Throwing cubes against walls and hoping they fit
Bringing games from various genres into virtual reality gives them an opportunity to showcase something unique, their own take on how to use the new dimensional space in order to alter or revamp the core gameplay. Some titles simply opt to provide players with a new audio visual perspective, while others create entire mechanics that rely on having a virtual space. SuperHyperCube is a launch title for PlayStation VR that finds itself unable to really take advantage of the new dimension, and its steep difficulty curve goes against the typically accessible nature of VR.
SuperHyperCube is a relatively simple puzzle game in its concept. Players observe a cube directly in front of them, as you are continuously moving forward with it. Ahead, you’ll see a wall with an opening. Your job is to rotate the cube along the three axis (left/right, up/down and side to side) using the DualShock4 controller, in order for the cube to fit into the opening and pass through. With each wall you pass through, your cube will grow as more blocks get attached to it in random locations, creating a cluster of cubes of increasingly odd shapes. And you only have a few moments to rotate this new shape correctly to fit the next wall opening.
It’s a simple concept that you’ve probably seen before, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the game’s design at a fundamental level. The game is randomly generated, so regardless how many times you start over, the shapes you’re working with will be different. This means the game potentially has a ton of replay value, as most puzzle games should. As your collection of attached cubes grows larger, and the shapes get odder, it becomes obviously difficult to find the correct orientation in time. Players get two lives, meaning you can mess up just once, and after that you have to start over from the first level. Each level features 10 or more walls, and also a final Boss wall that adds to the challenge. The final wall has a shape you must fit, but it is also either periodically rotating, or flipping on its own axis.
There are two gauges to fill in this puzzle title. If you’re confident that your cluster is rotated properly to fit the upcoming wall opening, you can press X to boost through and not have to wait for the wall to come to you (think of it as boosting your block downwards in Tetris). Any amount of time that you’ve boosted through gets added to a Hyperfocus gauge, which when filled allows you to temporarily slow down time once. This is obviously helpful when you’re in a tough spot and can’t find a solution to the quickly approaching wall. The second gauge is a Bomb; filling this meter (which only fills if you don’t use Hyperfocus) lets you destroy the upcoming wall, thereby acting as a free pass.
SuperHyperCube is an exclusive PS VR launch title, but it doesn’t make much sense for it to be. The use of virtual space in this puzzle game serves a single purpose, besides the obvious fact that your surroundings are all in 3D and you can look around the stylized levels you’re floating through. The cube cluster you’re rotating is located directly in front of you, and to see the upcoming wall you must lean around the cluster. This adds a little bit of tension as you’re desperately trying to rotate the cluster while peeking around it at the upcoming wall opening. It works, but that hardly seems like a complex or even necessary use of VR. The game could have worked just fine on a regular 2D plane just by giving players a button that let them see around the cube cluster. That’s not to say the VR is poorly done – the minimalistic environments are stylish and colorful, but it just doesn’t seem like a particularly clever or original use of VR.
But where SuperHyperCube really stumbles is in its difficulty. While I certainly don’t consider myself a puzzle expert, I’ve struggled with the game’s very rapidly increasing difficulty. The cluster of cubes grows very quickly, and the wall openings are ever so complex, requiring more rotations and sometimes sheer luck to make it through. After an hour of play with countless attempts, I only ever managed to make it to the near-end of level 3 out of 10 total. Before you call me a simpleton who was defeated by a brilliant puzzling piece of entertainment, consider the following. My result placed me into the top 400 players worldwide, where the top player in the world (currently, a week after the game's release) has only managed to reach level 8. The rest of the top 10 were only up to level 7. I also had a peek at the trophies for the game that further confirmed it – 85% of players have managed to beat level 1, and that percentage drops like a stone to below 30% for level 2. Level 3 has been defeated by less than 10% of participants. This matches my own experience – the game escalates the challenge so quickly that it becomes frustrating, as you’re bound to hit your skill ceiling very fast compared to other puzzle games. The game’s design that was supposed to help actually works against the players – the further you go, the lesser the chance you’re able to solve the puzzles early enough to earn any Boost, and thus Hyperfocus and Bomb are probably not something you can even use in later levels. To have a game as challenging as this also goes against the nature of VR launch games that should at least have a little accessibility.
And it’s too bad, because the concept is clever and the VR execution, while underwhelming, works well enough in SuperHyperCube. But the extreme difficulty will mean that most players won’t get very far. You won’t learn any specific patterns or techniques since it’s randomly generated, so there’s not much replay value after you hit your skill limit. The final note to kill whatever momentum the game had, is that it is priced at an astonishing $30. That puts it above more well-rounded games like Headmaster (pun intended), and in the same category as Rez Infinite (which is already a bit overpriced as well). So, do you really want to drop that kind of money on a puzzle game where a vast majority of players won't even reach the halfway point, a game where you can't learn or improve because of its randomized nature?