“Part Beat Saber, part Dance Dance Revolution, part Guitar Hero with your whole body.” That’s how a rep for VR studio Within described its latest exercise app — Supernatural. That summary left me skeptical but intrigued. Setting aside my manic lifelong love for DDR, I was also keen to check out a fresh way to workout at home. My daily yoga routines have gotten stale and I no longer feel as much of an ache in my muscles after. Plus, I’ll admit, I really like the idea of a DDR-meets-Beat-Saber VR game.
Supernatural is only available on the Oculus Quest for now, via the Oculus store. You’ll also need to install the companion app for your iOS or Android device for setup and performance-tracking.
I launched the app, answered a few questions about my fitness level and goals, and then an athletic woman appeared, walking me through a tutorial. First, I had to define my room’s boundaries so I didn’t go crashing into a wall. She also suggested using a yoga mat to give my feet a physical cue for where I’m standing. Then, she taught me how the game works.
Anyone who’s played Beat Saber will find this familiar. As you stand in place, colored orbs fly at you, with an arrow on them pointing in the direction where you need to hit them. Use the left controller to strike black spheres and the right to whack white ones. These lightsaber-esque sticks glow in the same color as their corresponding balls so you won’t need to commit this to memory. When a triangle comes towards you, you need to duck to fit within its boundaries.
The mechanics are simple enough, and while it might be tempting to halfheartedly swing at these orbs, you’ll want to take a real whack at them. The software calculates the force you strike them with, and the balls shatter into pieces if you’ve done it right. Otherwise, they just bounce away with a light flick. Not only does the amount of force you use go towards your score at the end of each session, but it’s also what makes the workout more physically demanding.
Once the tutorial was over, I tried out a 15-minute “Balance” session. It started with a short warmup round set to Runnin It Now by Pigeon John, with the beautiful Scottish highlands as a 360-degree backdrop. When the workout begins, portals open in mid-air around you as the balls fly out. As I flailed about, demolishing the balls as they flew at me, the woman from the tutorial kept saying things like, “Navel engaged, spine long” or “Explode those targets” and “Drop it low, back up fast.” It’s meant to be encouraging, and for the most part is, but I found it disingenuous when she said things like “I’m right there with you”. Aside from that, though, she sounded just like any other workout class instructor, reminding me to breathe, maintain good form and press on near the end.
After the one-minute warmup, I had to go through four more rounds, each increasing in difficulty. Supernatural said that the workouts dynamically tailor their intensity to your performance -- if you do well, you’ll find the rounds getting harder and harder. If something seems too difficult and you’re not keeping up, the system will drop the level. In general I never found any of the rounds too easy (aside from the warmup and tutorial), and while they definitely got more challenging, they weren’t impossible to finish either. I did find myself out of breath and annoyed any time a triangle appeared during the final round, but for the most part I was having fun blasting these orbs into smithereens.
I didn’t just enjoy the act of smashing these virtual spheres -- I also really liked the gorgeous settings and upbeat music. Each round features a different backdrop and song. While the current music library is limited to a handful of titles and artists I wasn’t familiar with, Supernatural’s makers say expect content from labels like Universal and Warner Music to be added over time.
It was also refreshing to feel surrounded by the lush wetlands of Isabela Island in the Galapagos, or China’s Yuanyang Rice Terraces. (A small indicator on the floor in front of you shows the music and background.) These settings are part of the reason Supernatural got its name. Within co-founder Aaron Koblin told Engadget that the sessions “take place in some of the most beautiful natural places on earth.”
“Combine that with a sport from the future that makes you feel like a badass and Supernatural just really felt appropriate,” he added.
Even if I hadn’t been stuck at home for weeks on end, these scenic landscapes would have been a feast for my eyes. When would you get the chance to work out on a deserted mountaintop or glacial valley? The high-quality photo-realistic surroundings made these expansive spaces feel liberating, too.
The problem was -- I wasn’t actually in a wide open space. I was in my tiny studio apartment where I can’t spin around without knocking into a piece of furniture. As I lunged and swung at these orbs, I smacked the Oculus controllers into my table, my bed or humidifier several times. The orbs fly at you from all angles, too, so you’ll end up gradually spinning around 360 degrees. Per the Quest’s guidelines, you’ll need a relatively big space, about 36 square feet. I didn’t have that room to play with, unfortunately. Thanks to my yoga mat, though, I was able to stay largely aware of where I was in my room.
By the end of the 15-minute session, I was wheezing. My quadriceps were on fire and I could barely bend my legs without feeling my muscles burn. I was surprised at the results -- I didn’t really think much of all the squatting and ducking I was doing during the session. My shoulders and arms didn’t feel much different immediately after the workout, but as I write this the day after, my biceps are definitely sore and my quads are completely useless.
To me, the mark of a great workout is when you don’t realize till after the session that your muscles are sore and aching. It means you were distracted and having fun during the activity, so you didn’t focus on the burn, but felt the effectiveness afterwards.
If you, too, think that sounds like a great workout, you can try out Supernatural for free for 30 days, after which you’ll have to pay $19 a month to continue using it. While that isn’t exactly cheap, it’s still half what Peloton charges for unlimited live and on-demand classes. If you’re the sort of person who’s already shelled out $600 for an Oculus Quest, you might not balk at that price.
Honestly, I’m looking forward to strapping on the Quest and starting another round of Supernatural (once my muscles are no longer sore, that is). The app is well-produced, offers stunning visuals and sound and delivers an engaging workout. I’d keep using it through the 30-day trial and I might even rearrange my furniture for it. But the monthly fee is too high for most.
Update (at 1:30pm ET): Added detail about music sources from Universal and Warner Music to come, as well as clarified the monthly fee is $19 not $20 as previously stated. Also fixed an error about the amount of space Oculus recommends — the article has been updated to say 36 square feet not 6.5 as previously miscalculated due to poor math.