Amongst the launch lineup of PlayStation VR2 (PSVR2) games, next to blockbusters like Horizon Call of the Mountain and Resident Evil Village which push the technical boundaries of Sony’s new high-end headset, there’s an essential game that a community of VR ‘oldheads’ are keeping a closer eye on: The Light Brigade.
Designed by Funktronic Labs, The Light Brigade is a World War II Magical Realism Roguelike Shooter – an absolute mouthful, but standard for the development studio behind hits as diverse as Cosmic Trip (a psychedelic light-gun Saturday-morning-cartoon RTS), Nova-111 (a time-travelling cybernetic puzzle platformer) and Wave Break, (a Miami Vice-themed mashup of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Wave Race 64 and… Action Quake).
Trying to pin a genre on the studio is impossible, and to hear Australian co-founder Kalin tell it, it’s because they’ve traditionally chased gameplay mechanics, not styles.
‘We have a hundred ideas for games we want to make. There are PVP battlers, Zelda-type things, robot action games and… there’s so many games in our backlog where we’re like, “this would be so cool to make.” Somebody just [picks one] and starts jamming on a prototype early, and then if there’s something cool in the core of it, then we just kind of chase the development and see what direction it takes us. Usually, where we start with the game isn’t really where we end up.’
That wasn’t the case for The Light Brigade, however. Instead of chasing one mad idea all the way through to the end, and finishing somewhere completely different, Funktronic charted this particular path from the very beginning.
‘Imagine for Dark Souls that somebody has a giant book, and it’s the entire history of the world and everything that ever happened, right?’ Kalin said. ‘But in the game, you only ever see one page of it every now and then. You can’t really piece it together very easily, but you feel like there’s a solid foundation of story under it all. So, for [The Light Brigade], we were like “okay, let’s try and capture that feeling”.’
The Dark Souls reference is apt – and not just because it’s easy to compare any game that does something moderately interesting and challenging to FromSoftware’s legendary game franchise. The Light Brigade is a game where tension is racked up through daunting foes, and an interesting blend of gothic and cosmic imagery. You collect souls to level up your character, you need to bank those souls before you die or else you’ll lose them, and a momentary lapse of attention – or succumbing to your hubris — can cost you everything.
Also, you can kill all of the non-player characters, but you probably shouldn’t.
The Light Brigade has a gorgeous, distinctive art style, but it’s perhaps not as graphically impressive as some of the other PSVR2 titles at launch, like Horizon Call of the Mountain or Gran Turismo 7. For Kalin and his team, it’s been a tricky thing to balance, since the game is releasing across a wide array of VR platforms.
At the bottom of the spectrum, The Light Brigade is releasing on the Meta Quest 2 and PSVR 1, but also the PSVR 2 and various PC headsets at the top end (featuring a host of lighting, particle and shader improvements).
‘It’s kind of been a weird timeline where VR went up [in quality], and then dipped down when everyone bailed on the high-end for the Quest,’ Kalin explained. ‘But on the other side of that, the user base for the Quest is enormous, and that’s what let us build something of the scale of The Light Brigade. We probably couldn’t have [made this game] if there was not that big an audience for it. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.’
‘[VR] is at a strange point right now where the gap between what the mobile headsets can do and what the high-end ones can do is kind of big. I think they can both coexist fairly healthily, and maybe that’s the best way to do it. To get it in front of many people [with mobile] but then also push the high-end. At the end of the day though, I think they’re both chasing the same objective, the PC and PSVR 2 are just ahead, time-wise, on what they’re getting.’
What everyone else is getting are games that focus on the quality of the experience, first and foremost. Games that draw on years – collectively decades, in the case of Funktronic – of VR game development expertise to deliver engaging games that actually make the whole process feel worthwhile.
The Light Brigade is one such experience.
VR games can be exhausting in a way that other games aren’t, so it’s rare to come across one that imbues players with the familiar roguelike sensation of ‘just one more run’. The Light Brigade has this in spades, and it seems like this is just the beginning.
‘In our minds, there’s still more Light Brigade,’ Kalin said. ‘With some of our other titles, like Fujii, when we got to the end [of development], we felt like it was done. The Light Brigade feels like a 1.0, but we’ve all got a pretty strong idea in our minds of what other things should and could be in the game. I think just the way we imagine this game in its entirety, it doesn’t end on day one.’