I hate it when Mothr and Fathr fight. As an only child, they both try to recruit me to their side. It would be foolish of me to pick a side in an argument I can barely understand, of course, so I am forced into a very uncomfortable position. It becomes even more awkward when Mothr and Fathr are mysterious AI systems that have somehow become estranged, and it becomes far more frightening when Fathr sounds like Batman with even greater levels of bass-enhanced authority.
Welcome to Apex Construct, a VR-based action/adventure/puzzle game that puts you precisely that situation. As is becoming fairly common in VR games, you start out with no clue as to who you are, where you are, why you are where you are, or what is expected of you. Let’s just coin a tag here and call these #WhoAmI games. This is separate and distinct from another emerging trait in the VR world: interactive and non-intuitive menus; Apex dodged that bullet with more traditional and far easier to use menus, so at a minimum you’re at least into the game before being turned loose to figure out the rest of your life. That’s a plus in my book if you’re keeping accounts.
So, there you are, utterly confused and bereft of ideas when a voice that sounds like James Earl Jones playing the role of God as Batman starts speaking to you. Now I don’t know about you, but with a voice like that can be mighty intimidating when the first words it utters are “Wonderful. An actual human.” One can be forgiven for wondering if one’s presence is intended to be the starring role in a human sacrifice. Fortunately, that feeling doesn’t last long, but it doesn’t get much less intimidating when he apologizes for what he did to your hand. A quick look shows why. So there you are, your left hand replaced by some kind of android-ish looking reproduction, a deep and powerful voice in your head, and no idea whether the owner of this voice is threatening, or just seriously ominous. What he says next might be telling.
“Would you please press that button for me?”
Well then. That’s not much to ask, is it? Well, not at first, but as we will see, “glorified gofer” is pretty much your role in this game.
As you proceed, you will learn that while Fathr would have you believe that he is the trustworthy entity in his spat with Mothr, that may or may not be the case. As she doesn’t say anything early on, it’s easy to believe, especially when it appears that it is her that is responsible for the mechanical sentries that are sprinkled throughout the world. Your best defence against those is the bow and unlimited arrows provided to you by Fathr, so that too leads you to believe that Fathr is the good guy.
So you press the button for him. It turns out that you are in an elevator that exits into a utilitarian room packed full of computers, terminals, and thick cables that just cry out for an elevated floor to hide them under. It is here that you learn how to grip items (it works as you would expect it to) and how to move. There are a couple of options for movement; I chose teleportation because it’s easier on my delicate constitution. The teleportation works as well as any that I have encountered, although I will be thankful if/when an industry-standard button pattern someday emerges in the VR world. Apex uses the ‘Y’ button on the Rift Touch controller, but I have become accustomed to using the left thumbstick to do that. It’s not a huge deal, but it does require some getting used to. I do prefer the Apex method of separating the teleportation movement from the rotation movement; with Apex, the right thumbstick on the Touch controller provides that function. I like to have those movements separated for occasions when I have to make small movements in order to grip an object too close to the floor or is obstructed in some other way. In fact, the “mechanics” of moving, shooting, and basically everything else are quite good in this game.
As you progress through the levels, you will go through interior spaces, rocky/hilly outdoor areas, and a lot of industrial/computer rooms. Every now and then you will also encounter areas with houses and other buildings (drawn in a Roger Rabbit Toontown-ish style) that have been damaged by earthquakes or some other phenomenon involving huge boulders taking affront to residential housing. It’s not exactly dystopian, though - there are plenty of trees, flowers, waterfalls, and nice grassy areas too.
All in all, it’s a compelling world to walk through, albeit with the risk of militant mechanical sentries.
You aren’t left alone to find your way, nor are you responsible for figuring out much about what’s going on or what to do next. Fathr does that for you. You’re role is that of a factotum. Fathr seemingly cannot interact with the world; that’s for you to do under his direction. This isn’t absolute, of course - if Fathr did everything, this would be a movie, not an adventure game. You have two jobs: destroy the sentries before they can destroy you, and figure out how to unlock the doors in order to proceed from one area to the next. Destroying the sentries can be accomplished through arrows or with grenades that you will find as you explore. Getting through the locked doors is accomplished by finding the four-digit code that will unlock the door. This is done in a couple of ways, but primarily it comes down to interacting with the computer terminals you will find in each level. I have to confess that I initially enjoyed using the terminals because they are so reminiscent of the DOS command-line interfaces that I cut my teeth on early in my career, but through sheer repetition and a bit of frustration in using the keyboards I ended up getting pretty tired of them. Call it a good idea carried too far.
In parallel with learning more about Fathr and Mothr, you also learn more about the capabilities of your unwanted prosthetic hand, the best part of which is its inventory system. As inventory systems go, this implementation is very good for ease of access. It’s also where you go to shift from being empty-handed to being armed with your bow, which I found to be a bit clunky in the not uncommon occasions wherein I waited too long to arm myself, but I eventually learned that it’s a good idea to carry the bow whenever entering a new, as yet unvisited area. You also learn that there are a couple of other arrow types you can get - one works with electricity, the other is explosive. Each has its own use and it’s up to you to figure out which one to use in any given situation. They can’t be rapid-fired like the standard arrows can, but they make up for that by being very good at what they are designed to do. I enjoyed the bow and arrows, although I did struggle at times with destroying sentries that were relatively distant. You pretty much have to hit them right in the middle.
There are a whole lot of positive facets to Apex, but there is one thing that gives me pause: while the game feels well built, well polished, and does just about everything right, I got bored with the gameplay itself. Fathr made all of the big, important decisions for me, so I felt that my sole purpose was to act as his corporeal hands and feet. As I said before, I ended up feeling like a weaponized servant. I was responsible for unlocking doors and killing machines. As the levels progressed, I had to walk through more and larger areas, but nothing much happened in them. There were very few meaningful interactions with objects such as you would encounter in a room escape scenario, and once the laser-armed Roombas were eradicated there was nothing left to do but wander around feeling lonely. The scenery changed, but the nature of the game did not. I remember seeing only two different types of mechanized rodents, so the higher level challenges were just a little more of the same at each stage. Sure, the storyline progressed as I went, but there are more entertaining ways to ingest a story. I wanted to feel like a more integral participant in the story, not just an accessory to it.
Technically, Apex Construct is a great piece of work. It suffers from the same periodic frustrations as most contemporaneous VR games, including difficulty in interacting with objects and walls that aren’t always impenetrable, but those would pale against a game that compelled the player to proceed anyway. Apex is not such a game, at least once you get through a level or two and figure out what it is you’re supposed to be doing. A game is compelling to me when there are new and more challenging things to encounter as I progress; it is less so when the higher levels are simply more of the same, albeit in higher numbers. The story the game is trying to tell could very well be engrossing and interesting in and of itself, but the fact of the matter is that this is a game, not a novel. The game should be able to stand on its own, but at least in my case, it did not. Rather than feeling like a five or six hour grind that it’s a relief to have finished, a good game should leave me asking for more, not asking for permission to quit. For me, Apex Construct was not such a game.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.