Paper Beast VR Review

March 25, 2020
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The name might already give it away, but Paper Beast is an odd creature. By the time you start the main experience you’ve already been presented with a feedback form about your upcoming VR trip, and then bounced around inside a 3D media player visualiser. Far from a straightforward adventure, Paper Beast creates worlds within worlds, and wants you to be aware of the artificiality of it at all times. It’s an interesting proposition, as you may have come to expect from developer Pixel Reef’s Éric Chahi, creator of cult titles From Dust and Another World.

The skies are mesmerising in VR.

You begin the game properly in a vast desert, having been awoken by a blaring tape player at your feet. This world is populated with familiar, yet alien, creatures — seemingly created from rags, bones, metal, and the paper that gives us our title. Dogs, deer, wolves, and crabs all appear; their essence is there, but characteristics are slightly askew, like synthetic approximations of half-remembered species. Without an initial motive other than intrigue, you’ll follow different beasts in turn as you travel across the land (assuming they load — I twice had to restart the game to force an area to populate). Most of the puzzles to be solved are based around opening up pathways, or creating a route for these animals to cross. There’s an interesting thought being had here regarding the position of the player in the virtual world, as freeing an animal from a tangle of tentacles isn’t the selfless act you might think; each animal guide is only kept around for their usefulness to you, and once you reach the end of each area you’ll continue your journey without a second look back at your single-serving friend.

The designs of the animals quickly branch out from recognisable Earth analogues and into more evocative realms, like the intestinal, fronded worms which can be moved to suck sand through the length of its body to redistribute it, creating new terrain or water dams. The poster child of the game is an eldritch monstrosity of bone and cartilage, which draws comparison to Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest series of kinetic sculptures: towering eerily above you, it’s a suitable totem for the game — and one I wished had been featured more prominently. The skies are something else though: delightful, tangled whirls of pastel ribbons and floating numbers, which unfortunately are just pretty enough to show up the terrain’s blocky angles. 

Just some of the unusual creatures you’ll befriend in your journey.

Your controller (both Move and DualShock controllers are supported here, and handle similarly well with teleportation and grabbing objects alike) actually appears in the world, rather than a simple reticule or hands of your own. To pick up an object you cast out a thin beam from your handset, which has the flexible properties of a fishing rod when attached to something. The controller is a bit haphazard if you need to choose between multiple clustered objects, but once picked up, an item can then be flung or positioned as you wish by extending or retracting your beam. Idle interactivity and experimentation is silently encouraged as you go, with lighter animals ragdolling appealingly if you pick them up, or you can grow the size of a clump of mud by rolling it back and forth in the sand like a snowball. There’s also plenty of simple fun to be had playing with the AI, as different beasts are attracted to different objects — flailing a gourd around your head will see a pack of crabs following your every move.

And that’s the thing; the world of Paper Beast, this artificial and data-driven exercise in imagined evolution, is made with some very joined-up thinking. Most beasts have observable diets, habits, and herd movements, which are mostly consistent throughout the experience. While some of these characteristics are drawn upon to solve puzzles, the best way to see them in action is to boot up the sandbox mode from the main menu. Here, outside of the main quest, you can play god in a little world of your own. Throw around some earth, water, animals, and see how they interact. You may see your creation remain in the harmony you envisioned for it  — or a world overrun with predators if you didn’t get the balance right. That said, you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than an hour kicking around in this mode, as there’s nothing new that hasn’t already been explored on a larger scale, such as in Chahi’s own From Dust.

Create a small world of your own in the sandbox mode.

The deeper meaning of Paper Beast is harder still to get involved with. Press releases and additional online content have referred to big data as a main theme of the game, but in practice this is harder to decode. Sure, clouds are shaped like numbers, there’s an elephant here and there, and you get asked some personal questions at the start, but it all ultimately feels like shaky window dressing designed to elevate the game; I just didn’t know what the game wanted to say on the subject. Surreal turns in the main journey are shoehorned in, and as a result often feel out of context. In terms of a digital creation story there’s more weight, and the scripted spectacles are visually exciting in VR, but Paper Beast has more to show you than it is able to coherently tie together to tell you about.

Paper Beast has some gorgeous artwork, features original puzzle mechanics, and even puts a spin on the interface with the pliable energy grabber. So what gives? There are great aspects of an experience here, but they lack the focus to really knock this title out of the park. For every empty sideshow attraction the developers have crammed in for you to play around with, less time has been spent on making the main game everything it could be. Clocking in at around five hours to see everything Paper Beast has to offer, you definitely won’t regret the time you spend with the game, but perhaps instead that it couldn’t live up to the sum of its best parts.

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Wilfully frenetic, Paper Beast is by turns highly detailed and oddly lacking. Despite this unevenness, this is a game with plenty to show off.
Matt Jordan

I first met all three generations of the Blazkowicz family in the 1990s, and we stay in touch to this day. A fan of trippy comics, genre-heavy storytelling, and the IMDB trivia pages. I’ve never beaten that level where you ride an ostrich in Sega’s The Lion King game.