Tigertron's eco-themed PS VR game debut Jupiter & Mars doesn't feel overly polemic or dull, but decidedly underwhelming all the same.
Earth Day 2019 has a punctual video game counterpart this year, with Tigertron’s first PlayStation 4 release, the dolphin adventure Jupiter & Mars. The basis for the game is certainly admirable — a timely underwater fantasy taking place in a pressing future where the sea-level has risen dramatically, swallowing up recognizable landmasses and landmarks to scoot past — but there are a slew of problems and niggles that may inevitably cause players to balk at its price-tag. Its underwater VR exploration on a console wins it a few points, but the core gameplay should have taken enough time to come up for air.
Players take control of Jupiter the dolphin, with her partner Mars swimming around the periphery and interacting with objects at the click of a button. Both dolphins (as well as most of the sea-flora and fauna) are painted like party-goers at a late night blacklight-soaked rave, with streaks of glowing neon tattooed along their skin. It’s occasionally attractive, but its reasoning is also somewhat confusing — is this representative of their suffering mutation from a nuclear fallout? Some kind of visionary appreciation of life that is key to a dolphin’s perspective? — and overall does not come off as particularly special. That’s because plenty of games adopt this visual aesthetic, and it would have been nice to see Jupiter & Mars approach its common application in a way that was more grounded or meaningful. It just seems like a neat trick that makes the sad inevitability of global warming look like a warehouse party.
The soundtrack in the first area doesn’t help matters, with an absolutely grating looping track that could have accompanied a cheesy Coachella trailer. This might be to the taste of player, and young people may even grow fond of it, but it became unbearable after five minutes. Luckily, the soundtrack for the rest of the game opens up to explore other moods and genres, all of which fit the patient exploration better than that first one.
There’s a lean towards other broader visual design aspects here like those find in Rez or Child of Eden, but it doesn’t combine well with such minimally-detailed textures. Animals, plant life, and sonar-pinged level geometry shifts into vector-graphic-like luminescent outlines, risking the echolocation mechanic to diverge into a kind of “detective vision fatigue,” familiar to players of Arkham Asylum who spent most of their time looking at everything like a T-800 Terminator. When things aren’t being echo-located, most objects and surfaces employ simplistic or even muddy textures; for the absolute worst example of this, simply swim up to the surface, where you’re treated to mountain ranges that would not look out of place in a Test Drive game from the 90s. At least the skyboxes are quite beautiful, and look particularly lovely when viewed from underwater, melting past the surface.
The game offers up a clutch of different options (and that’s in and out of VR gameplay, more on this detail later), but it’s strange that they aren’t combined in a way that seems player-first. Moving your headset around to look and tilting your head to the side to directly turn feels fine in that goofy-but-it’s-VR way, but what’s confusing is that you can’t also use the DualShock 4’s analog sticks as a backup method of control as well. No, instead, players are forced to select one and only one control scheme at a time, swapping them out for each other in the pause menu. This is in comparison to other VR games like The Exorcist: Legion VR or FromSoftware’s Déraciné, which essentially grant players every potential motion control option at once, and it feels like an ease-of-use convenience that should never be treated as a subtractive feature.
Jupiter & Mars is most certainly a PSVR game, but in an interesting reach for accessibility, specifically loading up the VR component is not required. Putting on the headset does introduce plenty of visual jaggies, making spiky dangerous areas look an absolute fright, but players can opt to play through the game more traditionally (and with cleaner graphics). There is something nice about zooming around in the water and looking and listening for interesting pings to investigate, but slow turn controls can make large areas quite confusing to navigate and pick clean. Still, it should be mentioned that the option to take a VR breather and keep playing is a welcome one and, while it wouldn’t work for many other games, here it’s a boon.
Now, a note should be made about the organizations which Jupiter & Mars supports, and Tigertron claims that a portion of the game’s proceeds will benefit “ocean causes,” though which specific ones or what percentage will go towards these is unclear. SeaLegacy and The Ocean Foundation are their direct partners for the game, and videos and information can be gleaned behind menus; this is reminiscent of the War Child DLC for 11-11 Memories Retold, and some references to the two organizations can be found in-game as well. It’s not overly-done and the eco-themes are fairly, well, surface-level overall, with Jupiter jostling plastic waste off of animals to rescue them in most scenarios. It would have been nice to see some more in-depth application of these themes, especially with the lofty goals and credo in the thesis and setting of Jupiter & Mars.
There hasn’t been a mention of Ecco The Dolphin in this review, but that’s on purpose; Ecco’s strengths were its exciting movement, supernatural aspects, and haunting and mysterious underwater exploration. Jupiter & Mars is much, much more sedate, and doesn’t seem to take enough risks in its approach or sense of freedom in its open-world traversal. One of the first things most players will do is swim quickly up to the surface, expecting that triumphant and cinematic dolphin spin-jump to give them a bout of VR indigestion, but Jupiter merely smacks directly into the peak of the sea-level and immediately stops. There’s enough content in Jupiter & Mars to take up a lazy Sunday’s time, but it could have been so much more.
Jupiter & Mars releases for PlayStation 4 and PSVR on April 23, 2019. Screen Rant was provided a PS4 code for review.