Virtual Virtual Reality 2, the sequel to Tender Claws’ original satirical puzzle game from 2016, is available now for the Meta Quest platform. But is the game an exciting romp through a fictional metaverse or a frustrating pastiche of VR’s finest moments that ultimately falls flat? Here’s our review-in-progress.
Note: We’ve yet to finalise our review of Virtual Virtual Reality 2, as we’ve been unable to finish the game in time, mainly due to extensive and disruptive bugs. Despite this, the game makes several smart and important innovations in its gameplay. We’ve decided to put up this review-in-progress for now, overviewing the inventive gameplay mechanics, while also describing the bugs that we encountered. Tender Claws says an update addressing several bugs is already in the works, so keep an eye out for our finalized review at a later date.
A Different Type of Sequel
In my eyes, Tender Claws is one of the most interesting studios currently making virtual reality experiences. They’re not afraid to shy away from nuanced and deeply thematic narratives that explore complicated topics with an artistic flair and a critical eye. The studio truly engages with critical thought about the world we live in and the technology we’re developing for it. What’s more, the approach to gameplay is always in service of the narrative – the gameplay isn’t just for fun, but also an essential part of how you engage with the narrative themes at hand.
This sophisticated and symbiotic depth of experience is what marked Tender Claws as a studio to watch in 2016, after the release of Virtual Virtual Reality (VVR). While VVR wasn’t a flawless experience – it certainly had moments of confusion and obscurity, both its gameplay and writing – it did have a sense of experimental, critical and artistic engagement in its storytelling and design that is, even now, often lacking in VR experiences. The studio has carried this flair with them across other projects as well, present in both The Under Presents and, this week, Virtual Virtual Reality 2 (VVR2).
Where the first game dissected the very concept of VR itself (engaging not just with the idea of a VR headset, but everything that comes with it – instant satisfaction, consumerism, capitalism and more), VVR2 pivots to a different kind of game that explores the concept and conceit of the metaverse. You start in a the fictional metaverse realm of Scottsdale, which is soon ‘taken offline’. This leaves you merged with, and stuck inside, a giant mech – one of the Activitude robots from the first game – fighting to escape the metaverse before you get deleted.
While Virtual Virtual Reality 2 (VVR2) is a sequel, it’s also clearly designed to work on its own merits. You’ll benefit from having played the first game – it sets the tone and premise, and there’s plenty of returning characters and call-back references – but it’s probably not essential.
It also helps that VVR2 is a very different game to the original. VVR focused on small areas – which the game automatically ferreted you between – and emphasised environmental puzzles and interactions in service of a linear but engaging story. VVR2 is almost completely different. Besides a similar style of environmental puzzles in some sections, the game adds a variety of new mechanics and ideas – it’s essentially a different game entirely, just set in the same narrative universe.
Tender Claws describes it as an “action-adventure mech platformer”, which isn’t wrong, but also doesn’t fully summarise the breadth of what’s on offer. Most of the game takes place inside a giant robot mech, which feels noticeably large when moving around the game’s human-scale environments. You will also move around inside the mech, interact with other characters on board and even solve environmental puzzles in its various rooms (in moments that feel reminiscent of A Fisherman’s Tale at times).
A Blueprint For Native VR Design
However, it’s at the mech’s cockpit and controls that the real action happens. Standing at the control hub, you’re given a cockpit view, looking through the giant mech eye window, that lets you navigate the mech through a disintegrating and collapsing Scottsdale. All the mech’s movement controls are environmental, ignoring the Touch controller buttons – there’s a throttle to speed forward, overhead pulleys to move left and right, and spring-driven tabs that you can pull up to jump.
All of this comes together to create, essentially, a smooth locomotion system that almost entirely avoids motion sickness, by virtue of its design. When moving the mech from the control hub, the giant round cockpit window acts as an invisible form of vignetting. It’s an ingenious way of integrating a comfort option into the game natively, to the point where most players probably won’t even realise the behind-the-scenes magic at work preventing them from getting sick.
As you progress, you unlock more mech accessories, including more ways to interact and inhabit with the Scottsdale environment. You first unlock two arms for the mech. The right is a vacuum-like device that can suck up objects and shoot them back at enemies – essentially a gun that requires you to find ammo by sucking up items in the environment as you go. The left arms lets you pick up objects and move them around and, later, flicks out a round tether point that you use to teleport the mech to a new position, instead of walking or jumping there.
However, it gets better – when using your mech arms, you can press A on the touch controllers to embody the mech in a roomscale-like manner. Instead of piloting the mech, you are the mech. You’re able to switch between the two options at any point, meaning that you can choose to pilot via smooth locomotion inside the cockpit or move around via teleport when embodying the mech and using the tether option.
