In Death’s dream kingdom, Heaven is abandoned. Among its crumbling ruins, forsaken souls, angelic creatures and demons alike have run amok. Only a courageous hero that dares to venture deep into the Afterlife will be able to restore Harmony. Updated 2020–07–23.
In 2018, indie studio Sólfar Studios released a virtual reality game on Steam simply named In Death. The rogue-like, procedurally generated levels loaded with clever enemies and snappy ranged attacks made Purgatory worth visiting over and over again.
The only thing that would have made In Death better would be to play it without wires.
Fast forward to July 2020 — and Superbright has taken the near-perfect game on PC VR and “unchained” us (get it?) from the shackles of wires and cables; bringing us what will surely be considered the definitive edition of the game.
As with all rogue-like games, this is a “play until you die” sort of game. Advance, kill, maybe do a little shopping, wash-rinse-repeat.
But, it isn’t about the destination, my friends; it is about the journey.
The game opens with a remarkably decent tutorial that takes you through the basics of play. While tutorials seem like a “no brainer”, a lot of VR games do a rather poor job of it (if they do it at all).
There are three levels to explore in this game; two of them (Paradise Lost and The Abyss) are locked out until you meet certain progress criteria in the main game level (Purgatory — which was the entire game in the PC VR edition of In Death).
Once inside Purgatory, the door closes behind you and you’re committed to venture forward — looming citadels, bridges and buildings shrouded in mist span out in front of you.
Armed with a bow, arrows and a simple shield you move ever forward toward your destiny.
There are two methods of teleport conveyance; the shard and the teleport arrow. The shard allows for “quick flick” dodging while the teleport arrow is just a special arrow that instantly moves you wherever you fire it (provided you’re allowed to be there).
Updated: The developers managed to get free locomotion into the game between the final build we received for review and the build that shipped on 2020–07–23; we’ll have follow up video at the bottom of this article.
While many are excited the game shipped with locomotion, the game doesn’t feel like it was designed for that type of movement and when I played on PC VR I never used it. I would much rather “fast flick” the shard, personally; but more options are always better as long as one of them doesn’t grant a player an advantage — since the game does feature a competitive leader-board.
The game supports a nice large play area — so if you have the space, you can easily sulk around corners and hide in the shadows.
Moving along the bridges and entering buildings, you will be confronted by various enemies both on the ground and in the air — each has various attack styles including melee assault and long range missile-style attacks.
Your foes also have their own behaviors and movement patterns. Some will rush you en masse while some will navigate around you; staying at a distance. Some can teleport around (even behind you) — and the bad guys seem to be happy to communicate your location to others; even those outside your field of view.
The enemies also have the power of sense. They can see you, hear you and if you take a pot shot at a robed-evil-doer from afar, he will hear the arrow and react accordingly (so don’t miss).
Dispatching enemies can be done with arrows or by melee “shield smashing” if things get tight.
Of course, running is always an option — and is often times a smart one.
Throughout the game, you will periodically have the opportunity to save and quit (take a break) as well as do a little shopping for health and power ups to help you along the way.
Sometimes you’ll stumble upon power ups and dead enemies will drop you a goody every now and again.
Once your health is depleted to zero, the game is over and you return to Sanctuary where you are awarded achievements (if you earned any) as well as some bonus points (if you deserved it) and you get a rather satisfying “kill list” showing all the enemies you wrecked along your journey. So awesome.
Now that we got the basics out of the way, let’s get a little more detailed.
During play, there are power ups and healing chalices to improve your chances of living longer.
To obtain these treasures, you need only reach out and “force pull” them to you — and you don’t have to be right on top of them to get the reward.
Weapon power ups come in the form of arrow types; freezing arrows, exploding arrows, multi-arrows and fire arrows that roast your enemy as they burn over time. There are others to be found as well.
What’s more, exploding arrows damage enemies in the blast radius and don’t have to be stuck in one to blow up. Therefore, you can lead enemies coming at you with a volley of exploding charges — sort of like the old game Missile Command and they walk right into the charges as they blow.
Man, that’s a lot of fun …
You can carry two additional types of arrows above and beyond your endless standard and teleportation arrows.
