Proteus is more comparable to an out-of-body experience than to any game. The closest you’re going to get is probably Minecraft due to its basic ‘8 bit’ look. But you’ll find no crafting or creepers here.
Based on the PC version, Proteus provides a dreamscape through audio-visual exploration and discovery. I think it was quite smart of the developers to have taken the game to the Vita and allow playability away from the computer. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to relax at a desk and it most definitely doesn’t work for me. I also felt the replay value on the Vita was good, because every time the world loaded, it generated a new random island. There is also a setting to generate your island based on your location.
The game is made to put you in a trance so surreal, you’d think there was no real point in playing it; but you’d be very wrong in thinking so. This game is full of little treats designed to capture your mind and leave you in a weird limbo between craving for something to jump out at you, and for everything to just leave you alone so you could just enjoy the meditational beauty of your surroundings.
But I kept having to ask myself: What the hell am I doing with my life? Why does this game not make any sense? What is a Proteus and why does this even exist? Turns out the name comes from a section of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, meaning ‘time alone’, equating to paradise. The name fits the game well and I guess time alone isn’t a bad thing if you have stuff to do. But you’re very much stranded looking for meaning on a very pretty island.
This literature theme even continues through the trophy list. Yes, believe it or not this game is packed with trophies, 2 of them hidden and I don’t think you’ll ever be able to get them all without a guide. The descriptions of the trophies are all excerpts from sections of famous works. William Blake’s piece ‘To See a World in a Grain of Sand’ is a silver, and ‘The Dao De Jing’ by philosophical writer Lao Tzu will be the first bronze you pick up if you manage to finish the game.
The first thing Proteus does is spit you out on water. You’re walking on water for the first 10 or so meters. Then, naturally you fiddle around and figure out what every button does, and to your dismay, you’ve pushed circle for too long and the screen blacks out with a weird massive eyelid closing over your screen and you’re back at the beginning. On your second run, you’re cautious about what just happened, so you open the options menu to look at the controls and find commands like “Touchscreen: ???”, and just one word, “Explore”. You walk with the left stick and look with the right. You can also sit and watch the world go by with x, and if you really want to get crazy, you can slide your finger down the rear touchpad to speed up or slow down time.
Walking around a frozen-in-time, 8-bit water droplet was pretty cool though, and the audio seemed to be very in-tune with where I went and what I was doing. I’m a sucker for dynamic audio like this and frankly without it, this game wouldn’t work. The small notes of sound released from items around you, like the bizarre headstone things and the frogs that leap out in front of you, somehow work together and form a harmonious track that helps fill the void of finding an objective. After 10 or so minutes, I finally started to understand what I needed to do, and almost instantly changed my perspective of this game.
The changing of seasons in Proteus was a standout moment for me. Even though you’d think pixel-art might be mundane and the by-product of glitches, Proteus manages to create a fluid motion with stunning cloud formations and vibrant colour patterns. And without spoiling the ending, your eyes are in for a climatic visual feast as beautifully ambiguous as the rest of the game.
At NZD$24.95, I don’t think the gameplay matches the price. These days, games are weighed up by playable hours, and Proteus clocks in at just under an hour, although you do get a different experience each time you play it. There’s a bit of a bonus thrown in as the game comes with Cross-Buy, which gives you the PS3 version also. Thankfully Proteus on the PS3 is up-scaled, but it still offers about the same play experience. Both versions look fantastic in their own right and this is one of the best looking games on the Vita to date. Even if at first glance, it looks like a Lego game from the 90’s.
Whatever you do, don’t just play the first 10 minutes of it. You’ll be utterly disappointed and will immediately wish you purchased another game. The biggest issue many will face is that there is no clear objective, and not a lot else to do other than walk around. But if you do play this, you’re going to need to stay committed - otherwise you’ll end up throwing your Vita against the wall.