Dark Pictures Switchback is the House of the Dead in VR I've been waiting for
The spiritual successor to Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is really fun
I have many fond memories of going to the arcade as a kid, playing games like Time Crisis or House of the Dead, and racking up high scores. These lightgun games, as they were called, were so perfectly suited for the arcade experience and often featured big, unwieldy plastic guns, flashing lights, and occasionally a pedal that let you duck behind objects.
Fast-forward to 2023 and arcades are almost nonexistent. You also won't find too many games based on the lightgun formula — a point my colleague Charlie Wacholz lamented almost exactly one year ago (opens in new tab) — but that seems to be changing as more developers are embracing this arcade aesthetic to deliver VR games that even the most motion-sick-prone of us can enjoy.
Dark Pictures: Switchback is a new PSVR 2 (opens in new tab)-exclusive game that puts players in a rollercoaster seat — yes, I know that sounds like a really old kind of VR game, just bear with me — and arms them with a gun in each hand. You'll traverse through the wild, wicked world of the Dark Pictures Anthology (opens in new tab) led by a psychotic protagonist bent on your torture and eventual destruction. Can you defeat her?
Switchback to the track
Dark Pictures: Switchback gameplay is nearly identical to Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. Just like that original PSVR game, this new PSVR 2 game sees players sitting in a rollercoaster seat throughout the entirety of the experience, so this is a game that's best played while actually seated.
The rollercoaster car moves on its own as you would expect from a rollercoaster and, as in Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, players are tasked with shooting just about anything that comes across their path in hopes of extinguishing evil's flame and wracking up a high score.
It's the kind of simplistic gameplay that needs no explanation despite a short tutorial on what you'll need to look for and what to shoot during the game. The PSVR 2 also allows players to move around more than the original PSVR thanks to the improved tracking but, as I said before, this isn't a game where you'll walk around.
In essence, developer Supermassive Games repeated the exact same formula with the Dark Pictures Anthology as it did with Until Dawn. The flat version is an investigative horror game while the VR version is an action arcade-like shooter that traverses players through the world automatically.
I have no personal experience with the original Dark Pictures series, although I have watched some gameplay videos on it so I'm at least a little bit familiar with its themes. Based on what I know there, fans of those games will almost certainly feel right at home in this egregiously creepy world.
The game even makes impressive use of the PSVR 2's unique technology. Pulling the trigger on a gun feels more like pulling the trigger on a real gun. It takes a bit of effort and automatic weapons will see the trigger pushing in and out as they might on a real version of that gun.
Likewise, the headset rumbles when players are attacked or are going through a particular slimy situation, something you'll understand once you've played the game.
Oh, and don't forget those enemies that move only when you blink your eyes. It's a mesmerizing experience that'll have you begging for eyedrops or death, whichever comes first. Truly one of the best uses of the PSVR 2's eye-tracking feature I've seen so far!
High scores and more
In the hours that I've put into Dark Pictures: Switchback, I've found myself replaying levels not just to get better high scores but also to see every boss and hidden encounter in the game.
As you progress through the world and its many chapters and varied themes, you'll come across switchbacks that'll force you to make a decision. In train lingo, a switchback is defined as "a railway operation in which a train is required to switch its direction of travel in order to continue its journey," according to Wikipedia (opens in new tab).
This split in the tracks always has a direction pre-selected but it's not always the right direction to go. In one level — don't worry, I won't spoil the story here — players who continue on the default track to the left will find themselves going around in a circle until they're eliminated by an unkillable enemy. This loop is part of the game's story and helps switch up the gameplay a bit, especially when your hands are tired of pulling the trigger constantly.
And Switchback's gameplay loop is quite a bit different from other lightgun games like Zombieland: Headshot Fever, another one of my favorite PSVR 2 games (opens in new tab). In that title, levels are generally pretty small and have you traveling from the beginning to the end, clearing rooms or areas before progressing to the next area.
Switchback sees players constantly moving through the environment, stopping only when a puzzle needs to be solved, a boss needs to be defeated, or a locked door needs to be blasted through.
Those switchbacks offer players a choice of bosses and ways to replay the game without doing all the same things twice. In a way, it's like the classic zombie game Dead Rising where you only have so much time to make it through the mall. You have to choose wisely when saving people or facing bosses, and each of those choices makes a difference in how the game plays and ends.
The biggest issues with the game mostly tie in with the visuals. While it looks fine enough, the game likely won't impress very much if you're coming from a game like Gran Turismo 7, Resident Evil 8, or Horizon Call of the Mountain. It's very soft and clearly not running at the highest resolution, and texture and object pop-in is noticeable throughout the game.
It's not a terrible-looking game but it's certainly not a stunner in most respects. If nothing, the dark nature of the game takes good advantage of the contrast that only an OLED display can offer, so there's a positive.
The game also has no comfort options at all which is very strange for a VR title. While you might be playing this one seated at all times, you still might feel light-headed or uncomfortable when the rollercoaster is whipping around the track. I would assume that the developers tested out different comfort options and didn't like the changes they made in the game since being on a rollercoaster is tantamount to the overall experience.
Return of the lightgun genre
Lightgun games died out, in part, because most at-home lightgun accessories relied on CRT technology to function properly. Now, with VR, developers don't have to worry about how the gun works or how the player interacts with the scene. You just put the headset on and you're there.
Horror fans and House of the Dead fans will love Dark Pictures: Switchback's engrossing environments and twitch arcade shooting mechanics. The story is interesting and mysterious, keeping you intrigued throughout despite not having much dialog at all.
If you end up buying it and enjoying it, I'd recommend also picking up Zombieland: Headshot Fever Reloaded. It's a reboot of the game that launched on Quest a few years back and features a total visual overhaul as well as improved mechanics. It's almost identical to a House of the Dead game in many ways, yet offers plenty of upgrades and high-score challenge loops along the way.
Another title, RUNNER, puts players in an Akira-inspired anime world where you'll hop on the back of a blazing-fast motorcycle with the aim of making it out of the giant city alive. Take down corrupt lawn enforcement drones and wrack up the power-ups along the way. This one's got surprisingly good voiceover work and backstory despite its simple mechanics. I'd wait for a sale on this one but it's still fun if you're an arcade shooter nut.
On the horizon, great games like Crisis Brigade 2 (opens in new tab) are being ported over to PSVR 2 which will offer stellar Time Crisis vibes and the ability to play co-op with friends. The VRigade series, as it was once called, is known for being incredibly difficult and unforgiving, a mostly-lost quality that 90s gamers will fondly remember and surely enjoy. It also offers realistic visuals and more realistic gun handling than most lightgun games, helping it further set itself apart from the pack.
Dead Second (opens in new tab) is also headed to PSVR 2 and sets itself apart with its unique bullet time and zooming mechanics. This one is smoother and offers fancier gunplay options than a typical lightgun game because of the unique way it moves the players' viewpoint around. It's a stellar title that'll easily make the list of best arcade shooters once it's out.
As a former arcade junkie, I'm incredibly happy with the PSVR 2's library and games like Dark Pictures: Switchback. Some days, it's just nicer to have a game that prioritizes physical movement flow states instead of deep thinking. While it doesn't bring back the implicitly social nature of the arcade, it does let me relive the glory days in a whole new way.
Dark Pictures: Switchback for PSVR 2
Journey through the horrors of the Dark Pictures Anthology on a rollercoaster ride of death in Switchback, a PSVR 2 lightgun game that'll have you shooting, dodging, and switching tracks to learn more about the Dark Pictures universe.
Buy at PlayStation (opens in new tab)
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