Horror has always had a home in VR. It’s the most logical place that the medium can go to due to the nature of how the genre works. It’s designed to instil fear into you, provoke the fight-or-flight response and make you terrified of every dark corner and strange distant sound. When you play a horror game on a television screen, you are still anchored to reality as you are surrounded by familiar items and the sense of your space. When you strap yourself into a VR headset, those anchors are stripped away from you and you are completely surrounded by foreboding terror. It’s a jarring experience and it can be too much, but that’s the beauty of it.
The Persistence is a game that understands this concept, takes it into its hands and moulds something that is unlike many of the cheap horror games we’ve seen before. The whole experience is a journey of bravery, imminent loss and true, unbridled terror. Not only that, but it’s expansive and filled with incredibly fine details that make it all the more terrifying.
Houston, we’re screwed
You are Security Officer Zimiri on board a spacecraft called The Persistence. You have died. However, in this world, you can upload your consciousness into a host body and through the help of Engineer Serena, you harvest your own body’s DNA and make a clone with your consciousness in it. The Persistence has fallen apart due to running into a black hole that turned the entire crew into disfigured biological horrors from the clone technology going haywire. The once proud crew of the spaceship are now reduced to wandering zombie-like creatures or true monsters with horrific features and attributes.
The setting can remind you of many horror games or movies of the past. Alien Isolation, a bit of Dead Space, a sprinkle of Event Horizon and many other noteworthy influences. In all honesty, it feels derivative in some areas and the overarching story isn’t much to write home about. You are tasked with getting the ship fixed and this involves going through the horror-infested ship without dying. However, the story didn’t feel like it mattered because the real focus of the game is the mechanics and the horror elements.
The Persistence is a rogue-like, meaning that if you die, you need to start over. One wrong move and it’s back to the start. However, you do have the ability to improve yourself before every subsequent run, making things easier and giving yourself more options to tackle this calamity. If you meet your end, you get placed into a new clone at the start of the game. This clone doesn’t necessarily have to be you either, you can harvest the DNA from fellow crewmates that have more specialised skills than you and be put in their skin, granting some small bonuses.
Because every death is permanent, there are some real stakes at play. All your hard-earned equipment, progress and resources can disappear in a second and you feel genuinely broken if you make a mistake that ends with you having to start completely from scratch. This isn’t like most horror games where you’re taken back to a checkpoint; death has significant meaning in this game which makes navigating the ship all the more terrifying. You’re mostly moving through rooms in order to get to an objective and each room has its own quirks such as environmental hazards or equipment caches.
In most of the rooms, you will find shambling mutants making horrific sounds that would come running if they spot you. You can be sneaky and take them out with stealth kills or you can just slip past them by going inside vents or sticking to the shadows. Stealth has never felt as real as it did in this game. What would be something rather pedestrian in other games is elevated to something much tenser by the fact that you’re living it. Praying that the enemy won’t suddenly turn around has never felt as powerful, especially considering that they can murder you and you have to start from scratch.
The game terrified me.
The shambling almost-undead are the least of your worries though. There are much more terrifying enemies roaming the ship such as a berserker that would pummel you with its sheer size and crying mutants that just love to pop out from corners when you least expect them. Thankfully you’re not just a helpless bystander that needs to hide from these monsters, you can fight back as well. There is a plethora of weapons and gadgets that you can acquire to show these horror-show bastards who’s boss, but they are severely limited. You can get powerful guns, but they only have about three bullets or a tactical baton that breaks after six swings. You get your equipment from fabricator machines that are littered around the ship, but the catch is that you can only craft one thing before the fabricator shuts down to recharge.
I’ve mentioned the variety, but it cannot be overstated just how many options you are given and how cool they are. There’s a gravity gun ala Half-Life that can violently throw anything including enemies, a teleporter that murders anyone that steps on it, noise making grenades, rage injections that make you go berserk, 50 calibre pistols and so much more. All of these weapons and gadgets are useful in their own way and they’re really fun to use as well. Some non-VR FPS games don’t even have such an arsenal that you can utilise.
Ground control to Major OH NO
Another wrench gets thrown into the jumpdrive by the fact that the ship never stays the same. After every death, the ship shifts around and the entire map changes. This may be standard procedural generation that we’ve seen many times before, but this elevated this game’s feeling that nothing is safe. Nothing is predictable and you can’t just find an optimal route and blaze through a level. You need to adapt and think on your feet at all times because you don’t know what’s around a corner, which is probably a weeping bastard just waiting for you.
There are clear objectives that involve fixing the ship’s many systems that are on different decks. Whenever you finish one objective, you unlock the teleport to that deck meaning that you don’t have to start over from the very beginning each time you die. This is an absolute blessing because you’ll be dying fairly frequently. The game is tough and it will test your skills as well as your nerves. I hate to make the obvious pun, but if you persist, you will find yourself becoming more acclimatised to the situation and learning how to tackle each room you enter.
Outside of weapons, you also have special Dark Matter powers. The simplest ones are a shield that you can put up and a very short teleport, but you also have something called Supersense that allows you to see the dark environments more clearly as well as spot enemies through walls. This is your lifeline through most of the ship and is borderline essential because everything is so dark and the layouts can be rather complicated. Things are scary enough even when you have these tools at your disposal, but the game loves to put you in places where your Dark Matter powers are disabled. This is more of a traditional horror game experience as you have no idea where the enemies are and you’re powerless to do anything about it.
This is where I need to talk about the VR experience. Up until now, the game I was describing could comfortably be a pretty good rogue-like survival horror game, but this all takes place in VR. You play with a Dualshock controller with no Move controller support (which does make sense) and you get to fully control your character. The game isn’t on-rails or has you zipping across the map with cheesy teleports. It’s a fully fledged horror game experience but in VR. Many times throughout my numerous runs, I was just shocked at how good this game was in VR.
The game is gorgeous and detailed for a VR title and I’d even be brave enough to say it’s one of the best-looking PSVR games out there. The other thing is that everything was designed for VR, not just implemented into a horror game like Resident Evil 7. You open containers and pick up items with your head movements instead of a button, the UI is cleanly laid out and the lighting is especially noteworthy since the ambience of the low lights and the crushing dark builds tension like no other. It feels like this was the only place this game would go and to strip VR away from it would be like taking the soul of the game along with it.
You need to adapt and think on your feet at all times.
The game terrified me. To the point where I had to take off the headset for a while just to get my heart back to normal. Enemies would be genuinely unsettling and they’d pop up right in your face with their horrific screams and jarring body motions. It felt like I was on this ship, fighting for my very life as I try and repair it. The weeping monsters, the mutants that are missing half a face and are aimlessly walking around mumbling something vaguely human and the dark confines that would make any claustrophobe run for an open field. Crawling through vents felt real, the horror felt real and the experience was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
There are a few downsides to the game, unfortunately. The environments lack some variety and while the ship’s aesthetic and design is wonderful, many rooms just blur together after you’ve been playing for a while. The story is not that strong and it would have added an extra layer of goodness if there was some good narrative attached to it, even if the story of the engineer and security officer have merits of their own. There isn’t much else I can fault the game on otherwise.
The Persistence is one of, if not the best horror games on the PSVR. I was thoroughly surprised to see what this team managed to pull off and instead of going with cheap jumpscare tactics and a linear experience, they made a fully-fledged game with the mechanics at its foundation, terrifying gameplay and VR-centric designs. If you feel like you have the bravery required and you have a PSVR headset, you need to get this game. It’s something you don’t see every day.