If Antarctica’s subzero temperatures and falling ice don’t kill you, then perhaps its native life will. No, I’m not talking about penguins; Edge of Nowhere’s vision for the frozen continent is far more sinister, with tentacled grotesqueries torn from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and shoved right into your face thanks to Oculus Rift. Insomniac’s survival-horror game doesn’t redefine the genre, but it provides another fascinating – and unsettling – glimpse at VR’s potential.
Victor Howard is part of a rescue team trying to find out what happened to a missing expedition that was exploring Antarctica’s dark secrets. After his plane crashes, Howard’s only hope is to meet up with that crew, which includes his romantic partner (and fellow explorer), Ava Thorne. Armed only with his wits, Howard catches sight of the crew’s trail and plods ahead.
Considering the state of the trail, it’s a wonder that crew managed to get anywhere. Rope bridges collapse unpredictably, and when Howard scales icy walls – thanks to scavenged climbing gear – the surface cracks and shatters beneath his axes. I’ve crossed more than my share of collapsing video game bridges over the years, but experiencing it in VR does breathe some fresh air into an otherwise stale mechanic. Drops of a few hundred feet aren’t uncommon, and looking down from a precipice is exhilarating. The level geometry is simple (sometimes to a fault), but the sense of scale that it brings is impressive.
Players don’t experience the hazards through Howard’s frosted goggles. Instead, they watch the action from a slight distance, as a third-person observer. Whether I was swiveling my head around to get a good look at the desolate expanse among the glaciers or instinctively tucking my neck in while navigating cave tunnels, Edge of Nowhere’s atmosphere definitely sucked me in.
While battling the elements with some basic platforming and climbing puzzles, Howard soon discovers he’s not alone. Something terrible is under the ice and in the caves deep within Antarctica, and it’s been disturbed. The menagerie of foes is limited but effective, ranging from creepy St. Bernard-sized fleas that can be smashed with a single chop to monsters that might have trouble squeezing into a football stadium. You acquire a shotgun, but taking on foes head on isn’t always a bright idea – even though blasting them apart is easy and satisfying. They’re attracted to sound, and ammunition is limited. Instead, the smartest course of action is to throw rocks to distract the creatures and hopefully sneak past unnoticed.
That’s easier said than done, thanks to the way stealth is handled. Most of the creatures rely on hearing, so rocks are invaluable. Monsters have a knack for getting randomly alerted, however, which gets frustrating. That makes navigating the stealth in some of the cave networks tricky, since it’s hard to get a solid sense of your position in the world; you can’t simply rotate the camera. You’re meant to take your time and carefully watch your enemies, but unless you plan on playing on a barstool and spinning like a top, keeping track of everything can be a chore.
Howard uncovers journals along the way, which provide some backstory on what exactly happened during the previous expedition. Or, at least some form of backstory. Since this is Lovecraft-style horror (complete with nods to Miskatonic University), sanity is pliable. Players are thrust into a variety of insane set pieces, which made me question just about everything that had been shown to me. One moment you’re trudging in the snow, the next you’re in a lecture hall. Why are there balloons on the ceiling of this cave? Was there really an expedition? What happened to Ava before Antarctica? You can probably predict where things are going before the climax, but getting there is a weird and satisfying ride.
Insomniac does a great job of taking advantage of the sense of presence VR technology can bring, with sequences that put disturbing images up close for examination. The experience isn’t about jump scares; it’s about making you dread what’s ahead, rather than trying to make you soak your seat. It’s not revolutionary, but Edge of Nowhere is a rewarding way to spend an afternoon. Just be sure to crank the AC.