This is not an action game. How We Soar definitely fits more into the "experience" category. That's not exactly a bad thing. You’re gifted a beautiful, soothing, virtual reality adventure that gently tells you a tale while you relax.
How We Soar is possibly one of the most calming games I have ever played. It's up there with Journey and Flower. Much like both of them, it's the artistry that drives it, rather than mechanics. You’re tasked with helping a struggling author rediscover the tales he’s written. If there weren’t a story, I honestly don’t think you’d notice the difference. Especially since the first level is mostly spent wondering what exactly you’re doing.
Instead of the story driving you, it’s the need to explore the beautiful world around you – although calling it such doesn’t aptly describe it. Seeing as the game is based around an author and his writing, it’s not surprising to see the papercraft that makes up the world. Each world is created from a different theme; medieval fantasy, or a modern farm, it really doesn’t matter because I can tell you now, it will be well made and offer an environment you won’t soon get sick of flying around.
Gameplay is basic, and relies on the fact that you’ll want to explore these paper craft worlds. You start out on the back of a giant phoenix-dragon thing. Once you reorient yourself and get over the fact that you’re riding a giant bird (because it is cool, it is super cool) you’re ready to start your first task.
Every levels starts by flying through a set of rings and then hunting down an orb of the corresponding colour. Once you've collected all of the coloured orbs a paper bird is unleashed and you have to catch it. It can either be a charming game of tag that you have to work for, or a downright horrible race where you’ve got no chance of ever catching up.
Most of that has to do with the rubbish turning and speed. I found myself constantly holding down the speed up button because it was impossible to catch anything otherwise. Compared to other flight games, How We Soar lacked any of the quick and graceful maneuvering that makes you feel like you're free in the air. The best mechanic by far, however, is the fact that you can whip your controller to move the reigns on your phoenix and make it move faster.
There are four different colours of orbs that you have to collect in a level. Once you've got them and caught the corresponding birds you’ll have completely built up the level around you so you can see the story you’ve helped rediscover. This unlocks a giant book that leads you to the next challenge.
The artistry is fantastic and more “videogames are art” proof always makes me happy. That said, I couldn’t spend more than a level or two in How We Soar. With the lack of new things to do I found myself calm, but a little bored. I personally like challenging games, so it wasn’t quite my cup of tea.
How We Soar is a technical marvel however. It does all the VR things right. Details draw in when you get close to an object. It’s done in a very natural way, and you feel as if you’ve conjured these details rather than had the game render them. Crashing leads you through a paper tunnel that will have you appear somewhere else in a very fluid way with no jarring effects. The in-game controller tracks yours perfectly, and looking around while flying only caused me minor vertigo. Slight head movements were fine, but I would not recommend playing for long periods. The only thing I wanted was for the game to take advantage of the DualShock 4’s motion sensor for steering. I mean, I tried to use the controller to steer anyway, even while using the thumbstick.
More than anything, How We Soar shows where virtual reality is heading. It offers us a look into what can be made and how well it can be implemented. Who doesn’t want a VR game where you ride a dragon and raze towns with fire? Aside from the lack of plot, there is very little that How We Soar does wrong. Unfortunately, for me that is a huge downside. I love an artistic game, but I need to feel that I am accomplishing something. Still, How We Soar does a lot of things very well, and it should be praised for that.
Bronwyn received a digital copy of How We Soar from developer Penny Black Studios for review.