'Wilson's Heart': Inside Oculus' new psychological thriller

Solve the mystery of your confinement or die trying.

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    You come to as thunder crashes overhead. Streaks of lightning illuminate the room through gaping holes in the building's blown-out facade as you begin to take in your surroundings. But before you move on to the more pressing matters of why you're waking up in a mental hospital and why the building looks as though it survived an artillery bombardment, you'll first have to figure out how to remove the wrist restraints tethering you to this wall. The worst part is, this may well be the sanest part of your night.

    This is Wilson's Heart, a new psychological horror/thriller VR experience from Oculus. You play as Robert Wilson (voiced by Peter Weller, the guy from the original RoboCop), a patient at the strange facility, who must solve the place's secrets and escape -- or die trying. I was afforded a 30-minute playthrough of the game during a recent demo and came away impressed, even though puzzle-based games are generally not what I go for. The game has a very film noir feel to it, as evidenced by the grayscale world and 1940s accoutrements, with a tinge of hallucinogenic uncertainty. It's as if the guy from Jacob's Ladder was admitted to the asylum in Shutter Island and that facility was then relocated to the land of Myst.

    The game is narrative and revolves largely around puzzle solving and exploration, though there are numerous combat sequences sprinkled throughout. During my demo, the investigatory sections were pretty run-of-the-mill: I simply teleported to each available destination within each room, rummaged through whatever items were present at each station (mostly just picked up keys and useful items), then teleported on to the next. It wasn't so much a matter of being clever as being observant and thorough.

    The combat was a bit more invigorating. While it's no Resident Evil VII, there were still plenty of skin-crawling creepy sequences, jump scares and psychological freak-outs. At the start of the game, you have yet to awaken your mysterious powers, so you're fighting mostly with found objects. At one point I was battling a bathtub octopus (don't ask) and had to stab its tentacles off of my wrists with a virtual chisel before picking up a nearby electroshock therapy box and hurling it into the bathwater. Later on, your fighting capability increases to involve throwing a strange mechanical ball that has somehow replaced your heart at foes and using the motion controllers to direct its flight path. During my demo, I used the "heart" to explode the heads and torsos of oncoming zombies as wave after wave of them rushed my position.

    Navigating through this world is very reminiscent of Myst, wherein you point and click your way through the virtual world. Robert Wilson doesn't walk; he teleports. You look where you want to go (valid destinations appear as ghostly, glowing silhouettes) and click a button on the controller. Unfortunately, this means that a vast majority of the gameplay is accomplished while standing still -- you pick up and examine objects, manipulate doors and windows, smash locks and fight an array of monsters, all without moving around.

    While that navigation mechanic worked well enough in Myst, it's a bit weird when wearing a VR headset. Since I have to look where I want to go and can't turn my character around using the controllers, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder to find the next travel point, then unwinding my neck as soon as I teleport to focus on the scene in front of me.

    I also found the controller setup to be a bit awkward at first. Squeezing the upper and lower triggers on the Rift controllers opens and closes your in-game index finger and middle, ring and pinkie fingers, respectively. So in order to grasp an in-game object, I had to make a pinching motion in the real world, and that tactile dissonance was enough to repeatedly pull me out of my suspension of disbelief.

    An Oculus rep I spoke to estimates that the entire game should take around 8 hours to complete if you can figure out all of the building's mysteries quickly enough. That makes it a great option if you're looking for a game you can beat in a weekend. But I worry that there won't be much replay incentive. Since it's a narrative game, there aren't side missions to complete or GTA-style challenges to beat, so once you've beaten the main story arc, that's it. Wilson's Heart is expected to retail for $40 through the Oculus Store when it is released on April 23rd.

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