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In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Unexpected change of pace in a FromSoft game!
  • The children are endearing
  • Original twist on a tired horror cliché
  • Powerful story about the dangers of dwelling on the past

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Life-trading seems under-utilized
  • Simplistic progress gates

Overall Impression : A-
More than just an experimental footnote in FromSoft's library

Déraciné - cover

Developer:
From Software

Publisher:
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms:
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
5 November 2018

Genre:
VR point-and-click adventure

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
6-10 hours

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
Fantasy Violence

Official site:
www.playstation.com/en-us/games/deracine-ps4/

I've been enjoying the PS5 and the PSVR2. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that when all is said and done, the PS5 might end up being my second favorite console after the PS2. Its novel controller has even rekindled a long-lost love of Gran Turismo. The PSVR2 has been a bit more of a mixed bag. The few games that I've played on it have been good. The set itself is an improvement over the previous hardware in almost every way. It has 1 wire to connect to the console instead of the million cables required to get the original PSVR to connect to the console and TV, and the screen is a lot clearer and more vibrant. The only real downside of the physical hardware is that it is not as comfortable to wear as the original PSVR.

The biggest problem with the PSVR2, however, isn't really a problem with the PSVR2 hardware itself. The problem is the lack of things to play on it. It doesn't really have any killer apps at launch. There's a handful of games that are hardly more than tech demos or glorified expansions for other games. The only full games to be playable in VR at launch were Gran Turismo 7 and Resident Evil: Village, which were already a year or 2 old when the PSVR2 released.

Worst of all, however, is that the PSVR2 does not support any of the original PSVR games for PS4. This is despite the fact that the PS5 was always marketed as being fully backwards compatible with PS4 games. I get that the PSVR2 hardware works under totally different principles compared to the original system (using motion-sensing hardware instead of tracking the headset's position with cameras). But that doesn't mean that Sony couldn't have developed an API to translate the inputs from the PSVR2 into commands that PSVR games could understand. In any case, the net effect is that those of us who bought a PSVR2 are stuck with the hardware's limited library and don't have the luxury of the back-catalog of great PSVR titles. That means no Star Wars: Squadrons, no Resident Evil VII, and no Ace Combat 7, among other PS4 VR games.

The PSVR2 is not backwards-compatible with any of the PS4 VR games.

I actually wasn't aware that the PSVR2 wouldn't support PSVR games when I bought the hardware, and I never owned the original PSVR unit. While I was waiting for the PSVR2 hardware to be delivered, I already bought a fancy new flight stick with the expectation that I would be able to play Star Wars: Squadrons and Ace Combat, and I also bought another PS4 game that I never got around to playing because it was only available for VR. That game was FromSoftware's experimental little VR game, Déraciné. And since the PSVR2 wouldn't play these games on the PS5, I had to ask a friend if I could borrow his original PSVR headset so that I could play them.

A change of pace from Souls

I managed to avoid most information about Déraciné prior to playing it. It wasn't hard, as it's rarely more than a footnote in the content of the big Souls-Borne content creators. I did, however, know before hand that Déraciné would absolutely not be a VR Souls-Borne. There would be no hacking or slashing or parrying or dodge rolling. But I still wasn't quite prepared for just how much of a change of pace this game would be.

Very few of the standard gameplay conventions of a FromSoft game are present here. In fact, aside from the item descriptions that you can view by holding certain items in your hand, one could be completely forgiven for doubting that this really is a FromSoft game to begin with. However, I do feel that the studio's willingness and ability to make such a weird little game that is so radically different from its usual fare only validates my desire that FromSoft develop a horror game. No, Déraciné certainly isn't a horror game either, but its radically different tone and gameplay compared to the likes of Dark Souls demonstrates that FromSoft's range is greater than most gamers seem to give them credit for.

There are some FromSoft conventions.

In fact, Déraciné initially feels about as far away from horror as a game can get. It starts off seeming to be a mostly chill and light-hearted story about some orphans playing with a faerie. The player plays as a time-travelling, life-giving, invisible faerie that takes up a residence in a Victorian boarding school (or orphanage, or something) occupied by a handful of teenage and pre-teen children. One child wants to prove to the others that faeries are real, and so she gives herself the quest of befriending a faerie and asking that faerie (the player) to play some pranks to prove that you exist. But by halfway through, the story takes a very dark -- very horrifying -- twist.

Considering the tutorialization of a mechanic that allows the player to steal the life force of one living thing, and give it to another living thing, I actually expected these pranks to go to a very dark place much quicker than it did. After all, one of the very first tasks that the player is asked to do is to literally poison the childrens' dinner! I thought for sure that this little prank would get out of hand, a child would become seriously ill or possibly die, and I would have to start jumping back and forth through time to try to undo my actions, or to steal the life force from other animals or people to give back to the poisoned child. My expectation was that my attempts to "fix" the harm done by my prank would end up just making things worse (think of Ashton Kutcher's character in The Butterfly Effect).

