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The first thing Statik Institute of Retention gets right is that it leans into every single limitation of the PlayStation VR platform.
The last thing Statik gets right is that it turns those limitations into a bizarre, brilliant rumination on our relationship with computers and games—in a way that only brilliant sci-fi can pull off.
Along the way, the PlayStation VR game reveals its share of successes and failures, but through all of those, this VR debut from Swedish developer Tarsier Studios lands on PSVR as the platform’s most compelling sit-down experience yet.
I’m… the hand… in the box
You’ll start the game holding a PlayStation 4 controller, but within seconds of loading, you’ll feel like your hands are trapped in a box. It’s a crazy sensation, fueled by the game’s premise: you’re in an apparent research institute, stuck in a chair, and your arms and hands are tracked in your VR field of view (since the PSVR can track controllers).
Only, you don’t see your hands. Instead, you see a strange box covered in dials, buttons, wires, and other imagery, and your hands are wedged into it. Conveniently, your on-screen anatomy, including arms and wrists, matches up with how your real-life hands hold a controller. As you try to make sense of this institute, you realize that your every tap of the PlayStation 4 controller’s various parts—buttons, joysticks, triggers—makes different stuff happen on this box your hands are trapped inside. What does each button press do? The lone man in the room, a strange guy named Dr. Ingen, won’t tell you. You have to figure it out. Maybe your joystick will turn a dial, move a slider, or open and close a panel. Maybe your buttons will activate something on the box—or something in the room you’re in.
The objective in this first room, and the other rooms you encounter, is to figure out how to “solve” each room’s box. And that’s all you really do in Statik; you never get out of your chair to explore your world or do other things with your hands. Yet, that’s okay. Every box has its own strikingly different set of rules and logic, and, for the most part, Statik succeeds in revealing to players, in myriad interesting ways, a different logical language for each of its puzzles. Your button taps and joystick pushes will never do the same thing for multiple boxes. If you see, say, an alphabet-related puzzle once, you can safely expect to never see another alphabet-related puzzle again.
Each puzzle box includes a series of interlocking puzzles that ebb and flow between each other. Revealing a single one can set off a spoiler domino, so I’m staying mum here. The same even goes for explaining why the game is so well suited for VR. At first blush, I thought that Statik’s challenges could be neatly converted to a traditional television, where you must look at the TV while your game controller’s movements are tracked. But not too long into my puzzle-solving, I realized how important being able to hold your puzzle boxes right up to your face is, and I also found out how important the feeling of presence plays in solving some of the puzzles.
I will confirm that, about three times, I ran into painful breakdowns of game logic. A puzzle solution required a logical reach beyond what made sense inside of the game world. In one instance, I sat for 15 minutes, incredibly frustrated by a single dead-in-my-tracks obstacle. This kind of frustration only feels more intense when you’ve got a bulky VR headset on. If you worry that puzzle frustration will be too much to bear while trapped in VR, tread carefully. A few puzzle moments were cakewalks, as well, though I liked those as palate cleansers between the memorable toughies.
You gotta see this—and help me play it
In both good and bad news, Statik doesn’t wear out its welcome, because it’s quite short. Maybe I’m just a flippin’ genius, but I beat the nine-puzzle campaign within two hours. The game doesn’t look like it has been built for additional puzzle rooms fed by way of DLC, either.
While I’d love to be proven wrong, I had to settle on a very odd consolation prize: a substantial co-op mode that isn’t even advertised in the game. Knowing about this mode almost feels like being in a secret club because it requires connecting a smart device to your game via the PlayStation App—a thing I’d never even installed—and tapping the “second screen” feature without any prodding from the game.
I have no idea why Tarsier doesn’t tell players about this mode, because it is mindblowingly good. Think of the split-screen game Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes, then add Statik’s brand of clever puzzle solutions and out-of-nowhere control options, and you’ve got this hour-long campaign. Three of the solo campaign’s puzzles return here, but they’ve been remixed with more complicated steps, along with the required use of a friend’s second screen. All players will see the VR user’s view, thanks to PSVR’s “screen share” feature, but the smartphone user gets exclusive controls and views. The ways Tarsier involves this second screen are sneaky as heck, and they’re worth slogging through, even if the PlayStation App relies on some slightly wonky HTML5 for its trickery.
Along the way, at least, I got to know a very strange man named Dr. Ingen. Though, strangely, this character spent more time trying to get to know me. While solving puzzles, Ingen stands watch, scratching notes onto a notepad and loudly sipping coffee. (“I’m going to leave you, well, as alone as one can be in a room with someone else,” he quips before you sink your teeth into one puzzle.) Between rooms and at other important moments, Ingen interrogates and projects in strange ways, alternating between philosophical meanderings and seeming mistruths.
Ingen (blurred face and all) spends pretty much all of Statik at your side; you’re also ushered into his personal, private world a few times. The storytellers at Tarsier walk a fine line between making him equal parts relatable and confounding, and for the most part, they pull it off. By the end of your time with Dr. Ingen, some mysteries are revealed, others are left vague, and still others are left trapped in their own veritable puzzle boxes. I absolutely crave this kind of WTF-worthy sci-fi storytelling from a good puzzle video game, and Ingen’s subtle, macabre demeanor, buoyed by his strange relationship with a helpful, silent computer, results in a much more mature and intriguing puzzle antagonist than Portal’s more lively GladOS.
In spite of some “Jiminy, that wasn’t fun!” logic leaps and a brief runtime, I truly loved Statik. I always felt immersed in its world, thanks to the clever “trapped-hands” puzzle boxes and the “research institute” setting. Without spoiling the ending, I appreciated how those elements fit into the game’s conclusion. And, man, that co-op surprise.
I will long remember Statik as an example of immaculate, interactive art. It’s as valuable for its mechanics as its sheer experience. Statik is a must-buy game for any PSVR rig, right next to Resident Evil 7.
- Logical language is reset entirely from one puzzle to the next, and that means players encounter a lot of clever puzzles
- Tarsier designed this to PSVR’s limitations in brilliant fashion—and even makes the VR-specific bits essential to a few solutions
- Dr. Ingen won’t blow you away as a devious antagonist; he’s much more interesting than that
- Wait, hold on. There’s a hidden co-op mode?! Yes, and it’s the rich, tricky cherry on top of this package
- Shorter video games are acceptable, but, gosh, I wasn’t done enjoying this game after only 3 hours
- In those rare moments when logic flies out the window, frustration feels that much worse with a headset strapped on your face
Verdict: A PSVR must-buy.