Inventory access is controlled via a bow overlay which works pretty well. Enemies slow down during the bow selection process, so you can use that to help manage onslaughts of baddies.
Your currently-selected arrow and health bars are included on the bow for you to glance at while playing — without having to bring up inventory controls.
Enemies all have their own health bar. Hitting them reveals the damage done and the damage remaining. You are awarded damage based on arrow velocity (rapid fire short burst arrows do less damage) and enemies can be more easily dispatched by head shots (some even are one-hit kills that way).
Harder enemies have particular locations on their body you have to hit them in order to do any damage at all.
There are eleven enemies — each a bit nastier than the next one and there are bosses on top of that (one per three locations).
The bow mechanics are simply the best I’ve ever played. You are never fighting with the hardware (like Elven Assassin; sorry, enjoy the game but I’ve never truly mastered that bow) and the physics vs damage vs range all seem to be well calibrated and are incredibly satisfying. That’s probably why I keep coming back to the game.
Once you acquire a certain achievement, a cross-bow will be available to carry as an alternative to the bow. Not nearly as immersive, but has its advantages.
The shield is extremely useful — both to stop barrages of weapons coming at you but also to shield bash enemies that are close to you (I recommend running).
While effective, the shield can reduce your visibility and you can easily lose track of where the enemies made off to whilst you were covering your butt.
Bashing enemies the shield is a low damage affair, but does knock them back a little. I’m sure a more skilled player can use it more effectively than I can — but I found myself missing the bad guys a lot when trying to perform frantic bashing maneuvers.
One of the new features in the Quest version of In Death is the mysterious portals that show up in Purgatory like this one that leads to the Pit of Reformation.
These are optional, alternate routes that can be extremely beneficial — and extremely dangerous.
Within these special areas are higher counts and more powerful concentrations of enemies. You can’t just escape back out, either. Once you’re in, you have to find the exit.
It is easy to assume In Death is a sort of arcade score chaser (and it does have some of those elements). After all, the Sanctuary comes equipped with a leader-board to show how bad you really are.
What In Death really turns out to be is 20% exploration, 30% stealth, 20% strategy and 30% action combat (which includes a healthy dose of dodging).
During the game play, you’ll see this little tuft of light following you around. This is your familiar and he will fetch the gold dropped by felled enemies so you don’t waste time running around picking up plunder. If you hold your palm up, he will show you your score and gold too.
Gold is only useful for that game session and doesn’t carry over between runs. You spend the gold at the Reliquary — a store filled with random goodies including weapons and health. These locations also work as a save and quit point (you can’t save and return to that point if you die — this is rogue-like after all). The Reliquary appears every so often while playing and if you made a purchase in a prior Reliquary this run, that item remains gone during your next visit and the items do not change up.
Worthy of their own section, achievements aren’t just bragging rights in this game. They are player modifiers that carry over from game to game (rogue-like I said). Each achievement unlocks something for the player and most of the time the reward is commensurate with the achievement (makes sense, right?)
This puts it more in line with “attribute building” more than achievements.
Dealing 10,000 damage in one run gleans you BONE COLLECTOR I which rewards you with the a x2 damage arrow after you take a hit from an enemy.
Scoring 26 head shots in one run nets you HARBINGER OF PAIN — increasing your head shot damage by 40%.
Make no mistake, though. It isn’t just about attribute building. Achievements can unlock new monsters, add modifiers to arrows, open more inventory slots on your bow and so much more.
In Death is a real favorite game franchise in my VR stable.
It provides an incredibly satisfying pick-up-and-play experience and when you couple that with a “just one more” addictive quality? You have a real winner.
Unchained doesn’t just bring us more of the same — it brings everything back you loved, raises the bar in many areas and provides more content and return on your cash.
Even better — It does it without wires.
This is the way PC VR ports to Quest should be and as such, this game is not a cross-buy title. Owning In Death on Rift will not net you a copy of Unchained nor shouldn’t have to; because the game is 100% worth buying again with all the improvements and goodies added.
Those new to the franchise should be picking this up day one as it represents a quality title that really pulled out all stops to bring a fantastic PC VR game to the stand alone Quest.
For those looking for a bit more visual look at the game, check out my videos below.