Platforms: PC + HTC Vive (Reviewed)

Waves lap against the sandy shoreline, while an old-school radio plays island music near a small campfire; however, what looks like a typical day at the beach quickly transforms into a sci-fi mystery reminiscent of The Goonies, Stargate, and Half-Life.

The exploration- and puzzle-based first-person adventure The Gallery – Episode 1: Call of the Starseed — yes, that’s a mouthful — tells the first chapter of a story about Alex, a young hero searching for a lost sibling. The throwback fantasy engages with quirky characters, fascinating lore, and retro-futuristic style pulled straight from the ‘80s. But the real star of the show is the game’s immersive VR experience, in which items such as lanterns can be used to illuminate dark corners and maps can be turned over like real pieces of paper.

Call of the Starseed engrosses from start to finish with well thought out VR gameplay, but it tells a pretty good story along the way, too.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Call of the Starseed scratches the surface of The Gallery’s complete adventure, and I’m already ready for more. The plot of a young hero searching for a lost sibling sounds ordinary — perhaps straight out of a Nancy Drew novel — but the episode ventures much further down the rabbit hole than a typical detective yarn. And the further down the rabbit hole Call of the Starseed goes, the more interesting it gets.

As the story progresses, Alex discovers clues — such as maps, audio logs, and wall markings — which move the plot forward and hint at the game’s sci-fi- and fantasy-inspired lore. Along the journey, Alex meets a zany professor, who acts as the episode's narrator and looks like a cross between Doc Brown and a caveman, if a Radio Shack were his cave. His witty, one-sided banter keeps the mood light in the game's dark — but not scary — environments.

After the final of the game's stanzas — each of which contains a main puzzle or two — the game's plot crystalizes, which creates a breathtaking segue to what should be an interesting Episode 2.

Into the World

While the game's story intrigues, Call of the Starseed’s calling card is immersion. The game-world is so well thought out that moments exist in it in which the plot and current objective temporarily lose their salience, and all that matters is being in the virtual space.  

To be fair, the game’s fidelity is let down slightly by the limitations of the HTC Vive’s 1080 x 1200 per-eye resolution, because small items and distant objects tend to look pixelated. However, the true-to-life sense of scale and the realistic 3D rendering more than make up for the limited resolution of the game’s current-gen VR platform. While Call of the Starseed might not match the visual fidelity of modern AAA titles, such as Doom, the designed-for-VR game creates senses of awe and wonder that no 2D game can match.

And that’s the magic of Call of the Starseed. It doesn’t try to force 2D-game mechanics — such as controller-based movement or first-person combat — into VR, which make people sick. Instead, the game embraces the advantages and limitations of its medium, with which it creates a new way to tell a story.

Move Like It’s Real

One of the advantages of the Vive is its room-scale VR, in which players can move freely within the designated game space. Call of the Starseed moves the real-world game space within its virtual space with a teleportation system called Blink — look to point the blue aiming reticle, align its orientation with the touch pad, and push the button to move. This means the in-game camera is controlled entirely by the player’s real-world movement, which makes for a nausea-free experience.

To manage in-game inventory, Call of the Starseed uses a virtual backpack — a reach over either shoulder deploys a Minority Report-style bag, which stores items such as a flashlight and a cassette player. Inventory management isn’t usually the most enjoyable thing in a game, but rifling through the backpack and grabbing items with hand gestures made the experience feel almost like a mini-game.

Whether a flashlight or an audio log, everything in the game manifests as the virtual equivalent of its real-world counterpart. For example, maps are pieces of paper, which can be picked up and turned over. And audio logs are cassette tapes, which can be played in the cassette player. This kind of tactile interactivity creates a realistic experience in ways that flat context menus and pop-up windows cannot. Additionally, these elements represent the kind of VR-specific game design that makes the medium great.

Play It Again

Call of the Starseed took me around two hours to finish. I played through the levels at a relatively slow pace because I wanted to explore and immerse myself without rushing through things. But as soon as I finished the game I wanted to play it again, even though I knew the challenge of the puzzles wouldn’t be there.

I could easily Vive away another afternoon wandering the levels, reading the clues, and absorbing the atmosphere again — it’s that immersive. But Call of the Starseed is just the first of The Gallery's four episodes, the second of which — Heart of the Emberstone — is currently in development. Needless to say, I can't wait for Episode 2, and I heartily recommend Episode 1 for players who want an immersive VR experience with an old-school sci-fi story right now.

For help with the game’s puzzles, check out our Call of the Starseed walkthrough, which contains some spoilers.