Gravity Rush 2 – A Charming, Messy Whirlwind

This essay contains spoilers for Gravity Rush 2.

One of the great pleasures of playing video games is getting wrapped up in a rough little gem. I felt that spark back in 2013 when I picked up Gravity Rush for the PlayStation Vita. Using the Vita’s gyroscope function, I spun around in an office chair as Kat hurtled through skyscrapers and clock towers, dropped into a bottomless abyss, and spiraled up into green and purple skies.

Gravity Rush suffers from mundane problems — a finicky camera, imprecise and overly simplistic combat, a story too vague and sketchy to latch on to. But it buys itself a lot of goodwill in the thrill of bounding and hurtling instead of flying, the mystery of a world floating over a dark chasm, a romantic and lush orchestral soundtrack with jazz flourishes, and one of the most winsome protagonists in recent gaming memory. As with most things, charm and artistry smooth over a lot of bumps.

Gravity Rush 2 is a “bigger” game than the first in pretty much every way, with a world twice as large as the first, a lengthy multi-arc story, and more mechanics for fighting and gravity-shifting. Even the soundtrack sounds bolder, more varied, and more confident, like freeform jazz in comparison to the first game’s more measured effort. The Old World European architecture of the first game’s Hekseville is supplemented most memorably by the Southeast Asia-inspired Lei Colmosna, crammed with tropical trees, food stands, and rows of ramshackle apartments set against a turquoise sky. The game is not all urban spaces, and sometimes dips into abstract chaos, such as in the shambles of a deep-blue lost city lit only by hovering candles and bubbles of mercury, or clusters of shattered cubic islands stranded in apple-green space. These are beautiful places made memorable by a sense of the surreal. Bounding across these foreign landscapes with your gravity powers reveals a world that has been laid brick by brick, weathered by time and the sheer pull of gravity.

Unfortunately, in its effort to expand upon the gameplay of the first Gravity Rush, Gravity Rush 2 stumbles. The game’s greatest weakness is that it doesn’t understand how to tap into its strengths. Manipulating gravity and tossing yourself through cityscapes is the most fun this series has to offer, but many story and side missions place Kat’s powers in misguided scenarios that are not fun to play. I have read many complaints levelled against the stealth sections. Interestingly, the game’s insistence on these stealth sections shows, in a microcosm, the ways in which Gravity Rush 2’s strengths in one context become weaknesses in another.

Controlling Kat is a little slippery and imprecise. This is not innately a bad thing, and it actually works to the game’s benefit when moving about the world. Feeling a little out of control is what gives the game its unique thrill of falling instead of flying. It plays into Kat’s charm as a youthful superhero who throws herself into danger without full mastery of her power, reinforced by the joyous physicality of Kat rolling, stumbling, spinning, and flailing. The constant jostling required to make up for this imprecision pushes the player to use all of their tools to move and explore — slightly changing the direction of gravity, dropping and reentering gravity shift in order to change height, sliding across windowpanes to collect a row of pink crystals, switching to the new Lunar stance to spring up onto an apartment building before shooting out over the rooftops like a graceful missile. There is little tangible reward for mastering movement in Gravity Rush 2, but the blissful flow in linking your powers together to conquer the playground laid out before you is unparalleled. With no fall damage and no fail states, you are free to relish in your overwhelming powers. Both the Japanese and international titles of this series, “Gravity Daze” and “Gravity Rush” respectively, are right on the money. Imprecision is so often a flaw in games that to see it work in a game’s favor is not only fascinating, but liberating.

The stealth sections turn that imprecision from a strength into a banal weakness. Not only do the stealth segments slow down a game where the primary joy is in a freedom of movement, but the imprecise controls require you to push Kat back behind cover when her gangly run animation inevitably oversteps. The game also poorly defines the boundaries of enemy vision. Kat can leave the ground and walk on walls, so it makes sense to set up floating ships to intercept midair sneaking, but it is never clear how far they can see. The camera is positioned closely to Kat and it’s difficult to tell where these ships are unless you take the time to stop and careen the camera over various nooks and crannies. All of this prevents you from doing what the game does best, which is moving. One can imagine a different “stealth” scenario – such as breaking into a dark base at night, weaving through sweeping searchlight beams — forcing the player to skillfully use Kat’s gravity-shifting powers in a fresh context without sacrificing the fun in using them.

Combat is another area in which the game doesn’t fully coalesce. While many of the new additions to combat alleviate the pains of the first Gravity Rush and add some much-needed complexity, these changes feel more like they sidestep the combat’s conceptual problems rather than solve them. Much of the fighting requires you to stop in midair, position yourself for a gravity kick, and let loose. A common complaint of the first Gravity Rush was that missing your gravity kick required you to stop, spin the camera around, and try again — a momentum-killer. Gravity Rush 2 introduces the wormhole kick, which zeroes in on even the more skittish enemies, as well as more options for hurling objects at your foes so that you don’t have to deal with gravity kicks at all. But fundamentally, Gravity Rush’s combat demands a kind of stop-and-start precision that doesn’t play to its strengths, and it just isn’t that much fun to halt your momentum, aim at a single point, and hammer on a button until the job is done. This is highly apparent in the boss fights against flying humanoid enemies, which should be thrilling clashes with other powerful beings. Instead, you spend half of these fights spinning through space searching for your opponent, and the other half missing your gravity kicks. After struggling with the controls, the magic of these scenarios disappears.

