You can judge Gorn on the endless trail of destruction it’s already caused. This impossibly bloody gladiator simulator has claimed scores of lights, screens, controllers and probably a finger or two. I’ve suffered a few days of painfully bruised thumbs myself and I surely won’t be getting the deposit back on my apartment any time soon.
You see, Gorn is often so obscenely entertaining that you’re willing to risk life, limb and earthly possession just to satisfy your thirst for virtual blood. Its hypnotic mix of ridiculously rubbery combat, physicality and extensively silly (and uncomfortably liberating) violence dares you to ignore your mortal confines.
Try as they might, your headset’s safety parameters are quickly disregarded as you enter a crazed fit of carnage in arena battles with meatheaded goons. You fight your way through a handful of levels in which inflated baddies flail weapons around with all the grace of a fish out of water. They’re the VR equivalent of cannon fodder, there to be battered and bludgeoned in cruel and amusing ways using a massive arsenal of weapons. We’re talking everything from swords and maces to nun-chucks and, uh, a pair of crab claws.
And that’s the heart of Gorn, exposed and still beating on the end of your blade. It’s a game of violent experimentation, discovering what twisted new means of punishment you can dish out with each passing weapon. Not everything is an effective killing machine but, more importantly, they’re mostly a heck of a lot of fun to use. A double-bladed sword lets you act out your Darth Maul dreams while a pair of glove-mounted claws make for the most appropriately bloody Wolverine VR game yet. The game keeps you eager to see what tool of destruction you’ll get next, even if there’s a shameful amount of satisfaction in just using your fists or the crunch of swinging a rock.
Gorn is a physics-driven game and its combat reflects that. Swords, spears and axes aren’t rigid like their real-world counterparts but instead twist and bend as if they were made from rubber. A two-handed sledgehammer will flop from one side to the other as you wield it, for example. It might not deliver the crushing impact you’d expect but it does neatly fill in that gap between force and feedback in VR. Until we have true haptics, Gorn’s concessions give it more heft and authenticity than a lot of other combat systems.
Crucially, it turns every battle into a physics funhouse. Gorn offers a seemingly unending supply of hilariously horrific kills and happy accidents. Whether it’s flinging a mace into an enemy’s chin and watching them fly into a pit of spikes or gasping in amused disgust as eyeballs are removed from their sockets, it feels impossible to desensitize yourself from Gorn. Inevitably, it’s filled with bugs, but they’re almost always part of the fun.
Somewhat circumventing the moral minefield is the game’s inherent silliness. Gorn is not a game for the squeamish; you can lop off arms, rip heads off of torsos, hit enemies so hard they burst, impale them on spikes and remove their hearts (should I go on?). In a moment of morbid curiosity, I discovered you can even roll dislodged eyes around on the floor by pushing them with a sword. It is, quite frankly, disgusting, but the comically wide-eyed and impossibly ballooned figures of your single-minded foes give it a slapstick edge. They also don’t really react to any of the horrors you inflict on them. It’s as much a sadistic Saturday morning cartoon as it is a murder simulator. You could argue it’s irresponsible but I think that, in this case, that’d be taking it a little too seriously.
If anything, it risks instead being too superficial, but there is method to the madness here. Gorn is no slouch. It is, for starters, utterly exhausting. The game’s core locomotion mechanic, which has you grabbing the world and pulling yourself through it with your arms, rightly makes you work for your murder. If you get hit even once you’ll have to quickly kill another enemy or you’ll succumb to your wounds. This gives combat a welcome sense of danger and, believe it or not, strategy. The game’s extensive dismemberment actually becomes a tool. Pesky archer firing shots at you? Cut off a hand and he’ll be useless. Being hounded by a swordsman? Take a leg away and you can focus on other threats before returning to finish him off. In some senses, it’s a rather twisted game of chess.
Developer Free Lives has finally given the campaign some structure too. Rather than simply surviving randomized levels, you’ll now be pitted in wave-based scraps that culminate in often hilarious boss fights. It’s here where the game’s tone is most apparent; one villain throws viciously crazed badgers at you while the heavily armored Achilles is taken down with a shot to his… well, y’know. Gorn does have genuinely excellent combat mechanics, but it’s never afraid to trade them in for a joke.
And yet, for all the laughs, you can’t help but wish there was something a little meatier here. You can see through Gorn’s handful of levels in a few hours. The only thing to keep you coming back is your own lust for senseless destruction. You can customize your game modes and there is a local multiplayer element, but it’s not enough to pull you back in the way Beat Saber might. Greedy as it may seem after years of updates, I’d have loved to have seen more bosses to fight and weapons to wield.
Gorn is the product of two years of tireless Early Access development. What started out as a laughable bit of nonsense has gradually evolved into, well, a much more polished and expansive bit of nonsense. It’s a toybox filled with razor-sharp playthings and endless action figures to use them on, upheld by a combat system that bends reality to eschew awkwardness. Ultimately it might just be a glorified tech demo for VR combat, but it’s one that will produce enough laughs and gasps that you’ll be willing to risk bodily harm playing it. For better or worse, that’s a potent example of immersion.