Monday, September 26, 2016

Virginia Review (XONE)

I said in my Firewatch review that walking simulators need to wow you with their presentation or hook you with their story and characters (or better yet, do both) to be successful.  Virginia, the latest walking sim to hit Xbox One, absolutely nails the presentation and makes you instantly fall in love with it, but the story that is told over the next two-hours is less than satisfying.  It isn’t so much a story as it is an endless onslaught of symbolism and allegory that you’re meant to sort through and it all turns into a big mess.  The overall experience is still very enjoyable despite that, however, as things go off the rails in some crazy unexpected ways (it reminded me of INSIDE a bit …) and the presentation is absolutely incredible which make Virginia a flawed but still worthwhile title.  Read the rest of our Virginia review for all of the details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: 505 Games
  • Developer: Variable State
  • ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature
  • Genre: First-Person-Adventure
  • Pros:  Amazing presentation; fantastic soundtrack; really makes you think
  • Cons: Overloaded with nonsensical symbolism and allegory
  • MSRP: $10

Viginia is the story of two FBI agents sent to the town of Kingdom, Virginia to investigate the disappearance of a boy.  Your character is also secretly conducting an internal investigation of your partner as well, which as you can imagine, creates some tension between them as the game progresses.  And that’s pretty much it for the obvious story beats without spoiling the rest of it.  Just know this – Virginia gets pretty nuts in the second half.  Not quite INSIDE nuts, but pretty close.

In an interesting move, the story is presented with zero spoken dialogue and instead you have to interpret facial expressions of the characters and context clues to figure out what is going on.  That storytelling method wouldn’t be so bad on its own, but every second of Virginia is packed with so much symbolism and allegory that it is all a big unintelligible mess even before the last few chapters that really jump off the rails into utter chaos and confusion.

I can appreciate trying to tell a story in a new way and leaving things up to interpretation, but you can only go so far with that.  Symbolism and allegory work fine as part of a story, but not so well when they’re 100% of the story.  It’s like building a house on a foundation of quicksand and then also building the rest of the house with more quicksand.  Honestly, Virginia can be hard enough to tell what is going on when you’re just taking things at face value.  Adding in the fact that nothing is as it seems and everything means something else asks far too much of players.  And even if you recognize the symbolism and try to interpret it, there’s a good chance you’re probably wrong anyway.  I just don’t think this was the right way to tell the story here.

I think it is also important to note that you don’t have any influence over the story.  You might be an FBI investigator, but you don’t do any investigating.  You don’t make any choices.  The gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective but all you really do is walk around – or sometimes just move a cursor – until it changes to a circle that signifies something can be interacted with.  You don’t so much play Virginia as you’re just along for the ride to watch everything unfold.  This if par for the course for most walking simulators, but I wanted to make it clear.

While the story may be a wash, I actually love pretty much everything else about Virginia including the relatively limited gameplay.  I love the menu that looks like a town map made by the Kingdom, Virginia Chamber of Commerce.  I love the simple and stylized visuals.  I love the movie-like presentation with great cinematography, jump cuts, perspective changes, time leaps, and extensive editing to keep things moving along at a brisk pace.  I absolutely adore the incredible soundtrack that does such a wonderful job of setting the mood in every single scene.

Could Virginia have just been a movie instead of a videogame?  Yes, easily, but I’m glad it is a game.  Everything comes together to create a fantastic overall experience that is unlike anything else you’ll find on the Xbox One.  It may not have videogame-y traditional gameplay, which will cause much hand wringing and mental gymnastics from certain folks, but as an interactive experience with incredible presentation and a ton of polish, Virginia is simply outstanding and absolutely worth a look.  It definitely is held back a bit by the chosen storytelling method, but even if you don’t fully know what is going on the experience as a whole is still memorable and captivating and thrilling.  And at just $10 it is perfectly priced, too.  Virginia won’t be for everyone, no walking simulator is, but if you’re a fan of the genre or just curious and want to experience something new, it is highly recommended.  
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.