It’s a truly ingenious design decision from Tender Claws – it essentially removes the need for menu options for movement and comfort, opting instead to integrate them as core mechanics of the game. Other games require you to turn on vignetting and set your movement preferences in the menus, but here you can just become fully immersed without having to think about menus or discomfort at all. It’s an impressive solution that other games should take note of.
Different areas will also require you to use the different mech modes. Traversing the environment, you’re more likely to use cockpit traversal. But when dealing with enemies, it’s much easier to embody the mech in roomscale to shoot and dodge bullets. Sometimes either option (or switching between both) works just as well as the other.
This also means that the game can, and does, switch genres at the drop of a hat, which it uses to present you with sequences and mechanics that act as beautiful homages to popular VR genres from the last few years. The shooting sequences borrow ideas from roomscale shooters like Space Pirate Arena, Blaston and – once you unlock the ability to slow time – Superhot. Later segments see you descend into the bottom of the mech and jump into a VR headset ship that you can pilot around the environment like a plane. It controls just like other VR flight simulators and even has guns that you can use in dogfighting sequences. In another section, you’ll even play a VR rhythm game clearly inspired by Beat Saber, set inside Scottsdale’s ‘wellness centre’. These segments feel natural and unforced, clearly showing that Tender Claws have been paying attention to the wider industry’s efforts and lessons-learned in the last few years.
From a design and conceptual standpoint, VVR2 might be Tender Claws most experimental and successfully inventive game yet. This is a game that understands and capitalises on the richness of VR as a medium, while remaining perfectly delicate in how it handles the format’s limitations. It is a fantastic blueprint for VR game design that elegantly handles the intersection of immersion, creativity, presence and variety.
A Buggy Launch
Despite this, in its current state, the game has some issues that make it difficult to play as intended. At launch, Virtual Virtual Reality 2 is a very buggy game. This is not to say that the game doesn’t run or isn’t playable – it very much is – but I encountered enough bugs that it prevented me from playing the game smoothly, without frustration and in the way it was meant to be enjoyed.
Tender Claws says the game is about 10 hours long, split over 20 chapters. As it stands, I’m only somewhere between a third and halfway through the game, but getting to that point took much longer than it should have. The bugs I encountered varied in how disruptive they were, but they became impactful enough that I decided to put the game down for now, instead of pushing through.
The bugs I encountered ranged from mildly-annoying-but-not-important to level-breaking or app-reboot-requiring. Minor frustrations included characters and NPCs frequently not acting as expected – spawning in the roof or the wrong position, getting stuck when moving from one area to another, facing the wrong way, or having voices that sounded distant, soft or incorrectly placed in the environment. Characters also frequently repeated dialogue, talked over each other, cut each other off or gave instructions for an activity or area I had already finished, which was very confusing. These types of bugs often resolved themselves, but sometimes required rebooting the app – overall, on the less frustrating end of the spectrum.
On the other end, there were some bugs that became increasingly problematic. I had several instances where I would walk into a new room or area, and nothing would happen – scripted events simply failed to start. This led to lots of confusion – had I walked into the right place or did I miss something? I would often retrace steps and look around elsewhere, before restarting the app and realising I did nothing wrong once the scripted event started as intended.
Likewise, I had a few instances where I was seemingly soft-locked in an area, unable to progress, and others where I wasn’t able to physically move into certain areas (hitting an invisible wall). There was a few times where previous gameplay segments reinitiated themselves, but with missing elements or in the wrong order. It got to the point where it was marring the gameplay itself – the bugs not only made me confused about where to go and what to do, but having to frequently reboot the game meant I was playing sequences several times over, only to hit another bug that hindered progress.
Review-in-Progress – What Next?
This confluence of problems led to me putting the game down until the bugs are (hopefully) resolved in a future update, after which we’ll revisit the game and deliver our final verdict. We reached out to Tender Claws to describe our experience with the bugs and see if fixes were already in the works. The studio said that “the team is aware of several bugs and they will be addressed in an update coming two weeks after the launch date.”
If the bugs are resolved, the game shows great promise – it has strong, inventive mechanics and is, conceptually, an intelligent and intuitive experience. However, the current bugs mean that it’s much harder to play, let alone finish, the game than it should be, which ultimately clouds the overall experience. It also means we can’t comment on the success of the game’s wider narrative, pacing and puzzles just yet either.
There’s a chance that this was just my experience – others might not experience bugs with the same frequency or impact that I did. However, given the breadth of issues we had, it’s fair to say that there’s a chance they’ll crop up for other players too. Until Tender Claws attempts to ameliorate the experience, it’s hard for us to pass judgment or give a proper recommendation.
We’re hopeful that everything will be resolved with the upcoming update, but we’ll have to wait and see. Keep an eye out for more news soon and our updated finalised review in a few weeks’ time.
Have you played Virtual Virtual Reality 2? Let us know how it went for you in the comments below.