Nestled among the usual fare at Ubisoft’s E3 2017 showcase was an appearance by Elijah Wood, there to talk up SpectreVision’s VR sci-fi horror title Transference. Once the trailer had finished, it was clear we had something interesting on our hands.
A head-tripping blend of first-person horror game and live action scenes set within a creepy simulation of several people’s brain data is certainly an enticing prospect, but can it deliver an effective brain-bending dose of existential horror?
The entire simulation is set in and around the home of Raymond Hayes, a troubled scientist with a streak of brilliance. He seemingly created a digital representation of himself, his wife Katherine, and their boy by using brain data from each, and those avatars are present in the simulation too. Unfortunately, there’s a corruption running rife inside the simulation as well, and you’re tasked with cleaning up the glitches and errors whilst uncovering the darker side to Raymond’s family life.
Transference is a familial horror underneath the sci-fi gubbins. It’s clear early on that Raymond’s obsession with his projects is taking a toll on his relationship with his wife and child and that may well be playing its own part in the strange and dark avenues this virtual realm takes you down.
You begin just outside the apartment block, tasked with looking for a key to the front door. Once you do find it and enter the building, you’re soon presented with an example of how messed up this simulation is after a disturbing scene in the foyer. So begins a nightmarish look into a botched science project saturated with family issues. What will be more disturbing? The flaws in the software? Or the revelations that could be uncovered about Raymond’s family life? You’ll find out soon enough.
Transference’s greatest strength is in its separation of perceived reality and the virtual world you inhabit. Strapping on a PSVR headset to enter a 3D virtual world is nothing new now, but for a game to actually make that process part of the game? It’s a novel, meta take and the game enjoys messing with its digital realm to disorientate you. There was a claim from Mr. Wood back at E3 that Transference would bridge the gap between games and film with its mix of FMV and digital constructs, but all Transference’s strengths lie in how it plays with the nature of being ‘a game’ and the FMV scenes that do pepper the exposition are actually quite limited. Effective? Yes, but they aren’t a seamless bridge between mediums that was touted.
The constant reminders that you’re in an artificial world include glaring error messages where items should be (usually a hint that you should find that item and restore the data to the program to help ‘clean’ it) and a dark glitchy entity who periodically stalks you around the apartment. You can also switch between different builds of the apartment, clearly taken from more than one point in time in the real world. This is integrated into puzzle-solving, allowing you to bring items from one build to another.
This is a game that’s assured enough to let you take your time discovering its story. That means the pace is on the slow side, and while that’s great for letting you really tuck into the smaller details of the Hayes family and their troubles, it is, unfortunately, a tad cynical with it. The entire game is an escape room, with smaller escape room puzzles chained together to crack the overall puzzle. This causes a fair bit of repetition and fumbling towards the next checkpoint. The puzzles are fair, challenging, and generally in keeping with the themes of the narrative, but certain times it just feels like you’re being tasked with busywork to pad the runtime (Transference clocks in a little under three hours). It’s a shame because Transference can be really good at ratcheting up the unease otherwise, and it’s the time afforded to each dread-induced moment that really brings the payoff.
That disorientation the simulation provides is another key aspect of Transference’s success. Overlapping and distorted sound bites, manic flashing glitch voids, and the shifts between software builds changing parts of the environment. It escalates slowly but surely before usually ending each ‘chapter’ of the simulation with a crescendo of disturbing imagery. It’s never graphic or gory, just an explosion of sensory assaults that are befitting of a game centered on a corrupted artificial world.
The brevity of the story does fit well for the pace, but replayability is limited. Once you’ve discovered all the secrets of the Hayes family the first time around, you’re left with some collectible pickups and little else as the knowledge gained from a first run does detract much of the spectacle, drama, and of course, scares from the story. At around $25 at launch, three and a bit hours of game is pushing it a bit, no matter how effective and absorbing it can get. Value is all relative of course, but it does feel like Ubisoft has put the game in a tough spot with that price point and it deserves better than that as a drawback.
It is at least playable both in VR and Non-VR modes, and it loses little of its atmosphere without a VR unit on your face. All the same, this feels like it was made for VR, both mechanically and thematically, so you do lose out on something by playing it on a regular screen. Whichever way you play it, savor it, put its occasional structural flaws to one side and drink in the delivery of its story. You may as well squeeze as much juice out of your first time with the game because it’s rapidly diminishing returns from there.
Transference is in some ways, a tighter twist on Bloober Team’s Observer (with a dash of that company’s Layers of Fear in the mix). But it never reaches the loopy and inventive highs of that game’s head-fuckery. Not that there isn’t merit to the strange and disturbing places Transference goes because it definitely has a good line in loopy. It just needed a bit more substance to the quieter moments.
PS4/PSVR Review copy purchased by Reviewer
Transference is out now on PSVR, PS4, Xbox One, and PC (Oculus and Vive)