dialogue you can never quite hear because of the other games blasting at top volume all around them. You know you look like an idiot pointing the big plastic machine gun at the screen but you hope that maybe this time, just this once, you won’t be annoyed at the cheap deaths and impossible bosses who ruin your day. On-rails shooters are full of way too many enemies who zoom by before you can take them all out – and you either need to dual-wield both guns or convince a buddy to waste a few dollars/quid with you if you even want to have a chance of making it to that final boss. Right?
Enter Skydance Interactive’s Archangel for PSVR, a genuinely dynamic on-rails shooter – yes, you read that right. In Archangel, you take on the role of Gabe Walker, a mech pilot out for the blood of the oppressive HUMANX group who have murdered most of your friends and family, who are/were freedom fighters causing an uprising against HUMANX’s evil regime. Okay, okay, you’ve heard this tune before. I know; so have I. But stay with me. So Gabe (or Gabby, depending on which character you choose at the beginning) takes a 60-foot mech out to blow up a couple thousand baddies with three of his closest friends – more on them in a minute. Your goal is to reunite with your resistance, come to terms with the pain and suffering of your past and turn the tides of the war against HUMANX with your prototype mech and its A.I. friend M1KL (pronounced Mikhail like Gorbachev, not Michael like Jordan).
So let’s talk gameplay. Like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood before it, Archangel is a dual-wield on-rails shooter for PSVR and some of its replay value comes from simply trying to best your previous high score in earlier chapters. Unlike Rush of Blood, however, Archangel offers a deep and rich combat system that shines both in-action and between levels. Your right hand controls the mech’s right arm, which contains built-in weapons like a standard machine gun and a railgun; your left hand controls the mech’s left arm, into which are built things like single-missile RPG’s and lock-on volleyed missiles. Each weapon has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, the guided missiles aren’t as strong as the single RPG’s but they offer homing capabilities and relatively rapid fire. The machine gun is lower damage but perfect for taking out ground troops and small vehicles.
Pulling the trigger on either PS Move controller (because trust me, that’s the way to go here) fires in the direction of its on-screen reticle (obviously controlled via 1:1 motion). Pressing the triangle or square buttons switches between weapons for that hand. The move button clenches your fist (for punching and grabbing incoming health) and the X or circle buttons activates your on-arm shield. The shields are, of course, very limited per use but they stop incoming fire.
Keeping those controls in mind, this seemingly simple combination of offensive and defensive inputs is where Skydance’s title really shines. Before long, you’ll find yourself holding one arm out with your shield activated to block damage while crossing your other arm over it to send missiles or bullets out to your foes. Other times you’ll use both shields and move them in accordance with where firing enemies strafe on-screen, or unload missiles and machine gun fire at a particularly well-armored turret. In the first hour of playing, I found myself clearly asked to multitask both of my hands as well as dart my eyes around the 180-degree field of play to optimize my experience. Every round of villains who charged at me, I could tell that careful foresight had gone into balancing enemy types and strategies of how my mech could put them down. The weapons you acquire and your enemies’ weaknesses to them aren’t the only way that play stays fresh, though. This is where your allies come in.
Your friends (who pilot more standard airships, but nobody’s perfect) occasionally throw you barrels of healing nanobots here and there or lob incredibly potent bombs at some of the bigger warships you fight so you can detonate them at just the right time and do some serious damage to those jerks at HUMANX. Sometimes I found myself defending them from inbound missiles and mines. Other times I worked alongside them using a unique view-based laser targeting system (as one ally said to me, “Just look at whatever you want dead; I’ll take care of the rest”). They may not come to life as much as the supporting cast of, say, a Tarantino flick, but they’re a good group with whom to storm the proverbial castle.
Between missions (or mission sub-chapters), you can take the points you’ve earned from your most recent level and spend them on permanent ship upgrades. The standard fare is here – increased weapon damage, greater maximum health, longer-lasting shields – as well as some more nuanced options for a shooter. One upgrade rewards last-minute blocking with a small amount of healing; another offers a critical hit chance. It doesn’t go quite as deep as a JRPG, but it’s complex enough that you’ll happily spend several minutes per level deciding which upgrades on which to spend your precious points. Combine the upgrade system with the aforementioned weapons’ strengths and weaknesses, your allies and the varying enemies and Archangel makes for an in-depth on-rails shooter.
There are really just two hiccups in the title. First, I said earlier that the story won’t win any awards. Although I liked the way Skydance handled showing me Gabe’s memories and playing back emotional lines from Gabe’s son Patrick in my speakers (“Dad, I’m scared! Help me!”), you know the overall score here. You’re a good guy resistance member and you face impossible odds to take down the evil organization who have turned America into a pile of rubble for some reason or the other. The other hiccup involves the environments’ graphics. While Gabe’s mech interior is detailed and lively with a steel frame and blooming light blue HUD, the exterior environment is almost weirdly plain. Elements like sand dunes below your feet and bombed-out buildings to your sides have little enough shape and texture detail that even calling them “last-gen” is being a bit generous. Now, to be fair, this game is not about an Oscar-worthy script or the skyscrapers you walk past – the main focuses are the combat and the experience. I get that. And those are superb. But these two weak spots do stick out when compared to the rest of the title.
Even still, at the end of the day, Archangel is a remarkable VR experience. Enormous kudos to Skydance for nailing what a VR game is supposed to be, especially with a genre that is so often uninspiring and limited. Get to the part of the game where the scope pops down over your left eye and everything you look at on the horizon gets the laser treatment from the rest of your unit while you’re simultaneously firing homing missiles at incoming kamikaze planes and using your shield to deflect inbound cannon fire…and tell me you don’t feel like a total boss. Level design notwithstanding, it’s one hell of a ride. I give it a 9 out of 10.
AIR Entertainment was provided a review copy of Archangel for PSVR.