I checked my watch’s heart rate data immediately after coming off a session of Switchback VR. 126. That’s not exercise territory, but it’s the highest it got that day and far above the resting rate. When your heart rate rises like this, it feels completely different to physical activity. You know it’s not normal. In the enclosed VR environment combined with the kind of stomach churns you’d expect at a theme park, I genuinely had to take a break for fear I’d keel over. Switchback VR is simply too scary for me to take in anything other than short bursts.
Switchback VR, a follow-up to Supermassive Games’ Rush of Blood, is an on-rails lightgun-style shooter, this time set in the Dark Pictures universe. More importantly, it’s a game that revels in making players shit their pants (hyperbolically, but perhaps also in reality in some cases – I can’t speak to everyone’s experience). It’s a game that pulls your attention one way only to snap your neck back with a jump scare likely to cause whiplash and panic about if you bought stain remover in your latest shop.
You’ll ride a theme park cart on an actual rail through a couple of levels for each of the four games in the Dark Pictures series to date. While there are some events that can have an impact on what plays out in front of you, the cause-and-effect nature of the core games in this franchise has essentially been thrown out in favour of terror-induced panicked shooting at a variety of horrid enemies. An ungodly cast of horrors will come at you from all angles, leap from doors, erupt from pools of blood, and generally just do all they can to mess you up. Some even react to blinks, moving to new locations when you open your eyes again – an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
How this roller-coaster ride through the various themed zones fits with the overarching story that’s centered on a train/subway crash isn’t entirely clear, but it’s fair to say that the story isn’t the reason to play Switchback VR. In fact, even the links to Dark Pictures aren’t brilliant. The Curator, the only regular across all the games, appears here, but more like how you’d occasionally see the G-Man in Half-Life – mostly off to the side, in the background, not really doing much. Fans will certainly get more out of this than everyone else, but I wouldn’t call it an essential play as the core gameplay is so wildly different to what those games offer.
As a thrill-ride, Switchback VR succeeds. The tension is superb, the pace is excellent, and the shooting works as you’d expect. The sense of being on a roller-coaster is also top notch, to the point that certain steep track sequences left my stomach feeling rather vulnerable, made even more precarious by some scares that ripped right through me. I really don’t want to spoil things, but one scene that removes guns from the player and plays on the haptics in the headset was truly grotesque. I had to have a nice walk around my garden for five minutes after that.
It’s not all rosy in this prickly bush of an on-rails shooter. Despite the immersion on offer in Switchback VR I felt the overall presentation was under par for the platform and Supermassive. The studio has had some issues with quality over the years, but at its best the games have looked pretty marvelous. Switchback is rough in comparison, even by VR standards. The environments seem low-res with textures and detail that pop in, the enemies often aren’t animated well, the load times are atrocious for PS5 standards, and the general level of polish is such that I couldn’t help but feel this came out the oven too soon – a post-level screen showing your route on the rollercoaster is so ugly I could barely believe my eyes.
These criticisms aside, I’d still very much recommend Switchback VR if you think you can stomach it. I’ve played an awful lot of horror games over the years, and I can say without question that this is the most scared I’ve ever been. Of course, the “being there” nature of VR helps with this, but Supermassive deserves credit for relentlessly going for the throat. Put it this way: This isn’t the game to put on for your nan to show her what VR is all about. Not unless you want that inheritance a litter early.