One of the best parts about playing games in VR is the freedom and escapism it allows the player to indulge. As a child, one of my personal daydreams was being able to travel back in time. So you can only imagine how exciting it must have been when Time Machine VR hit the PlayStation VR. Unfortunately, there is no way a title with a time traveling premise could ever truly live up to the expectations that are conjured in the mind’s eye. Though the game was destined for disappointment, it somehow managed to exceed even my wildest expectations…by barely qualifying as a game.
Beginning of the End?
When I imagine traveling to the Jurassic period, I picture pristine blue skies, dense vegetation, and hulking dinosaurs. Time Machine VR delivers on the enormous mammal side of things, but just about nothing else. Apparently, areas that are gigantic basins in current time were once filled with water and home to creatures that would one day dictate the very future of humanity. That’s right, humanity is on the brink of extinction thanks to a virus outbreak of some sort, and it is up to one time-bending gofer to fetch the world from the clutches of annihilation.
Who knew that traveling back in history could be so productive? As soon as the time portal opens, the player is transported back to an underwater wonderland, filled with keys to discovering what exactly is killing off humans by the millions. The crux of the gameplay revolves around exploring the sub-nautical surroundings and fetching data for scientists back in the “current” timeline. Players are armed with tools such as biometric scanners, lures, behavior analysis arrays and more, with new skills being introduced with each stage.
The odd hodgepodge of vaguely scientific implements are greatly buffed by the ability to manipulate time itself. While never completely bringing the sands of time to a complete halt, it is by far the most consistently used mechanic throughout the campaign. In one compelling instance, the player must slow down the clock in order to float inside a beast’s mouth and scan its’s oral structure. Aside from this single scenario, the ability is disappointingly only used to simplify the gathering of scientist-mandated intelligence.
Just a Big Dummy
Sure, Time Machine VR is hardly the first game where players are sent on seemingly useless errands for an ambivalent quest-giver, but it is certainly one of the least compelling. There’s at least some attempt to offer kudos at the end of each mission, through a live-action debriefing. However, there is little attention paid to what the bloody hell was actually achieved, let alone explaining how any of the monotonous fetch quests fit into the narrative of saving the human race. Essentially the player is treated like a dumb drone that follows orders without question and isn’t smart enough to grasp the “bigger picture.” Initially, I thought I must have been missing key pieces of narrative, shared during a debriefing. Unfortunately, the more I played, the more I realized that scientists already had their hands full dealing with the whole, “end of the world,” thing. Why would they bother to take the time to fill me in on the “master plan?”
If the process of stalking the dinosaurs were at least interesting, the overall lack of direction could at least somewhat be excused. The problem is that everything that players are prodded into doing feels like tedium incarnate. Yes, there are big beasts swimming everywhere and there is even the occasional case of carnivorous action, but when you are only scanning animals, checking vitals or monitoring behaviors, things tend to grow stale very quickly. The core structure of each stage consists of being introduced to a new dinosaur, trying to tag it to find out more information, and then scanning the handful of items that you were sent to observe. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
One of the few redeeming qualities of Time Machine VR is its use of the DualShock 4’s twin stick controls to provide the rare instance of total navigational freedom in VR. So few games that have implemented a full 3D range of motion that I was beginning to wonder if developers were butting up against some sort of a technical limitation. In reality, the ability to navigate along the X, Y and Z axis feels completely natural and approachable for players of all skill levels.
What You See Is What You Get
Probably the most damning criticism I can heap on the game is that each stage felt vacant. I mean, I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that even in pre-historic periods, underwater ecosystems were not devoid of virtually all signs of life. Lakes would have been teaming with countless organisms in order to sustain the massive dinosaurs that players are sent to research. Hell, even a coral reef here or there would have been nice. If a living creature appears in the water, it must be critical to the current mission and will eventually be tied to an objective of some sort. Nothing more. Nothing less. Oddly enough, this observation also holds true for any vegetation rendered on screen.
Unless you are a passionate fan of pre-historic underwater exploration, Time Machine VR is not worth your time. Despite the premise being interesting, the gameplay and overall design fails to deliver on any of its promise. The resulting experience feels like a soggy slog through a minimalistic proof-of-concept, that somehow managed to make its way onto the PlayStation VR. If you can pick up the game up at a deep discount and are hard up for a new PSVR experience, feel free to give it a try. Just be warned that won’t take long before you experience grade school flashbacks and everything begins to feel like homework.
Time Machine VR review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.