Virtual reality games are still pushing the boundaries and seeking to break the mold with what’s possible in a headset. That’s part of what’s so brilliant about a new platform. It gives developers excuses to think outside of the box and provide players with new experiences and fresh ways to play. What if a game didn’t have to use a controller to play? That’s the question that Arca’s Path explores. The headset already has functionality outside of being a display, so Arca’s Path expands on that idea by allowing the game to be fully controlled using nothing but the direction you are looking.
Essentially a marble maze, players control a ball by moving a cursor that is tethered to where you are looking. The ball will attempt to follow the cursor as long as there are no obstacles or gaping voids in the way. As the cursor gets farther away, the speed of the ball will increase, and looking right at the ball itself will stop it. In order to enter a free-look mode, you will have to have a controller to hold down the touch pad. Free Look essentially pauses the ball in place and allows you to look around at the environment, either taking in the stylish visuals or plotting your route to the end of the level.
The courses evolve from simple paths with barriers to some relatively easy puzzle/platforming sections, progressively getting more difficult and introducing additional elements that will block your path. From bridges you must knock down by running into them, to crumbling walls you’ll need to charge through, and even some complex moving platforms, Arca’s Path provides intrigue to keep the marble maze from getting too stale. It still does start to feel fairly repetitive. There are only 25 levels, and scattered among them are only a few standout moments of really interesting and fun gameplay. The final few are particularly notable, but fatigue started to set in before then. Arca’s Path leans heavily on its “no hands” mechanic to drive the experience. The novelty wears thin on some of the longer levels, making way for repetition and tedium.
It might seem simple, but Arca’s Path almost becomes a game of psychology as much as skill. When games challenge me with new control methods, I’m instantly reminded that I often take for granted that I know how to play games. I remember my mother-in-law attempting to play LittleBigPlanet and not quite grasping the concept of both jumping and moving forward, using both inputs to get over the gap. Too many times while playing Arca’s Path, I would avert my gaze to the side to try to better see the path ahead, a hidden crystal collectible, or even just observe the level design. Of course, my head would naturally move and the ball would quickly follow, often sending me back to the last checkpoint as it careened into an endless abyss.
Finally I managed to work out looking only with my eyes while moving my head to control the ball. It was a fascinating psychological challenge to rework how I simply looked around. I wish that Free Look could be engaged in an easier way than holding down the touch pad for a couple of seconds to enable it, and then holding it down again to turn it off. Something like tapping or holding down X to enable and then releasing it to turn it off would have made it easy to quickly have the ability to glance around and then immediately go back to playing the game. More often than not, I just opted to not even use the Free Look mode because it ended up being an inconvenience more than anything. Most of the levels play out straight in front of you anyway, so it’s not entirely necessary from a gameplay perspective.
What you will miss without the Free Look mode is the stylish design of the worlds. Modeled somewhere between low-poly and papercraft, there’s a simple yet fascinating aesthetic that makes the environments really unique. Not content with static worlds, the level will spring to life before your eyes as you move around, a tasteful and purposeful pop-in effect that looks like the world is being digitally created around you. The soundtrack follows this digitized theme, sounding almost glitchy at times and ambient at others, but always maintaining the theme of the Arca’s Path narrative.
This is the Story of a Girl
Arca’s Path tries to wrap a story around its “all looks, no hands” marble maze gameplay, but early on it amounts to little more than a girl living in a junk heap who finds a headset and effectively plays the very game you are playing. Sure, it picks up with some very interesting reveals at the end, but it never really offers a compelling narrative reason or mystery to keep the ball rolling forward level after level. The scant story is told through impressive motion comics, the likes of which are only possible in VR. The game is worth it for this art alone, and I would have loved to have been interrupted by these scenes far more often.
Replayability comes from collectible crystals scattered throughout the levels which unlock time trials. At least, it’s replayable if you’re into collectibles and time trials. Without any kind of online leaderboards, the only thing letting people know you got gold on all 25 levels is the trophy for doing so (and by default, you obviously collected all of the crystals, which can number anywhere from five in a level to 30+). By the time I finished the whole game, the novelty had worn thin enough that I didn’t really want to go back and replay everything just to see how fast I could navigate sharp corners and narrow ledges.
Arca’s Path is at its best when it’s giving the player long and curving paths to cruise along and at its worst when it forces you to be tediously meticulous along short narrow paths. I understand the need for these slower sections in order to present the player with a challenge, but there aren’t enough of those purely fun rewarding portions to make up for the frustration. Beautifully designed and an interesting idea, Arca’s Path rarely expands beyond the simplicity of its novelty in a meaningful enough way. It wasn’t long before I wanted to untie my hands from behind my back and actually use a controller. I’m glad it exists simply to try things outside of the box in VR, but this is a building block, not a definer.
Arca’s Path review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring, please see our Review Policy.