When the perennial argument about whether or not video games count as art rears its head, a few titles can be pointed to in order to say ‘Yes, they are.’ One of those is Ico, the PlayStation 2 classic created by Team Ico back in 2001, and Recluse Industries is seeking to bring those same artistic sensibilities to the PlayStation VR with Separation.
Separation perhaps best fits the oft-derided sub-genre of ‘walking simulator’, but with the advantage of virtual reality (VR) making the experience much more immersive. The developer itself refers to the gameplay as a “spiritual journey into epic desolation” and this feeling of barren emptiness strikes the player forcefully from the very start.
The scenery is beautiful, in a devastated, post-apocalyptic sort of way. Most of the landscape has a washed-out, watercolour look, giving it a distinctive identity that reflects the inspiration taken from Ico without being a slavish copy of that game’s style. Ancient ruins sit alongside high-tech scientific facilities in what should be a confusing mish-mash, but somehow works. In some areas, the graphics do not hold up as well as they should, as some lower-resolution textures have been sneakily used in places they developer did not expect the player to look at too closely.
Overall, Separation is aptly titled as the themes of the game tie to loneliness, loss and imprisonment. The game feels quite personal, sometimes in a slightly awkward way, like the player is looking at someone’s diary or therapy notes. The player wanders through the ruins, guided only by a distant voice. Their main tasks include lining up beams of light to join a series of crystals together, which involves some light puzzle mechanics, but nothing too taxing. The thrust of the game seems to be in the experience and atmosphere, instead of pure gameplay.
Where many players might find some measure of frustration is in travelling. The world of Separation feels appropriately vast, but it is also quite empty. Not a single other character is to be found, which, when enclosed in the VR headset, can really bring the sense of isolation home to the player. The game has collectables to be found, which does liven up the exploration somewhat, but the slow movement speed can make the job of walking to the next destination feel like a slog.
One of the best parts of Separation is the music, which is largely composed of soft synth and soaring electronica that punctuate the long stretches of bleak silence in a way that is quite uplifting, and helps power the player through any struggles.
For those who have difficulties with motion sickness, the default settings are designed with those people in mind, with a range of locomotion options to suit most play styles. However, even with a smaller turning circle and the fastest walking speed, the game still moves at a crawl—great for those with motion sickness issues, but a bit annoying for anyone else.
In length, Separation takes about three hours to finish (a little longer if attempting to find all the hidden collectables). This might have been fine for a VR title a year or two ago, but now it feels a bit short, especially when the slow pace feels to be dragging the experience out.
Separation is long on atmosphere and artistry, but short on content. The impression it provides is that something deep and meaningful is hidden in its beautifully realised world, but the glacial pacing and slightly frustrating controls seem intent on keeping it in the dark. Separation has things to say, but does not quite seem to know how to express them.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 with PlayStation VR.