The launch line up for Sony’s PlayStation VR has been incredibly strong and diverse, with arguably a better line up of available games than many console launches. Among these initial titles is Secret Sorcery’s Tethered, a god game set in a fantasy world full of cute creatures for you to lord it over that’s best described as a cross between Creatures and Settlers. Though it’s not the kind of genre you would instantly associate with virtual reality, Tethered is one of PSVR’s best titles.
The first thing that draws your attention is the visuals, and the feeling of power that comes with them. Sat in the clouds, staring down at floating islands teeming with life. Flocks of birds soar through the sky, butterflies flutter above flowers and mushroom patches while rivers flow into waterfalls which cascade into the ether.
Your worshippers are the adorable Peeps, a happy race of wide eyed creatures that look like a cross between a Lombax and a Mogwai. As their God. Sorry, Spirit Guardian, it is your job to keep them happy and alive. This is achieved by completing tasks and growing your settlement. This releases spirit energy is needed to restore balance to the world and complete the level.
From your seat in the clouds, you direct your plebs peeps to collect resources and construct buildings, so that they can make it through the night. When the sun goes down monsters spring from beneath the island, attempting to steal your resources and savage your cute little worshippers. It’s then up to you to stop the vicious little buggers from doing either.
The main way you interact with the world below you is via Tethered’s titular gameplay mechanic. If you want to get a Peep to perform a task, or use the weather to affect the landscape all you have to do is look at one thing, hold X and then release the button on the thing you want it to interact with.
Say you want a Peep to go and chop down some trees; all you have to do is look at the peep, then Hold X, then look at the forest area you want them to chop down, and then release X. At this point a blue string of light connects the peep and the forest, tethering them together. Your Peep will then continue to chop down wood until there’s no more trees to chop down or the wood store is full.
As well as tethering Peeps to complete tasks, you can also tether the weather to different parts of the environment. For example you can use sunshine to help hatch Peep eggs which occasionally fall from the sky, or help the crops in your fields to grow. You can also combine different types of weather together, for example combining Rain and Sunshine to form a rainbow that cheers up Peeps suffering from despair as well as replenish resources.
Peeps, like people, need direction in their lives and food in their bellies or they eventually get sad and suffer from despair. A terrible affliction that ultimately leads to them committing suicide by hurling themselves off the edge of the island. The little critters, even stare up at you, with eyes that scream “this is your fault” before they do it. What’s worse is that there is no way to stop them once they’ve got to that point. All you can do is sit and watch the gaming equivalent of a puppy kill itself because you didn’t give it enough stone to mine and mushrooms to eat.
It’s a mean-spirited mechanic, and one that shows a darker side to an otherwise twee game. Thinking about it though, there is a darkness to Tethered lurking just under the otherwise sugary surface. Like if you fail to hatch a Peep egg in time it turns orange and a weird leech like creature springs forth and slinks its way under the island. Catch it and kill it before it gets there and your Peeps will eat it. However, if it makes it to the underside of the island that night it will return as a monster hell bent on killing your Peeps. The suggestion being that the Peeps may be as monstrous as the things that come to kill them in the night, and the happy little creatures are in fact cannibals.
To avoid this awful fate, you need to keep your peeps occupied and give them some direction in life. While every Peep can perform any task, as the game progresses and your settlement expands you can give your Peeps different jobs that make them better at fighting, harvesting, prospecting, farming or mining, this helps them to stave off their suicidal tendencies and makes them far more useful to boot.
Each level give you a new and better buildings to construct that improve the lives of your Peeps. Effectively using resources to hand and building the right utility at the right time is the key to success. There’s a wealth of upgrades to choose from as well; from barracks that allow you to train heroes, to simply upgrading your mine to produce more ore, the upgrade trees are vast, with many branches and can be a little overwhelming at first as players are given all of the available option for each structure from the start, nut it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of things.
It’s the little touches that make the VR worthwhile, the way you can swiftly peer from one menu screen to another, or look underneath it at your settlement. While leaning left and right allows you to adjust your view and zone in on an item or Peep, it all feels effortless and just a little bit magical.
The music and sound design provided by Little Big Planet composer Kenny Young ties the whole experience together beautifully with whimsical string-led pieces during the day light hours that slowly transform into darker tones as the nights draw in. This is accompanied by distinct audio cues for each interaction and event that inform the player without distracting them by filling their periphery with numerous icons. From the arrival of a new Peep egg, a monster skulking towards your settlement, or a useful cloud appearing in the sky, players can tell exactly what’s happening on the island by simply listening.
Does Tethered need VR? well no. Tethered would still work perfectly well without it. There is nothing within the game’s controls or mechanics that would not work without VR. However, though it’s not necessary making players a part of the world adds to its sensory strengths, heightening the player’s connection with the game and their emotional response and connection to the peeps.
Tethered is a delightful game that proves that VR can enhance more than simply first person experiences. It’s playful yet surprisingly dark god game that brings players wholly into its world. If you have PSVR, Tethered is essential.