Vanishing Grace Review
A story-driven puzzle game for the Oculus Quest, Vanishing Grace is about exactly that: a woman named Grace vanishing. Her hovercraft is found sometime later near a settlement called the Citadel, a mysterious place that wants to stop its inhabitants leaving and exploring. As her friend, Joel, you board her now-recovered hovercraft and set off on a mission to retrace her steps and find her. It’s rife with near-future dystopian undertones and delivers the story in an entirely hands-off manner, requiring you to pay attention and read between the lines. But how does it play?
Grace’s hovercraft is based around a VW Camper; there’s a deck out front with a deck chair and table to soak in the environments as you glide across them, there’s the main area with controls and maps and computers, and then there’s the bedroom and toilet area in the back. Things are just the way Grace left them, and there’s a real sense of taking your time to check things out and explore.
It wouldn’t be a rescue mission without the rescue, and to do that you need to fuel the hovercraft. In this near-future setting, this means no fossil fuels. The hovercraft runs on Magnetite, a magnetic mineral that pops out of the ground and floats around the front of the craft when you run out of fuel. To harvest it you use a terminal on the front deck, which has a boomerang that you must throw to smash the Magnetite out of the sky. Doing this charges a battery in the terminal. Once you’ve charged the battery sufficiently, you unplug it, take it inside to the cockpit, and plug it in.
Picking things up around the hovercraft lets you hear Grace — voiced by Cissy Jones of Life Is Strange and Firewatch fame, among others — narrate on the object. From time to time, you will also get calls on a handheld radio, and you can select how you respond by scrolling through dialogue options. These calls fill in the backstory and combined with information gleaned by combing through objects on the craft, you soon realise there is much more to this story than simply rescuing an old friend.
The gameplay loop is simple. You get the hovercraft flying, you walk around inside the hovercraft picking up objects and listening to the narration, something may go wrong with the hovercraft that needs fixing, then a cassette tape will appear somewhere. You put this cassette tape in an ‘80s style boombox and listen to Grace give more exposition about why she decided to take off and what she was doing out here. After this, you reach an area she visited and get off the ship to explore.
Vanishing Grace deliberately doesn’t tell you what to do. It’s a puzzle game in the most hardcore sense — it tells you the controls, then you’re on your own. So when I reached the first of these disembarkation areas, a gas station, I walked around for a long time trying to work out what to do. There was a half-empty box and a Polaroid camera beside it. Inside the box, I finally worked out, are the outlines of a few items scattered throughout the area. Find the items, put them in the box, get more exposition and get back on the ship to repeat the gameplay loop again. These areas are always small, and not particularly challenging or fun to explore, but it is more about the story: Grace visited these places, and there’s a certain charm to knowing your pal was here, in the middle of nowhere, evidenced by the items she left behind.
The puzzles come when you’re on the hovercraft. Sometimes something will go wrong, a pipe will burst for example, and you have to work out how to get the item that will fix it and then repair it yourself. Later, some particularly clever puzzles require you to use items and objects that were always there but have a hidden meaning, prompting those eureka moments with something that was in front of you the whole time. These puzzles are compelling, but they happen only a couple of times.
The puzzling and hovercraft scenes are changed up by the fact that your journey reflects that of Grace’s. As she gets further and further and the tapes you listen to get weirder and weirder, so does the hovercraft. Every time you get back on board after exploring, it has changed. Dark and gloomy nights, with objects laid out in different ways on the craft, mirrors what Grace was feeling or doing at the time, allowing you to live her experiences vicariously. A bout of paranoia has you gripping a flashlight and tentatively creeping around areas where you’ve been many times. But, like the puzzles, the good bits are few and far between and don’t happen often enough.
Accessibility is very good. You can navigate via teleportation or full locomotion, and you can play in sitting or standing mode; all of these settings are changeable in the options. The controls are simple: use the grip buttons to grip, left thumbstick to move, right thumbstick to look in different directions, and A and X to scroll through dialogue options and the trigger to confirm. Likewise, the graphics are also very good for a standalone Quest title. Text is legible, the environments are well detailed, and the lighting, weather and time of day all combine to create a great atmosphere.
In the two to three hours it’ll take to complete Vanishing Grace, however, you’ll find yourself wanting more. It’s evident that the team at Monte Perdido was going for a contemplative and meaningful experience, and the similarities to Firewatch are rampant, but the unguided gameplay comes off as either too obtuse or too simplistic, and the isolationist premise becomes boring quite quickly. When you reach the ending eager for closure, your entire raison d'être, you’re left with nothing but disappointment.
So much could have been done with Vanishing Grace’s world. The dystopian subtext of the Citadel is profoundly unique, the relationships between the different characters are fascinating, and the story and premise are truly compelling — it’s just not fleshed out or thought through enough. I mean, why don’t I know how the Magnetite powers the hovercraft? And why does it emerge from gopher holes? How did the world get like this? Where are we, exactly? There is so much untapped potential here, and it’s a shame.
Gameplay-wise, you repeat the same tasks in the same order and get the same payoff: listening to Grace’s narration. Which is great, but I wanted more. I wanted to visit the Citadel proper and actually get to meet some of the game’s characters, I wanted to complete more on-ground tasks and not just put items in a box, I wanted the game’s locations to be something explorable, rather than small areas devoid of life.
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