VR Hack & Slash with Depth

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Until You Fall is something of an unexpected title for Schell Games. For a studio which has previously focused on education and puzzle based VR games, Until You Fall brings a surprisingly rich combat experience which successfully fuses meta-game elements in a way that no other VR title has yet managed.

Until You Fall Details:

Official Site

Developer: Schell Games
Available On: Steam (Vive, Rift)
Reviewed On: Rift S
Early Access Release Date: August 27th, 2019
Price: $20

Note: This game is in Early Access which means the developers have deemed it incomplete and likely to see changes over time. This review is an assessment of the game only at its current Early Access state and will not receive a numerical score.

Gameplay

Until You Fall is a procedurally generated rogue-lite dungeon crawler that’s all about melee combat. You’ll battle your way through a string of rooms populated with enemies of increasing difficulty. Eventually, inevitably, you’ll die. At the end of each round, you’ll respawn in a hub space where you can spend money you’ve earned on new weapons and weapon upgrades, making you stronger for your next bout.

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While enemy placements are randomized and get more challenging as you go on, the environments in which you fight are little more than a backdrop. | Image courtesy Schell Games

Schell Games has come up with a unique VR combat system that goes deeper than merely swinging at the right time. All enemies have both a shield and a health meter. The shield meter must be broken before you can do any damage to the enemies health. You can attack an any time, but your opponent can too, and you must block the attacks in the indicated position unless you want to lose a portion of your scarce and non-rejuvenating health.

Upon breaking an enemies shield bar, you’ll have a opportunity to execute a combo to deal big damage—so long as you can swing quickly and accurately in the prescribed directions. If you don’t manage to kill the enemy with your first combo, their shields will recharge and you’ll need to break them again.

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After breaking the shield, strike in the direction of the orange indicator to deal big health damage with a combo. |  Screenshot by Road to VR

In terms of enemies, you can expect zombie-like fodder who will die in a few strikes, capable knights who will strike you down if you get over-confident, hammer-wielding behemoths with attacks that must be dodged rather than blocked, and ranged ninja-like casters who will shoot ranged spells at you which you can slice out of the air. If you make it deep enough into the dungeon you’ll also come across some interesting mini-boss encounters.

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Image courtesy Schell Games

Between the incoming attacks you must block, and the openings presented by your opponent, Until You Fall establishes a clear combat pace which is essential to compensating for VR’s lack of force feedback.

Things get even more interesting in the way that weapons significantly contribute to your attack and defense strategy. Each weapon deals varying amounts of damage to shields vs. health, which means you’ll want to think carefully about which weapon you use against shields and which weapon you use against health. Each weapon also deals varying amounts of damage when it blocks incoming attacks, so you’ll want to think about which weapon you should be blocking with. On top of that, each weapon has a unique weight to it, which dictates how quickly you can move it through the air. That mace you’re holding might deal a lot of blocking damage, but can you move it quickly enough to block back to back strikes?

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Image courtesy Schell Games

What’s more, each weapon has a unique activated ability which significantly contributes to the way you’ll approach some encounters. For instance, there’s a dagger which can freeze enemies in place for a short time—you’ll want to use this to freeze one of the stronger knights while quickly finishing off some of the fodder. Another weapon has a shield ability which temporarily lets you absorb two strikes before your health is at risk, which gives you at least a little peace of mind before going up against two knights with only one hit point remaining.

But wait, there’s more! Each weapon also has temporary upgrade slots (which only last for the current round); at the end of each room you’ll get to pick from three rewards. There’s a handful of weapon upgrades that you could find here, some which will improve the weapon’s special ability, some which will allow the weapon one extra hit on a combo, etc. As you upgrade your weapons along the way, the choices you make will continue to influence your battle strategy.

The way that weapons influence the game’s combat creates a rich opportunity for players to experiment with different weapon combinations and combat strategies.

Aside from weapon upgrades, among those three rewards you pick from at the end of each room you may also find health, Aether (the game’s currency), or even an extra hit point. Because you only get one life and start the game with just three hit points, health is incredibly precious. But so are weapon upgrades. And even still, more Aether means more money to spend on new weapons and upgrades.

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Screenshot by Road to VR

At times, the choice can feel like a serious dilemma—do I snag one extra hit point, heal three of my four total hit points, upgrade my weapon, or bank a big chunk of Aether to come back stronger and fight another day? The fact that the choice is so often difficult shows clearly how engaging and impactful Until You Fall’s various meta-game systems really are.

Immersion

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Image courtesy Schell Games

Until You Fall lacks any real narrative beyond a setting and a bit of lore, but the combat really manages to stand on its own. The game offers smooth locomotion which is combined with dash attacks to close distance between enemies.

The game cuts interactions down to just the basics—weapons are ethereal, and you summon them into your hands by pulling the grip button (this has the nice benefit of making them impossible to lose track of)! Aside from grabbing item upgrades at the end of each round, there’s no objects within the game world itself that you’ll be interacting with.

Fighting is mostly done by squaring up with your opponent and facing them without locomoting around, and the use of your body to make big swings and block attacks by moving your weapons into specific positions is quite embodying.

Until You Fall keeps you alert and on your toes thanks to the scarcity of health and the depth of the combat system. You’ll be painfully aware when you have just one hit point left and your next battle is with a pair of knights. At times you’ll find yourself taking a deep breath to get a moment’s pause before the next challenging encounter.

Comfort

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Image courtesy Schell Games

Until You Fall is quite comfortable thanks to minimal reliance on artificial locomotion. Smooth movement is slow, and serves just to get you from one enemy to the next; the dash move, which serves as an opening attack or retreat, is perfectly comfortable in my experience.

The combat is quite physically engaging, and if you really get into it you’ll easily be able to break a sweat. The game encourages physicality by letting you deal more damage with harder swings (to an extent).

In the later stages of the game there are enemies with attacks that cannot be blocked but instead must be physically dodged by leaning from one side to another or ducking out of the way.

Conclusion

Until You Fall successfully fuses VR sword combat with meta-game elements in a way that no other VR title has yet managed. The game’s physical combat is underscored with a sense of deliberate strategy that can change from one encounter to the next. With deep and interesting combat, it’s almost a shame that the game isn’t more expansive in terms of its environments and overall scope, but fortunately what’s here feels really good and stands on its own. There looks to be plenty of room for expansion on top of the foundation Schell Games has lain; throughout Early Access the studio has an opportunity to add additional enemies, weapons, and upgrades to expand gameplay in interesting ways.


Note: This game is in Early Access which means the developers have deemed it incomplete and likely to see changes over time. This review is an assessment of the game only at its current Early Access state and will not receive a numerical score.



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