I’ve always loved science. I remember being amazed at re-runs of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and I distinctly recall the first time I used a microscope in school. I was stunned at how the tiniest of objects could contain so much life, and how there was something to learn everywhere.
VEV: Viva Ex Vivo looks to explore that childlike curiosity about discovering the hidden complexity of microbiology. It does this by letting players pilot a VEV (which, despite the game’s subtitle, actually stands for Virtual Eukaryote Visualizer) through these micro-environments. Spanning from fresh water to cerebrospinal fluid, the game allows players to examine different types of samples that are familiar and alien in nature.
It’s a game, though, so of course players have a goal that they’ll have to accomplish. Completing a level is done by lasting the maximum operational lifespan of a VEV which is 30 minutes. To last this long, players will need to power their organism by collecting nutrient clusters that float around (otherwise you’ll run out of energy), and avoid dangerous enemies that can destroy them instantly.
If that sounds simple, it’s because it is. There’s no other goal to reach, just collect nutrients in order to survive. Sadly, this isn’t a mechanic interesting enough to base a tech demo off of, let alone a full product. It only took five minutes of blindly swimming around the first stage until I was bored, and wanted to move on.
Being dreadfully dull is just the first of VEV‘s issues, though. As mentioned before, players have to practically blindly swim around in order to search for nutrients. There’s no on-screen indicator or radar to point you in the right direction, instead you have to just head in a direction and hope that you run into some. The game’s draw-in distance is horrible, and clusters often showed up after I had been looking right at them for minutes.
Another issue is that the simple act of swimming feels incredibly awkward due to the game not allowing the player to use the right analog stick to reposition the camera. Since the camera moves automatically with the VEV itself, this makes for an extremely disorienting game. I often lost my bearings on which direction I was heading for since what was once up was suddenly below me. Despite spending hours with VEV: Viva Ex Vivo it never felt natural to control my ship.
The inability to move the camera also has some gameplay ramifications. There are enemies that will chase down your ship, but this is totally lost on the player as it’s impossible to look behind. In order to check if something is on your tail, you’ll have to decelerate and turn 180 degrees. Shockingly, slowing down to do that is just what the enemies will need to capture you. They can often destroy your VEV in one attack, which makes the 30-minute goal even more ridiculous.
Making matters worse is that the simple mechanic of collecting clusters is more difficult than it should be. There’s absolutely no gravitational pull to your VEV, which means you’ll have to line-up the tiny organism directly in front of what you’re trying to collect. This means it’s extremely easy to miss a cluster, and have to slow to a halt in order to hit your mark. I eventually became proficient at decelerating a moment before and readjusting, but it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off what should be extremely simple.
VEV also has an atrocious user interface due to it constantly moving around the screen. When you’re going slow, you can actually read it as it’s up-front. When you’re accelerating, it gets slanted and moved far away. A user interface should, in theory, communicate important information to the player efficiently, so that they can grasp all that’s going on in a single glance. Instead, VEV attempts to make it difficult for the player to do something as simple as checking how much energy they have. In fact, they even dedicated an entire button to realigning the game’s interface. Here’s a tip: if you have to waste a button of the DualShock 4 on repositioning around a HUD, then you need to redesign it.
In a not so fun side-note Viva Ex Vivo‘s game over screen appears where the UI is at the moment of death. So, if it’s zoomed out you can’t even read the menu options you have to select from. Seriously. Take a look at the first slide below, and realize what an accessibility nightmare this is (which is compounded with a barely legible controls screen).
Furthering its issues, there aren’t many levels to check out in VEV. There’s only seven samples to check out, and almost half of them are locked until the player fulfills certain criteria (unhelpfully it doesn’t specify what). The levels are cool to look at, at least for the five minutes or so the gameplay feels relatively fresh. The level based on blood was particularly impressive as you get to speed past huge blood cells. Just hope you don’t accidentally touch one, as they’ll cause your VEV to spin-out and the camera goes crazy.
Despite the developer calling VEV‘s gameplay “arcade-style survival,” there’s little draw to actually lasting the full 30 minutes or racking up as many nutrients as you can. Sure, it lists your highest score in the main menu, but you can’t even compare scores with friends. There’s no leaderboards, or really any reason to justify playing any of these levels more than once.
Simple design decisions such as making the duration of stages shorter, or changing goals could’ve made this a much more enjoyable experience. Having one mode focused on nutrient collecting, and another about surviving an enemy onslaught could’ve added some sort of replay value to the mix. Instead, there’s little to do besides the same boring goal you tire of within the first five minutes.
I absolutely adore VEV: Viva Ex Vivo‘s concept, which only serves to make me more disappointed in the final release. Exploring these different microscope slides should be exciting, but instead players are left frustrated due to awkward controls and bored by how little there is to do. There’s potential here, and virtual reality will hopefully help the appeal, but there’s little to recommend in its current form.
Review code for VEV: Viva Ex Vivo provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.