The launch line-up for Sony’s PlayStation VR has been incredibly strong and diverse, and arguably better than many console launches. Among the initial titles is Secret Sorcery’s Tethered, a god game, best described as a cross between Creatures and Settlers, and set in a fantasy world full of cute creatures for players to lord it over. Though it is not among the genres one might instantly associate with virtual reality, Tethered is one of PSVR’s best titles at the moment.
The visuals immediately capture attention through the palpable sense of power they convey. The player is literally sat in the clouds, staring down at floating islands teeming with life. Flocks of birds soar through the sky, butterflies flutter above flowers and mushroom patches, while rivers flow into waterfalls that cascade into the ether.
The player’s worshippers are the adorable Peeps, a happy race of wide eyed creatures that resemble a cross between a Lombax and a Mogwai. As their God—sorry, Spirit Guardian—it is the player’s job to keep them happy and alive. This goal is achieved by completing tasks and growing the settlement. Through this process, the spirit energy needed to restore balance to the world and complete the level is released. From their seat in the clouds, players direct Peeps to collect resources and construct buildings, so that the creatures can survive the night. When the sun goes down, monsters emerge from beneath the island, attempting to steal resources and savage the cute little worshippers. It is then up to the player to stop the vicious little blighters from doing either.
The main way players interact with the world is via Tethered’s titular gameplay mechanic. In order to use the weather to affect the landscape, or have a Peep perform a task, players look at one thing, and hold down the X button on the controller before releasing the button on the object they want the first thing to interact with. For example, to order a Peep to chop down some trees, players look at the Peep, hold X, look at the forest area they want chopped down, and release X. At this point a blue string of light connects the Peep to the forest, tethering them. The Peep will then clear the area until either no trees are left or the wood store is full.
As well as tethering Peeps to complete tasks, players can also tether the weather to different parts of the environment. For example, sunshine is used to hatch the Peep eggs that occasionally fall from the sky, or help crops in the fields to grow. Players can also combine different types of weather; for example, combining rain and sunshine forms a rainbow that cheers Peeps suffering from despair. Like people, Peeps need direction in their lives and food in their bellies or they succumb to sadness and suffer from despair: a terrible affliction that ultimately leads to them committing suicide by hurling themselves from the edge of the island. The little critters even stare up at the player with eyes that scream “this is your fault” before they do it. One way to ensure the Peeps do not succumb to despair is to keep them occupied. While any Peep is capable of performing any task, a number of different classes exist that make Peeps better at fighting, harvesting, prospecting, farming, or mining, with these skills becoming progressively more essential to player success. Despite this, the prevention of Peep suicide becomes impossible beyond a certain point. The player is forced to watch the gaming equivalent of a puppy kill itself because it did not have enough stone to mine or mushrooms to eat.
The despair mechanic is a mean-spirited one that shows a darker side to an otherwise twee game. Thinking about it though, a darkness lurks just beneath the otherwise saccharine surface of Tethered. As an example, if a player fails to hatch a Peep egg in time, it turns orange and a weird leech-like creature springs forth and slinks under the island. Kill it before it escapes and the Peeps will eat it. However, if it reaches the underside of the island, the slug will return as a monster hell-bent on killing the Peeps. This process suggests that the Peeps may be as monstrous as the things that kill them in the night; the happy little creatures are, in fact, cannibals.
Each level grants a series of unlocks and, as in many strategy games, it is up to the player to make effective use of resources to execute new abilities, from building barracks to train heroes, to upgrading mines to produce more ore. The upgrade trees can seem a little overwhelming at first, as plenty of freedom is offered from the outset, but the building and upgrading mechanics quickly become familiar.
The little touches are wondrously executed in VR. For instance, the instructional pop-ups that appear often ask the player to open a sub-menu, which sometimes appears behind the first, allowing players to peer around one menu screen to look at another, or lean down to look underneath it at their burgeoning settlement below. The player’s view is affected by their position as well, so they can lean in to peer at a particular item or Peep. The execution simply feels magical.
The music—provided by LittleBigPlanet composer Kenny Young—emphasises this sensation through some beautifully whimsical string-led pieces that shift into darker, more menacing tones as nights draw in. The audio cues for each interaction and event are also incredibly well thought out, and help players to focus their attention towards the arrival of another egg, a weather cloud’s timer running out, or the arrival of a monster, all without cluttering vision with an array of icons.
Ultimately, the key question that surrounds VR games such as Tethered is whether it needs virtual reality to work. The answer is simply that the title could have been released as a straight strategy game without the need for a headset. There is nothing in the game’s key dynamics or mechanics that could not have been achieved by playing with either a keyboard and mouse or controller. In doing so, however, Tethered would lose something utterly integral. Being part of the world brings out its sensory strengths, and their resulting emotional responses. In particular, playing with headphones on, with no other distractions, makes the player feel as though they have become the Spirit Guardian; a watchful protector to the Peeps, fully immersed in this magical world that they alone control the fate of.
Tethered is a delightful experience that shows the potential ways through which a wide range of genres could benefit from virtual reality, rather than simply first person experiences. It is a playful, twee, yet surprisingly dark god game that successfully places players wholly into its world. For PSVR owners, Tethered is essential.