Making the Jump
It is always a risk for a franchise or genre to make the jump to a new technology. Look no further than the 2D/3D shift for some great examples of successes and failures.
For a game that has spent so long working in and perfecting its current medium of tech, adapting it to something brand new can be daunting. How do you make well-worn mechanics work with this new power, yet keep it familiar to your customers?
Visual novels, with their relatively simple nature, never really worried much about the last era switch. Sure, some began implementing 3D models in place of their traditional 2D sprites, but there wasn’t really a worry of adapting the genre to new tech.
Cue virtual reality. A new, but still up-and-coming, tech that promises to be a major shift in gaming presentation. For many genres that made it through the 2D/3D shift, the move to VR doesn’t appear to be as difficult. In many cases, these games are simply adapting a first-person view and adding in some motion controls. Some fare better than others (first person shooters especially), but its not appearing to be too hard of a jump.
Adapting visual novels to the tech, though, is taking a bit more experimentation. Bringing a typically passive experience focused on reading text to a machine that focuses on player immersion requires a new approach.
Developed by SpicyTales and translated and published in the west by Sekai Project, Project Lux was released on March 30th, 2017, for PC via Steam. The game is compatible with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and can be played on traditional desktop as well. The Vive version was played for this review.
Stand Out from the Crowd
Project Lux takes place in a futuristic setting, where the majority of humanity has uploaded itself to the internet. Leaving behind their bodies for “cyberbrains,” the human race has traded emotions for data, only occasionally interacting with the real world through mechanical bodies.
Lux is a young artist, and is one of the only remaining natural humans. One day, she is approached by a cyberbrain government official, your player character, who tasks her with creating artistic data that will allow those in cyberspace to experience emotions, as a form of entertainment. Lux is the only person who can do this, as she still has a natural body and brain, and can therefore feel emotion.
This is all presented through a third character – you, the gamer yourself. The story of Lux is presented as the memories of the government official, being shown to you as a juror in a trial. A trial for murder.
For the most part, Project Lux is a relatively light-hearted set of dialogues between you and Lux. The game is presented in five chapters, each involving Lux figuring out the best way to create a certain emotion. Watching as Lux interacts and bounces ideas off of the stoic and mechanical main character is where most of the entertainment in this title comes from.
The key word here, though, is “watching.” This game has chosen to adapt the visual novel style as more of a cinematic experience. For the vast majority of the runtime, you’ll be watching Lux as she speaks, emotes, and moves around the environment. There are occasional moments where you can influence dialogue by looking at objects in the room, but otherwise you are simply a passenger in this story.
For me, this wouldn’t be a huge issue if the story had a bit more depth to it. The premise of an uploaded humanity is interesting, but the game foregoes deeper discussion of the world for more time watching Lux act all cute and stuff.
Once the climax of the story hits, it’s hard to really understand everything that’s going on, or even why. The underlying theme of collectivism versus the individual shows great promise, but ultimately falls flat without focus.
If you’re more looking for just interacting with a cute anime girl in VR, Project Lux may be up your alley. The presentation of Lux herself, along with her personal story, is very endearing. She has a nice personality, without relying too heavily on cliche tropes, and just watching her interact with and react to the main character was enough to keep me going without getting bored.
You also get to hold hands with her, so there’s that.
One of the biggest issues I had with this game, though, was the presentation of text. Being voiced in Japanese, subtitles are essential unless you speak the language. Right off the bat, subtitles are immersion-breaking, but this is something that really can’t be helped in a game of this style.
My main issue, though, is the placement of the subtitles. They are placed at the bottom of your vision, and will follow your view around as you move. My problem here is that of visibility – peripheral vision can be somewhat blurry in VR headsets, with the best focus being at the center of the lens. As the subtitles are permanently at your lower peripheral, they tend to be difficult to read due to the blur. You can call up a dialogue history by tapping the touchpad on the Vive controller and move it into your vision, which I had to do multiple times with some difficult-to-read lines, but this becomes quickly annoying.
It’s Like One of my Japanese Animes!
If you’ve ever wanted to exist inside of an anime world, here’s your chance.
The majority of Project Lux takes place in one environment – Lux’s house. You are usually seated in a chair, watching as Lux moves about and interacts with you and other objects. The environment is nicely detailed but somewhat basic…much like being inside of an anime environment. I was able to view and explore the environment with no stutter or lag on my just-barely-meets-VR-requirements machine, so that’s always a plus.
In Lux’s house is a machine that creates different environments, which she activates every so often. These segments provide some beautiful, if static, images of nature. One that sticks out in my mind is the view of a sunset, with a stunning darkening gradient across the sky.
The real focus here, of course, is Lux herself. She is animated very smoothly and realistically, making it very easy to get immersed in your interactions with her. She is prone to overacting or overemoting occasionally, but this is both an anime work and one with a focus on “emotions,” so it never really felt out of place.
I did have some issues with the “screen door effect” of the Vive headset on occasion. With your eyes being pressed so close to a screen, you can occasionally make out the grid of pixels making up the screen if you focus enough. When Lux moves into the background, keeping my focus on her caused me to notice the effect heavily. This is more a limitation of the hardware, not of Project Lux itself, but I still feel it is notable.
There are two songs in Project Lux. The first is on the title screen, a peaceful piano melody. The second plays during the credits sequence after each chapter, a gentle vocal track that seemed to have low audio quality to my ears. Neither of them are incredibly remarkable, but rather are mostly inoffensive.
During gameplay, all you’ll be hearing is atmospheric noise and the voices of Lux and the government official. Said official’s voice is rather dull, straightforward, and monotone. As a cyberbrain with no emotion, it works in context. Lux, though, is just as emotive with her voice as with her actions, making her highly entertaining to listen to. My only complaint is that her volume drops too low when she wanders into the background.
First Step, First Stumble
Overall, Project Lux is an interesting experiment in stepping visual novel sensibilities into virtual reality. It’s a short work, with my playthrough taking about an hour-and-a-half, but I can’t say there was ever a dull moment.
The near absence of interactivity is disappointing, as is the lack of focus on the background and setting of the world and some of its nuances. Everything about Lux herself, though, helps to make up for it. Her personality, actions, thoughts, and overall story are highly endearing; Lux is the star of the show, with the actual plot falling into the background.
The game definitely has its flaws, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying my experience. There’s still plenty of work to be done in adapting this genre to VR, but at the very least, Project Lux shows that it can be done.
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy courtesy of Sekai Project for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Artwork courtesy of Sekai Project.