“Why don’t they make games like Descent anymore” is the perpetual whinge of a small but vocal community of gamers who are immune to motion sickness. Well, those gamers are in for a treat, because Retrovirus by Cadenza Interactive is here, and it offers fully 360 degrees of control in a 3D, floating sick-bucket of brilliance. If you’ve got the stomach for this kind of title (which our original reviewer didn’t), it might be exactly the type of game you’ve been waiting for.
This gem of a game is a shooter with six degrees of freedom of movement. You float through a digital computer world, flying, spinning and rotating as you battle a computer virus. You are a virtual agent – an antivirus program that battles to free the computer system from an invader that appears as pustulating, organic infection inside the computer world.
It’s surprising how natural playing Retrovirus feels. The controls are simple, and the game uses basic FPS mouse and keyboard interaction with the simple addition of rolling using the Q and E keys. You feel like you’re playing an FPS game, albeit one where you are floating in zero gravity, and the game uses momentum to make you feel weighty, but its not something you notice that much while you play. While games like Descent and Forsaken always made the navigation through their 3D worlds feel like a completely different genre of game, Retrovirus feels like an FPS with a few tweaks. It’s a spin on the genre, and as such its not hard to play or to learn.
This may be because the game is clever about how it aligns you with the world. It auto-corrects itself a lot and while its hard to explain this in text, it’s completely obvious when you’re playing the game. Essentially, the game chooses up and down for you, and while you can roll left or right, it generally auto-corrects you to the best alignment. Again, this is hard to explain, but in practice it means that the game loses a tiny bit of complexity but in return gains a lot of accessibility.
That’s not to say that Retrovirus looks formulaic or like a normal FPS. In motion it looks great – though still very disorientating – and it will still absolutely destroy anyone who gets motion sickness when playing FPS’s. You turn around and spin as you travel through tubes and corridors and the experience must be like traveling through a human colon.
The games setting and story seem straightforward at first, but Cadenza Interactive do some weird and interesting things with the setting. The intriguing introduction see you looking out from a computer monitor at the world outside. It’s illogical (why is the virus checking software (me) inside the monitor?), but it works. It’s a great set up, and floating around inside the electronics of the computer, looking out at the other side of the famous Windows green hills and blue skies, you wonder what will happen next. You quickly discover, as a purple creature (the virus) swims about in the outside world, before phasing through the computer screen as warnings sound and everything goes to shit. It’s your job to forget about how illogical this all is and set out after the virus to stop it.
The game world is brilliantly weird, being a mix of Tron-style glowing computer logic and actual physical PC components. You fly past IDE cables and little floating energy folders that are supposed to represent emails, wondering what kind of crazy kind of computer this is. It’s a mishmash of metaphorical and literal things you would find inside a computer, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The game won’t blow you away visually, but it looks very nice and the imagination of the designers is the real high point. At one moment I was looking out through a case fan at the world beyond. It made me glance suspiciously at my own computer, wondering if a little program was looking back at me through the blades of the fan. (It wasn’t obviously, and I didn’t really think it. I’m just being fanciful).
Retrovirus has a remarkably sedate pacing for the type of game it is. You might expect it to be a fast and loose action game, but in truth it always rewards a measured, careful approach. You have a pretty standard selection of FPS style weapons, but whether you’re firing your red shotgun or blue pistol-thing, your always best to slowly move into an area before retreating and picking off enemies a few at a time. The game only becomes very challenging when you are being attacked from enemies in all directions, and that only happens when you get too bold and move too fast.
The weapons are great fun to use and the game boasts a comprehensive upgrade system, and most of your weapons can be improved significantly with the “memory” you collect, which is the games currency. The weapons are named after the functions of virus checking software too, which is neat.
There’s a laconic satisfaction to be had from Retrovirus. Most of the time you’re zapping weird growths from inside a computer, and it’s strangely compelling. Like popping bubble wrap – or maybe, more disgustingly, like picking scabs – there’s something weirdly satisfying about cleaning up these infections. The virus is always a bright purple colour, and you find yourself slightly disgusted when you reach an area that is badly infected. You feel compelled to clean everything up to a sparkling chrome shine again, and the way that the virus is animated to die off and fade as you blast it is key to the games appeal.
If you add to this a moody, atmospheric and low-fi soundtrack, you have one strangely compelling game that you can lose hours in. The only time you might feel the urge to boot yourself out the game is when you get lost, and sadly this will happen. The developers have included all sorts of tools to help prevent this, including floating arrows that direct you, but there are times when your task is to find a hidden card to open a door, and these are not high points in a game that otherwise plays as smoothly as silk.
And while Retrovirus is compelling, it’s never truly exciting. The scenery change subtly as you go through levels like Email or the CPU, but there’s not that much visual variety, and not a lot of spectacle either. The game looks nice, but its the same kind of nice from start to finish. With nothing to shake you out of a sleepy reverie, it’s a game you’ll gladly play while its on, but you’re unlikely to crave between play sessions. Meanwhile, the challenge race modes included to round out the package are dull and repetitive and the multiplayer mode is an imprecise, frustrating nightmare – and that’s in the unlikely event that you can find anyone to play with.
Still, if you have the Vestibular apparatus to endure the six degrees of freedom gameplay, then Retrovirus is the type of gutsy release that fans of Descent have been waiting for. If you’re still not convinced, then let me tell you about my personal highlight of the game. At one point, your commander tells you that the virus may disturb the kernel. At that point, a new voice comes through saying, “This is the colonel, I have new orders for you.” Very clever.
7 kernel sanders commanding computer combat out of 10