And yet at other times, Gravity Rush 2’s sheer charm cuts through the mechanical humdrum. In one of the game’s many sidequests, Kat plays the heroine in the shooting of a new action film, and of course cannot use her powers. As you sprint across train tracks and dive out of the way of an oncoming train, or leap across rooftops while dodging punches from pursuing henchmen, Kat’s starstruck giddiness slowly gives way to bemused suspicion as her would-be employers make increasingly ridiculous demands. Because the restrictions on your powers don’t stop you from moving, and because the scenario is charming and creative, the moment endears rather than grates. Endearment is one of Gravity Rush 2’s other great strengths, as the game’s many sidequests drive home the sense that Kat isn’t just a neighborhood hero, but a pal to everyone. She won’t just beat up the monstrous Na’vi; she’ll help with a shift at a food truck, chuck newspapers for the local rag, and take a kid sightseeing with her gravity powers. People are quick to use Kat, sensing her naivete and a surfeit of good intentions. Her grumbling and skepticism is always amusing, and it never lasts very long before she cheers herself up, finds the silver lining, and changes someone’s mind — sometimes her own — about the world.

It is good that Kat is such a strong constant, because Gravity Rush 2’s story often falls short in capitalizing on its best ideas, resulting in a jumbled mishmash of undercooked story threads and themes. The game begins with Kat, stranded somewhere across spacetime by a gravity storm, being worked to the bone in a poor, nomadic mining colony run by the tough and unsentimental Lisa. This first arc of the game offers a promising start — Kat’s heroic acts from the first game are essentially wiped clean as she is thrust into a new world where no one knows her. The game portrays an unsubtle but earnest contrast between the lower world slums of Lei Elgona and the manicured mansion lawns of Lei Havina, and then moves all-too-briefly to an attack on capitalism. In the game’s only “choice,” the player must decide between delivering a package of supplies to Kat’s snooty employer in Lei Havina, or to the insurgents in Lei Elgona. I was sincerely surprised that Gravity Rush 2 had the guts to try this bent, and I wish it had truly committed to exploring what it was saying. This may have smacked of hypocrisy given that Gravity Rush 2 is a video game sold in a capitalist market, but as is, the game’s working-class heart beating beneath the surface is both obvious and underfed. Kat is usually hungry and out of money; in one memorable sequence, Kat is kicked out of her home, an abandoned sewer pipe below the surface of Hekseville, because — in a moment both amusing and wincingly bureaucratic — it is not zoned for residential use. She begins a tired flight around Hekseville and the surrounding districts, looking for a place to sleep, and finds that many of her would-be choices — a train station, the shadow of a water tanker — are already taken. The game’s sympathies for the downtrodden are apparent; its villains are all in positions of power, while their minions are tools, used and abused, who often realize the error of their ways or pay a tragic price.

Speaking of Hekseville, the game pivots into its second arc with a return to that lovely town, once again wiping the story slate clean. Once again, the ideas here are cool — a new hero has stepped up in Kat’s absence, leaving Kat and her good deeds forgotten, and the new mayor is under threat of assassination by terrorists. But the arc’s conflicts escalate too quickly and the story doesn’t draw its characters with enough detail, giving them rote motivations that operate only to move the story. By and large the game is skilled at giving the characters lively personalities, but fails to invest them with purpose unless it moves the story forward.

The exception is Raven, the taciturn, gravity-shifting foe-turned-friend from the first Gravity Rush. In one sidequest, Kat introduces Raven to the mining trade. To liven things, Kat challenges Raven to a series of friendly competitions to see who can mine the most in a limited time. Within the hour, the skilled Raven has become a mining savant, besting Kat in their bouts. Sensing Kat’s frustration, Raven throws the final, winner-takes-all competition. As the unwitting Kat celebrates, Raven explains to her gravity crow familiar that seeing Kat smile is much more important to her than winning. Raven accompanies Kat in several of the game’s main story sections, and the sweet, largely unspoken bond of trust between them is a pleasant addition to what is often a solo journey.

The game’s final arc addresses, as it must, the mysteries at the heart of the world of Gravity Rush. To do so, the game mirrors one of the most memorable sequences of the first Gravity Rush, the journey to the bottom of the world, here with a journey to the top. The sequence that plays out at the top of the world is interesting and even a little gutsy, less for its content and more for the lengths it goes to draw you into Kat’s headspace, to make you feel as trapped and bored as her. I found myself a little impressed by the clean, simple allegory waiting at the heart of the Gravity Rush mythos — a far-removed world paralyzed by privilege, numb to the suffering and the encroaching doom of those below. Once again, Gravity Rush 2’s sense of compassion for the suffering of those unseen is made welcomely explicit. Unfortunately, the themes are dampened by an ending series of improbable, bombastic events.

Gravity Rush 2’s story has no shortage of ambitious and interesting ideas. What the writing lacks is the observation to deepen its ideas, and a commitment to see its ideas through. By the end, despite the lush world, an excellent soundtrack by Kohei Tanaka that captures the romantic, whirling spirit of Gravity Rush, and one of the most endearing main characters in recent memory, I was ready to say goodbye.

But while I have spent a lot of time pointing out the flaws in Gravity Rush 2, I want to make sure I get the note just right — this game is a prism of powerful artistry and rough execution, but when the light shines through it at just the right angle, the light is dazzling. I can count on one hand the number of games where I’ve returned just to roam the world and do nothing in particular. I know that one day I will feel a certain craving — to slide through a busy marketplace in Lei Colmosna, to bound up the buildings in Pleajune and watch the Ferris wheel sparkle and turn in the purple glow, to sit on a park bench in Hekseville and watch the people go by in the green twilight. It is a special kind of praise, I think, to say that I will return, even if there is no reward but the joy in doing so.

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