It’s hard to believe that in an E3 with as much big-budget spectacle as this one had, one of the most immersive games on the show floor was a 3D run and jump mascot platformer that didn’t have anything to do with Mario or Sonic. Lucky’s Tale is a new game designed exclusively for the Oculus Rift, starring a cheerful fox who runs through the world hopping on enemies and exploring anywhere that looks interesting. It’s the classic Mario 64-style adventure, and something we’ve seen a few hundred times before from a pure gameplay perspective, but putting on the Rift allows it to be seen through new eyes. This makes Lucky’s Tale as fresh and exciting as the first time you ran through a fully-realized Mushroom Kingdom, without the pesky need to wrangle the camera into some form of usability.
Lucky is a cute little guy, and his moveset is the usual run/jump/stomp. He moves through the world at a lively pace, exploring and collecting while also taking out the odd monster in his path with a well-aimed landing, but the real star of the game is the world and the Rift’s view on it. The sense of immersion, of there-ness, makes what would normally be a fun little platformer into something truly special. There are two reasons for this, one more obvious than the other.
The instantly-noticeable reason is that wherever you look, there’s the world fully realized around you. The viewpoint is classic third-person, but the camera is fixed in its position with only very gentle movements when a different angle is required. Changing the view involves moving your head, and the DK2 version of the Oculus Rift supports leaning as well as the standard head pivot. From an immersion perspective, this means that if you want to look over the other side of the bridge that you’re viewing from one side, a lean forward will let you see over the edge and down into the stream below. I found myself constantly craning around to check around ledges and corners, looking for goodies and pathways or just seeing what’s there. It’s also hard to understate how important being able to look up is as well, as a simple glance lets you take in the giant tree that the path wraps around and beneath into the tunnel below. Jumping on an egg released a little fluttering monster-critter that normally would have flown up and off camera, but tracking it as it flew showed it popping out of the scene in a burst of 3D fireworks. The view of the world made everything feel like it was being seen for the first time, in a way that watching it on a tv screen wouldn’t have. Despite all attempts at resistance I’ve become slightly jaded over the years, but applying the Rift and its view on the world completely reinstated the wonder of exploration.
The other aspect of Lucky’s Tale that stands out is that it solves one of the Rift’s long-standing problems, which is how to do a third-person camera without the player reaching for a vomit bucket after the first minute or two. It takes a lot to get VR right, avoiding the sense that what the player is seeing and feeling are two separate things, and the body’s response to this sensation is to try to get whatever’s causing this out of the system by the most direct means possible. The quick and easy way to avoid the problem is by going FPS, but even that has pitfalls in terms of how menus need to be presented, how close things can get to the player’s eyes, and being very careful to avoid breaking the illusion of being inside the game’s world. It’s hard to have any kind of fun when desperately trying to keep the contents of one’s stomach in place, and the lasting nausea afterwards doesn’t sound like an acceptable side-effect. By carefully managing the camera, treating the world almost as a diorama the player is viewing, Lucky’s Tale allows a third-person viewpoint to not only be fun and properly immersive but also show off the world to full effect, giving the sensation of “there” while keeping the camera removed from the inside of Lucky’s head. It’s a neat trick, and a solution many developers will be borrowing as VR continues to develop.
Lucky’s Tale, then, is a fairly large number of things at once. It’s a comfortable game in a well-loved genre, while also being a trailblazer in presentation. The demo was set in a platforming world that looks instantly familiar to anyone who’s played the first level of just about any 3D run & jump, but the Rift integration gives the environment a brand-new lease on life to anyone willing to take a second to look around. I was constantly stopping to check out some new details, look over a ledge, crane my head to see where I’d come from and how the paths fit together, and drink in all the tiny details I wouldn’t have noticed on a TV screen. Lucky’s Tale takes the familiar and makes it new again, restoring the wonder that’s faded from the genre. That’s a fantastic accomplishment for a demo, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of Lucky’s world looks through VR eyes as development progresses.