This year’s SAGE has been filled to the brim with quality, creative, and odd games. Fewer, however, so perfectly represent all three of these qualities like Virtua Sonic does. “Virtual reality Sonic” sounds like an awful idea on paper. VR games in general tend to struggle with allowing for movement without giving the user motion sickness, so how is a game about a high speed hedgehog that constantly spins around supposed to do it? Well, I don’t know…but somehow, Virtua Sonic isn’t the vomit-inducing VR experience I was expecting, and on top of that it’s…actually a surprisingly decent Sonic game!
First, it’s important that I talk about my own tolerance for VR, and my current set-up before I go on. Experiences like this are certainly not for everyone. I’ve been exposed to VR gaming for roughly four years now, starting with the HTC Vive back in 2016. Like a lot of people, I’m able to handle room scale VR (where you physically walk around a virtual space) for long stretches. Also like most people, standing VR games (where movement is handled via a controller while you just stand or sit) does make me sick, and my tolerance level for these games used to be 10-20 minutes, but that has marginally improved.
If you can’t handle these kinds of VR experiences, Virtua Sonic is not for you. That said, Virtua Sonic is actually one of the better standing VR experiences I’ve had. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the game design or my own tolerance, but I was able to play for 20 minutes before I started to feel sick, and I was able to play it for 40 minutes without having to put it down. Not bad! I played the entire thing on an Oculus Quest, connected to my computer via its Oculus Link feature. Oculus Link can be a bit jittery, and this occasionally got in the way of the experience, but I won’t be noting those aspects of the experience here, as that has nothing to do with the game.
Virtua Sonic plays surprisingly well and it is…mostly intuitive. You move by holding down buttons on the motion controllers and pumping them up and down like you’re “running,” and jumping is done by holding down the triggers and thrusting a controller down. Aside from running and jumping, all of Sonic’s moves are here, from the homing attack, to the light speed dash, stomp, spindash, and roll.
All of these moves are handled via a combination of motion controls and button presses. None of these moves are as intuitive to pull off as they are in the official games, but I eventually got used to them. That said, I did run into some problems. For one, the jumping controls just don’t feel natural in this game.
You jump by holding the triggers and thrusting a controller down, which just kept conflicting with what my brain wanted to do. I wanted to thrust the controller up, in the direction I wanted to move. I’m not sure if it would have interfered with other parts of the controls, but it took me until my third play session with the game to finally get used to it. The stomp, likewise, feels unnatural: you do it by raising your hands after a jump. Again, thrusting my arms down would feel more natural for a downward stomping motion.
But once I got used to everything, playing through the game actually felt pretty good. Like, way better than I ever would have expected a VR Sonic game to feel! Homing in on enemies, rolling, spin dashing, and light speed dashing all felt supremely satisfying. There’s even a move in the game where you basically need to “Naruto run” once you achieve a high enough speed. This allows you to retain your momentum and pull off all sorts of neat tricks like running on water or along walls. I admit, this could make me feel pretty goofy, but actually replicating Sonic’s running stance to run along a waterfall is also probably one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had in VR.
You’re going to need to master these moves to get through the demo. Aside from the tutorial stage, which is pretty linear and basic in its design, Virtua Sonic sports one full level and boss fight, and that level, Sakura Sanctuary, is big. It’s got multiple paths to to run through, and it gets increasingly large and expansive as it continues. It features design sensibilities similar to the superb Sonic GT, which isn’t surprising, since it’s based on the same tech as GT. The boss battle’s also pretty fun: you’ve got to chase down a big robot, using the physics and your moves to keep pace with it and bring it down.
It isn’t all roses, though, as the levels do have a few rough edges. In the tutorial stage, the hill that’s supposed to teach players how to jump is just a little too high, and I found myself consistently struggling to successfully scale it. There’s also an incline towards the end of Sakura Sanctuary that’s nearly impossible to get up consistently. Even spin dashing didn’t seem to work! These are small issues, but ones I found detrimental to the overall experience.
The game’s short, but it’s a complete package all the same. It tells a simple, complete story with good writing and solid voice work. Sakura Sanctuary and the tutorial stage are both gorgeous, and the selection of music (which includes a nice little track from NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams) works well with the levels. Once you beat the game you can play through both levels and the boss battle in Time Attack mode, which adds a bit of replay value.
I hope we get more projects like this. During an event that was full of surprises, Virtua Sonic may be the biggest of the lot. If you’ve got a VR set up and your stomach can take it, check it out! You wont be disappointed.