It all comes together
With three decades of experience in the games industry (getting his start working on ZX Spectrum titles for Virgin as a teenager in the 1980s), Martin Wheeler may have produced his most evocative experience to date in Separation, a deeply personal, melancholic story accentuated by a desolate landscape. Doubling down on solo responsibilities, with Recluse Industries the name of his development company and Vector Lovers, his musical alter ego, providing the game’s ambient electronic soundtrack, Separation is fittingly the work of Wheeler, and Wheeler alone.
Starting in a darkened metal chamber with computer screens and glowing buttons, the pneumatic hiss of a door rising into the ceiling ahead of you screams classic sci-fi. However, the outside world soon challenges these initial impressions — snowy mountains surround you, and a stonework bridge lined with towering medieval statues leads toward a crumbling castle structure. Your quest may start with little more than a few cryptic lines asking you to “break a spell” and to “head towards the rising moon”, but what followed drew me in from beginning to end.
The overall goal of the game is to refract a power source’s beam of light around the island you find yourself on, and in doing so re-awaken the old machineries needed to enter the central castle. This is achieved with a number of crystal obelisks, eroded and dulled by time, which you can return to their correct positions and former glory by solving various circuitry and environmental puzzles. As you restore energy to each area of the world, elevators and fused doors will come back online to reveal the next step on your path, or open handy shortcuts between the different areas you’ve passed through. About halfway through the game you’ll find a boat, which then becomes indispensable for zipping to and from the surrounding islets. Whilst the main experience is absolutely linear, you won’t be led in the traditional style of signposting or hand-holding — the player is encouraged to prod at the open world around them to work out the core concepts of light and crystal manipulation, and where they should best head to continue their voyage.
With a setting so focused on the outdoors, the landscape graphics of Separation leave a lot to be desired, with flat textures and sharp polygon shapes contrasting with more detailed items and floors. There are also some wobbly visual effects, where faraway mountains would fluidly bend and twist in response to head movement. However, if you can get past the initially primitive graphics, this is made up for visually in a number of areas. The overall design and atmosphere is stellar, due to the aforementioned blend of fantasy-historic with industrial sci-fi. You’ll witness elegant spires and Brutalist bunkers, Cold War-era monuments and futuristic spectacles, along with expressionist sculptures planted on sandy beaches. There is a clear influence on the approach from Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, as it captures that same sense of wonder at exploring long abandoned architecture — perhaps for the first time in hundreds of years. It was a thematic comparison to Myst which shone through the most for me, with the surreal pairing of traditional and modern settings demanding that I see more and more, as each piece of guidance received led marginally further to solving a central, unspoken enigma.
As you progress, the environments become more allegorical as you begin to wrestle with the main themes of depression and isolation. One such encounter is a room filled with nothing but ringing pay-phones, the noise rising overwhelmingly until the player finally finds a handset which won’t hang up when it is reached. The combination of traditional and contemporary symbolism builds up a rich library of juxtaposed references which are called upon in turn. The resultant effect is one of uncertainty and intrigue, as the minimalist plot beats are punctuated by these moments of dreamy symbolism, leaving you with much to try and unpack on the way from one area to the next. Amidst all this, Separation has an interesting day-night cycle built into it, and watching the sun chase the moon from the sky when drifting along a shoreline adds a further meditative atmosphere to the experience (not to mention objects which can only be accessed when specific conditions of the in-game time are met).
Although the control options are limited to the PlayStation DualShock 4 controller, there are further comfort settings more overtly designed around the VR experience, such as movement speed, head bob, and turning increments. Smooth turning is not a feature on this title, but by using your gaze to make smaller directional changes (and I recommend playing standing or in a swivel chair to make the most of this), the travel starts to feel a lot more natural. Your VR gaze, which is expressed as a small glowing orb in the place of a reticule, sadly isn’t as confident when it comes to interacting with objects. Sections which required selecting a puzzle piece to move or a valve to turn proved unresponsive at times, forcing the player to back off and reapproach the item from a fractionally different angle in the hopes that it would be able to make the connection this time. Taken alone, it’s not a huge issue, but does stack up with some other technical issues, such as the sometimes overly militant collision detection which can cause you to get stuck when passing walls or walking near small stones, or the difficulty in indicating that you’re ready to hop back in your small boat.
As a walking simulator with puzzle elements, Separation is a lot stronger at the former than the latter. Exploration is key to maximising your enjoyment, as initially aimless wandering can lead to hidden areas and small details which demonstrate the thought and care which has gone into this game. Moreso, areas off the beaten track aren’t necessarily highlighted as being worth looking into, which makes early forays into the unknown even more rewarding. The puzzles are fine, but rarely require too much thought, as the flighty gaze controls sadly become the true challenge to overcome when dealing in precise movements.
Separation is not a perfect game, whether in graphics or gameplay, but it is undeniably one thing: complete. It evoked a sense of place more than any virtual reality game I’ve played in a long time, and presents a unique, self-contained experience. The desolate setting and anguished themes of regret and sorrow mesh sublimely with the VR format, until the physical act of donning and removing the headset becomes a further layer in the experience; the isolation central to Separation is reiterated by the player being mentally removed from the real world, and deposited in this surreal, barren one. Although Separation plays with more ideas and mechanics than we may be accustomed to for a walking simulator (and in many respects surpasses the mark), the excellent sense of setting and atmosphere is diminished by some faltering core mechanics.
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