Stealth, horror and procedural scrambling converge in a thrilling package.
I've always found good horror games to be the most immersive of all virtual experiences. A strong dose of terror laser-focuses your attention onto the illusion and causes the world outside your visor to melt away.
Virtual threats can seem all too real because of this and, under the right circumstances, the primal fear they release in you can be all consuming. You're not just playing the game when this happens, you're living the game and, for the first three to four hours or so, that's exactly how it felt playing The Persistence.
The Persistence is a first-person Roguelike set onboard a sprawling starship that's been crippled by the effects of an unexpected black hole (don't you just hate those?). You start the game as a clone of the ship's security officer, Zimri Eder, who's been brought back from the dead by Serena Karim, the ship's engineer and sole survivor of the catastrophe.
Serena needs your help restarting the ship's stardrive so you can escape the pull of this black hole, but before you can do that you'll have to complete an objective on each of the ship's four main decks. This is a series of tasks that's been complicated somewhat by a malfunction of the deck modules. Every time you use a teleporter, the modules shuffle about, as things in Roguelikes often do, causing the whole layout of the ship to change.
To top that all off, it turns out the clone printer that gave you your new body is but one of many and the tragic incident has caused the rest to go haywire. All over the ship they're printing out unlimited numbers of botched clones, complete with a variety of troublesome and deadly mutations.
There is some good news though...sort of. Everytime you die, and die you will, you can print off a brand new version of yourself so you can enter the twisting, terrifying maze once again.
Movement in The Persistence is controlled exclusively by the DualShock and it involves a mixture of free-move and teleportation similar to that of DOOM VFR, but at a much slower pace. Refreshingly, there are a huge amount of comfort settings to fiddle around with so it's easy to tailor the controls to suit your VR skill level, be you a novice or a pro.
Experienced players will be disappointed by the lack of motion controls, though. Without the ability to free aim your weapons or reach into the world and touch things, there's a certain disconnect with the game that reduces its believability. Instead, all interactions, including item gathering, are performed by centering your view on an object for a couple of seconds. It works well enough, but the process can feel a bit laborious after a while, especially when each room is often littered with pick-ups.
Peel back the sci-fi horror skin of The Persistence and you'll find a much meatier experience than your standard, jump-scare game though. What lies beneath is a rather robust Roguelike with masses of room for character customisation and replayability.
During each tour of the ship you'll collect stem cells and FAB chips - FAB chips can be used to purchase items and upgrades from weapon-printing Fabricators, while the stem cells are used to create genetic augmentations for your clones that improve your stealth, health, melee strength and your ability to store Dark Matter - a substance which grants you greater teleport abilities and a room-scanning 'Super Sense'.
There are even schematics of different rarities to be found, which you can then use to craft upgrades for your suit's abilities. The best of these can be found in special challenge rooms dotted around the map that must be beaten in order to unlock a loot crate. Some of these crates also hold Porter keys that allow you to skip decks that you've already played through, a must-have for repeat playthroughs.
Talking of short-cuts, if you really want to you can bypass a lot of the rooms on each deck. The route to the mission objective and deck exit is visible from the start, but exploration is rewarded with extra stem cells and FAB chips. Plus you'll occasionally stumble onto a story room which will add to the lore of the game and unlock new clone bodies with unique abilities that you can print out and inhabit upon death.
The Persistence sells itself as a stealth horror game, but that's only really true of the first few hours of play. Before you've sufficiently upgraded your character, survival is a real challenge and you'll need to rely heavily on the element of surprise to take down your enemies. By sneaking up behind them you can attack them with your primary weapon, a taser-like gun called the Harvester that attaches to the back of their necks and sucks out their stem cells with a grim, drill-like churn. (A bit like the Harvester we all know and love.)
This comes with its limitations though, you need to be within arm's length to deploy the Harvester's barbs, and before you've put points into your stealth it's very easy to startle your prey. When this happens you can deploy a shield that you can temporarily use to parry enemy attacks, but again, at the start it's fairly ineffective, especially against multiple attackers.
Once you've been around the block a few times and learned how to use your Super Sense to spot hidden threats, you'll soon feel brave enough to come out of the shadows and face your enemies directly. There's nothing to stop you going the stealth route for the full game of course, but a huge part of the fun here lies in discovering and experimenting with the generous arsenal of weapons and gadgets.
Every item feels powerful and exciting to wield in its unique own way, but even amongst this great selection of toys there are some real standouts. The Gravometric Hook for instance allows you to grab hold of enemies and whip your head around to smash them into smithereens against the metallic walls of the ship, while the one-use Ivy Serum injects a mind-altering drug into your target that instantly converts even the most fearsome of foes into a loyal ally who'll protect you with their lives.
However, there does comes a point in the proceedings when you can start to feel slightly overpowered. I chose to build a character based upon heavy weapon mastery and loot gathering and, after I'd harvested enough stem cells to upgrade my clones health attributes, I was able to stockpile a certain combination of items and pretty much brute force my way through some of the game's more difficult situations.
It took me just over 10 hours to finish my first run of The Persistence and unlock the extra challenging Survival Mode, but in doing so I left many of Zimri's clone corpses in my wake. The procedurally generated nature of the levels went a long way to alleviating the frustration caused by the multitude of fatalities but there were still a few long periods of tedious backtracking after each death as I slowly farmed items in the Fabricators.
While The Persistence may not be the best looking PSVR game out there - some of the textures are rather basic and the enemy design can be very samey - the audio is exemplary and ultimately this helps make the game world feel authentic and believable.
Occasionally loose panels will spark with electricity and clatter to the floor with a heart-stopping bang. Skittering footsteps and distant wails will echo behind you causing you to stop dead in your tracks. Even the subtler sounds serve to unsettle you, like the noise of slow, pumping machinery that's reminiscent of an old man's ragged breathing.
Despite getting off to an incredibly strong start, once you reach Deck 4, The Persistence starts to feel like it's running out of steam. The rooms here seem emptier, there's a shift in focus towards forced combat scenarios and the whole thing culminates in a climax that is both short and jarring.
Part of me wonders whether these final sections were glossed over because the developer Firesprite figured most players would be too frightened to see the whole thing through. It's definitely not a game for the fainthearted and that's undoubtedly going to turn a lot of people off, but it's worth pointing out that the scares do start to diminish as you become more familiar with the mechanics.
With all that said, The Persistence is an ideal purchase for VR horror fans. It's obvious a lot of care and attention to detail has gone into crafting the experience, and the deep, Roguelike elements mean that it offers way more in terms of gameplay than your average PSVR title.
Simply put, if you can brave your way through first few hours you'll find your persistence pays off and you'll be rewarded with a fantastic addition to your VR library.