While in Vegas for CES, I had the opportunity to attend the Upload party hosted at the Palms sky-high “Moon Nightclub”. Celebrating their upcoming LA office space, as well as being placed on Forbes’ coveted “30 under 30” list for 2016, Taylor Freeman and Will Mason treated guests to a night of music, dancing, and a number of VR headsets available for demo…because nothing works better together than copious amounts of alcohol and VR.
While at the party I was helping to showcase the Google Daydream headset when I was approached by Daniel Arnold-Mist, Executive Art Director for Nordic Trolls. He asked if I had a chance to check out their game yet: a dungeon crawler titled Karnage Chronicles, and showed me a brief video of what they had to offer. The video showed a sprawling cavern, its ceiling lined with ice crystals and goblins at every turn. I was immediately intrigued by the visuals, and when I saw the gameplay and realized that it was in VR I just had to give it a shot. We exchanged info and I promised I’d meet them the next day.
Making my way over to the Sands expo in the Venetian, I began thinking about the implications of a dungeon crawler in the VR space. I have fond memories of going to my nearby nickel arcade and spending way too much time leveling my adventurer in Gauntlet Legends, and later, Dark Legacy. To be able to recruit friends and go adventuring in those environments in a VR game could be a terrific experience – though I wondered how well the game was going to feel once I strapped on the headset. I had a brief dabble with VR at TwitchCon, and the experience left me feeling a bit queasy. Still, I was hopeful that this would be different.
When I got to the booth I was greeted by Daniel, as well as Chief Technical Officer Sjur Helland and CEO Thorbjørn Olsen. they introduced me to the demo and familiarized me with the characters and controls. There were two classes you could choose from: Archer and Barbarian. The archer utilized a bow and arrow as their primary weapon (shocker), but also had the option of switching to daggers for when the combat got up close and personal. As an added detail, you could switch the orientation of the daggers for some variety in gameplay. The barbarian featured your classic sword+board combo, able to use the shield to deflect arrows and attacks. If your shield took on too many arrows, a simple slash of your sword across the front brushed them away. Their secondary weapon is a crossbow with limited ammunition: when you ran out you simply used the crank on the left side to replenish your ammo.
Movement in VR is a tricky thing. Often times trying to have fast movement will result in the player getting disoriented or even getting motion sickness. Knowing that this is a common issue, the devs for Karnage Chronicles provided two methods of moving around: you could either teleport your character using the main button on the left controller, or press in on the right controller to move at a walking pace. The slow movement was subtle enough not to cause any discomfort, and if you were wanting to move more quickly, the teleport worked wonderfully as well.
Karnage Chronicles is acutely aware that it’s a VR title. It could be very easy with this new technology to cross a line into gestures and gameplay that may seem silly or frivilous, but what impressed me was the intention behind every interaction. All of your movements in the game make sense, and help to add to the immersion that only VR can provide. I chose an archer for my play-through, and found myself swapping between the bow and daggers frequently to keep things fresh. Walking through the opening area I took a moment to appreciate the sound effects. Firing an arrow into an ice crystal sounded exactly as I would imagine. Hearing the steady rush of a waterfall, or the pitter-patter of water droplets from the cavern walls transported me into a different space. Rounding a corner I spotted my first enemy.
Kneeling down, I take aim…and miss. The arrow flies by its head harmlessly. Adjusting my aim I peg the little creature in the leg and now it turns and comes at me fast. Swapping to my daggers I slash, but Daniel reminds me that the system is designed with velocity in mind – poking at a creature won’t do much damage at all. The stronger you slash or stab, the more significant the damage will be. I tear into the goblin with a flurry of frenzied strikes as it shrieks out and collapses. I am victorious! Of course – this was only the weakest of the monsters you’ll encounter in the game, but the physical demands of combat give you a very different sense of accomplishment than traditional games.
I make my way through the rest of the demo, enthralled at the attention to detail and reflecting on how video games have advanced over the course of my lifetime. The demo ends with a challenging boss encounter that features multiple spell-slinging mages that must be brought down before the gate will open. Positioning and re-positioning myself, I fire the final arrow into my enemies and step out of the level.
Following the demo I sat down with Daniel and Thorbjørn to discuss the game. I complimented them on the attention to detail and general flow of the game, it’s certainly been crafted on a level entirely different from other VR games I’ve seen so far. Early titles largely were exploring the shallow end of VR. What does basic movement look like? How do you grab and interact with things? What sorts of environments can be brought to life? The result was a series of blocky, unsophisticated titles that awkwardly discovered what things work well in VR and what doesn’t.
Nordic Trolls is taking that exploration to a whole new level. “We want to make AAA titles for VR…” Daniel explained as we discussed the demo “VR usually involves this catch-22: gamers don’t want to invest in the platform until it has good games, and good developers don’t want to create games for a platform without a user base.”
Of course, while the experiences that VR can create are amazing, it’s fundamentally different from other forms of home entertainment when it comes to one thing: playtime. After finishing the demo, my mind raced as it imagined a Dungeons and Dragons game or module that would allow players to create and adventure through DM created dungeons in a 3-d space. The only problem with that is VR is not a space that you’re supposed to stay for very long, as Daniel went on to explain. “When we were designing the levels, we really wanted to keep them around 15-20 minutes max. Most players can’t really play in VR much longer than that comfortably.” As it stands, VR couldn’t be a place where you sit down and play 6-12 hours of a newly released title all in one go (not that I’ve ever done that…) It has a built in limitation that should be acknowledged and respected by devs as they create immersive experiences for players, if only in 15-20 minute intervals.
We also had a brief discussion on difficulty, particularly when it comes to the Archer class. First person shooters have been exceedingly popular on consoles for quite some time, and even gamers who are unfamiliar with the genre can pick up the basics on aiming and shooting pretty quickly. In a 3D space like VR, however, the learning curve seems to be much sharper. I struggled with my arrows on a number of occasions, leading me to wonder if choosing the Archer may damper future gamers experiences once the game comes out. “You know, we had this kid come by and put on the headset and in no time he was head-shotting goblins…” Daniel commented with a chuckle. “We do want to provide a good experience for all of our players, but we imagine this being similar to difficulty levels of characters in other games [like League of Legends] – the Archer is going to require a bit more skill to really be successful.”
Overall, I was very impressed with Karnage Chronicles and am looking forward to seeing its development over the next few months. It’s currently on Steam Greenlight here. I don’t know what the future of VR will bring, but if Karnage Chronicles is any indication, I think we have a lot to look forward to.