Tranquility can be a difficult thing to find these days; an elusive state that’s sometimes just an ill-timed social messaging alert or intrusive thought away from being reached. So it’s great that we can retreat from everyday hectic challenges into games, especially those operating at a much slower, gentler pace and Éric Chahi’s latest – Paper Beast – is one such animal.
A welcome PSVR exclusive and playable with either pad or Move controllers, you’re a nebulous entity inside a virtual world within a virtual world (just as in Super Hot. VR game designers must be big fans of the film Inception…) with a mission to crack a complex algorithm.
I can almost feel you drifting away, but fret ye not: the framing device is just an entry point into a gorgeous, unique universe. There are vast geometric structures and primary-coloured plains, populated with jewel-studded papercraft animals, in this machine, and these creatures represent parts of the equation you need to solve. There’s no mathematics here, though. Instead, you manipulate the wildlife and the environment to complete riddles on your way to algebraic enlightenment.
Paper Beast has a built-from-scratch physics engine that allows all sorts of emergent play, from dangling ‘food’ (balled-up sheets of paper) to entice dog-like fauna into a specific area, to dragging predators away from prey, or digging trenches and planting seeds. Each environmental puzzle builds on the last so that, given time, you’re moving in perfect sync with the designer’s intentions.
Controls operate like a fishing rod, with a line tethered to your controller. Simply hook an object, swing it around – with all the associated weight you’d expect for objects of their size – and place where required. Rocks and plants are also there to be configured and weather, heat, liquid and terrain are all in the mix when it comes to conundrums and their solutions.
Another pleasant quirk is that there are no fail states in Paper Beast. Any object you require to complete a mission will either be indestructible, subtly re-spawn or, if sentient, wander back into the playfield if cast too far away. Autonomy plays a big part in the gameplay, and understanding how best to utilise a given animal’s needs, territoriality and routines is crucial to progress. Fascinating, too.
Once you click with this the rhythm of the game, its grace and subtle but atmospheric score, seeps into you and the pressure drifts away. That doesn’t mean it’s simplistic, though, and you’ll find yourself balked by some of the more oblique setups. Quiet reflection will almost always reveal the answer, but an optional hint system might have been a helpful inclusion in case of total brain-lock. Lateral thinking is not my forte and the unfortunate, but blessedly few, dumber than I am might get discouraged and turn to YouTube for aid.
Paper Beast isn’t the most sizable game in the world, clocking-in at six hours or thereabouts, but there’s more than enough here to justify spending your hard-earned dollar on its charms. Mechanically speaking, it may peak a little early with few outright surprises in the late game, but nonetheless builds to an ambiguous but emotive conclusion.
Some tiny design flaws and minor technical hitches aside, Paper Beast weaves its ethereal spirit and physical practicality together in a seamless way that must have been born out of endless iteration and furious creativity; devs like gliding swans, paddling frantically beneath the surface. The end result is a fascinating, chimeric puzzle-adventure… a rare beast, and a beautiful thing that deserves to be treasured.