Symphony of the Machine – PSVR Review
Symphony of the Machine is a PSVR title that starts with little fanfare. You’re placed into the world completely devoid of life and what seems like a deserted world with very little going for it. You begin your journey at the end of a trench and, in the near distance, a vast tower stretches into the sky projecting a brilliant beam of light up and beyond the atmosphere above it. Bobbing in front of you are your motion controllers, accurately moving and twisting in perfect sync with your own movements. Nothing else of note surrounds you, making it the obvious destination you need to get to. Reaching the base of the tower, a lift awaits to take you to the top. Reaching the summit, you quickly realise there is more to this mysterious tower than simply allowing you to appreciate the vast barren views. It is a weather machine and one you have to operate by bending and manipulating the beam of light the tower surrounds.
The actual premise of the game is quite simple. A robotic assistant appears and presents you with plant pots, all devoid of plant life apart from the soil within. Next to them, a weather pattern is presented that you need to create to help the plants grow. To begin with, the patterns are relatively straightforward, only requiring wind, rain or sunshine. The plant’s lifecycle usually needs about 3 or more separate weather patterns to be conjured before the plant itself begins to bloom into full life. The more plants you grow, the more complicated the weather patterns become, such as asking you to create rainbows by combining sun and rain or storms and blizzards.
The puzzle element of the game is based on how you actually use the machine to summon these weather patterns into this world. Surrounding the beam of light is a series of glyphs. Each glyph represents a particular, simple weather pattern, such as Rain, Sunshine or wind etc. The simple goal is to project the beam of light onto the required glyph to activate that weather pattern. To do this, your robotic assistant provides you various tools with which to manipulate the light. Be that pipes, to split the beam up, mirrors to bend the light or even elemental disks that change how the glyphs themselves work. By combing these tools, you can manipulate and bend the light around the tower to power any and all the required glyphs for a particular weather pattern.
So far, so very straight forward. The awkward part is that by powering a specific glyph causes a barrier to form at a specific area around the beam of light, usually blocking direct access to another glyph that you need to also power up. To get around these barriers, you have to get quite creative in where and how you bend and split the light as each glyph causes a specific area around the light to become barricaded. Equally, powering more than one glyph can cause other areas to become barricaded. It’s usually on the more complex puzzles do the barriers really make you work your noodle and usually on the last step of a complicated weather pattern you realise that the intricate light pattern bending around your platform is suddenly halted by a barrier you didn’t expect. You then try desperately to trace your steps back to work around the new barricade without starting from scratch.
The main control methods for Symphony of the Machine is with the PlayStation move controllers and if you’ve ever played TumbleVR, also on the PSVR, you’ll quickly appreciate the level of freedom they provide in a puzzle game such as this. They allow you to get up close and personal while manipulating each of the game’s objects as if you were physically holding them in your hand and this is why puzzle games such as this really shine on VR platforms that use motion controls. It’s one thing to use an analogue stick to rotate and place an object within a scene. But to have the feeling of physically picking up an object with your hand, bring it to your face and become aware of the physical dimensions this object holds in the scene, then being able to naturally manipulate and rotate that object with your hands is something else. It adds a level of precision that a controller will never hope to recreate. Add that to being able to move your head within this space and find the angle you need to work out the solution. The combination of both the VR and motion controls really works to bring you into the puzzle and the scene, in Symphony of the Machine, even more so than the previously mentioned TumbleVR. To give that feeling of walking around the puzzle, to look at it from any angle, size up the problem and give you a confidence that moving an object from one place to another will be the solution that’s eluded you for the past 20 minutes. You just can’t engage with traditional, non-vr puzzle games like you can with Symphony of the Machine.
Equally, the move controls also have a frustrating level of restriction. Because the PlayStation camera can only properly track the move controllers when they are being moved in front of the cameras field of view, there are many situations where I found myself having turned on the spot and finding my side or back to the camera, at which point tracking of the move controllers become almost impossible and trying to manipulate your tools become equally unworkable. At these moments I’ve had to peek out of my headset, adjust my position and get the game to reset my position relative to the camera before carrying on. This is all simply down to the nature of the puzzles and the way in which you solve them as you will find yourself naturally adjusting your position to get a better view on how the light will bend, pivoting on the spot to see around a barrier or just trying to get a better view of the scene. It’s a positive that the world they have created feels real enough that moving in this manner is the way to take in the world, but the tracking technology ultimately holds us back and dampens the immersion just as it’s starting to take over the senses.
The other issue I have with the controls is that Symphony of the Machine relies on teleportation movement rather than more traditional means. I understand the choice, as everyone has different tolerances to navigating within a VR environment. But I found teleporting around the platform, to get into the right area to place a tool quite awkward. Sometimes the tool I was holding will have dropped where I was previously standing, meaning I had to jump to the platform and try to get myself into a position to pick it up comfortably. Sometimes I would overshoot the area I wanted to get to, resulting in yet another frustrating journey around the platform until I got to the spot I originally wanted to go to. While teleportation movement is workable in the game, it doesn’t feel perfectly implemented.
Another issue I encountered, which led to some frustrating moments, is that some solutions will require you to use the full reach of your arms, above and below head and waist height respectively. Some of the solutions I worked with required some awkward angles to be set up with bending the light and stretching out to accomplish these steps and it showed the restrictive nature of my camera placement and room space. I fully expect someone who has a wide area to play their PSVR Games not to really experience this issue as much, but with my limited space, it became a frustrating issue that started to become more common the more complex the puzzles began.
However, this is a game that doesn’t rush you. There are no time limitations or a limited number of moves or tries. The game lets you approach its puzzles in your own time and in your own way, allowing you to enjoy the experience as you go. Tranquil music fills the tower giving the game an almost zen feel to it, resulting in a very chilled experience. If it wasn’t for the frustrating control issues mentioned above, then this could have been an ideal game to relax to.
One thing I did find disappointing was that the puzzles I was solving were having no impact on the world around me. I was expecting the barren landscape to start to sprout to life as I provided the means for all these plants to grow. While the puzzle element was still fun, and working out the solution to the more complex puzzles were still satisfying to see through, the lack of any impact beyond the plants on my platform made the effort feel almost fruitless and felt like a missed opportunity to give the player a real sense of purpose and proper progression. This lack of any meaningful progression eventually starts to hurt the game. As a new plant is grown and another is presented, you quickly start to feel you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, relatively quickly which is a shame as there was genuine potential here for a classic puzzle game.
Symphony of the Machine is a fun VR title but one with a little shelf life beyond your initial play through. Controls that, on one hand, are perfect for this type of game, yet on the other, become frustrating the more you play, goes against the zen, peaceful atmosphere the game tries to suck you into. There is still fun to be had here, perseverance with the controls and careful movement about the levels may alleviate the control issues I experienced, but the lack of any meaningful progress through the levels may quickly sap the enthusiasm some may have for the game before they even get to that point. But, as a VR experience, it a great example of what the technology can do and I can see people using this as a game as a window to demonstrate how VR Games can be. With a bit more time in the oven, this could have been a much more realised experience., but sadly falls short of that potential.