But no. That's not what happens at all. One kid gets a tummy ache, which is easily treated with some medicine. The children, now all accepting that the faerie is real, then go to great effort to try to make the faerie happy so that I'll stay in the school and continue to do favors and parlor tricks for them. Deferring the darker aspects of the story for so long, actually did manage to disarm me a bit, so that when the game does start hinting at darker ideas, I was admittedly caught off guard by it.

Our mischief is innocent and light-hearted at first, but there are hints of a darker truth.

Here is where the game starts to feel like a FromSoft game: while the children and the player are busy petting the dog, cuddling with the cat, and getting into light-hearted child hijinx, it is slowly hinted that this school isn't quite what it appears to be, and the children aren't here by accident or coincidence. And in typical FromSoft fashion, very little of this is spelled out; it's largely left as subtle clues in the game world, which the player must find and decipher on your own. A perpetually-locked door here, a curious hand-written note there, maybe even some weird anachronisms in the dialogue, and so forth...

Unstuck in time

The game unfolds as a series of vignettes, which all take place in a snapshot of time. The player explores the various rooms of the school, with all the children frozen in moments of time. You listen to their inner thoughts, play around with some objects of interest, solve some simple inventory puzzles, and occasionally unfreeze time for a few seconds to see the result of your actions. It kind of reminds me of Return of the Obra Dinn, but without the deductive puzzles.

Stealing life and giving it to something else is only used for a single puzzle after the tutorial.

Most of the progress gates are pretty easy. The player is intended to explore the mansion, listen to the dialogue from all the characters, and then infer clues as to how to proceed. In actual practice, though, the player can often just stumble onto everything you need to progress without actually needing to listen to any of the dialogue. Thankfully, the game won't advance to the next vignette until you tell it to, so you won't miss any content, so long as you are patient and diligent. In fact, the only "puzzle" that gave me any trouble at all was the very final one, which requires a little bit of lateral thinking by the player. But my trouble with the final puzzle had less to do with the design of the puzzle, and more to do with the simple fact that I was expecting a different resolution than the one that FromSoft wanted, so I was looking in the wrong place (and time) for a solution.

I do also wish that the life-stealing / life-giving ability were used a bit more. It only comes up a handful of times in the story, and almost always as a bookend to a vignette. It's only ever used as the solution to a puzzle once in the entire game!

That being said, the Red Ring of Life, and its powers are still absolutely integral to the story and theme of the game. You don't use its power often, but when you do, it's a big deal. And it also creates some of the most memorable sequences in the game.

The powers of life and time manipulation are
key to the plot and themes of the game.

Leave it to From Software to provide a diegetic explanation for basic gameplay mechanics, and then to thoroughly connect those mechanics (and that explanation) to the core themes of the game. This is why From Software's games are interactive art, and not just mindless toys. They could just as easily have made the player into an outside observer without much reason or context for what I am doing. But this is a company that provides, in every one of their games, an explanation for why the player is allowed to die and respawn, and which makes those games narratively and thematically about life, death, and mortality. This time, FromSoft explores mortality from the perspective of time travel instead of undeath, but much more succinctly than its usual lengthy action-adventure campaigns.

Reflections on life, death, and mortality

The children and headmaster are all charmingly characterized. I found them to be very endearing. Even though Déraciné is a short game (I completed it with a Platinum Trophy in about 7 hours), it starts off with a slow burn. Much of the first half of the game is spent getting to know the children, while doing (what amounts to) fetch quests. As I said before, it's a very disarming game. It seems quaint, and silly, and almost childish.

But when the children start to get into serious trouble, it hits all that much harder. There's even a moment late in the game, in which I came down the stairs and stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of something I did not expect to see. The peaceful music that was playing while I was exploring the upstairs even stopped dead quiet as soon as that something came into view. It was a very memorable, very affecting moment that I doubt I'll be forgetting any time soon.

Many characters are obsessed with changing the past, hoping that it will make the present better.

And that is what this game does best. It creates powerful little moments, and reflects on big topics like life, death, mortality, regrets, and a desire to change the past. But sometimes, the past is best left alone, and we should instead live in the present. Déraciné is all about how short our time on this Earth is, and how a desire to change the past can consume us, stop us from seeing the joys, pleasures, and opportunities of the present, and send us spiraling into loops of trying to live between the past and the present (quite literally!). Learn from your mistakes, sure, but don't dwell in the past. Make the most of what little time you have.

If you have access to a VR headset for the PS4, do not sleep on Déraciné! It's more than just a tech demo or footnote in From Software's library. All the heart and soul that I've come to expect from a Hidetaki Miyazaki-directed game is here. All the beautiful interactive story-telling techniques are on full display. The magic, mysticism, and even a degree of cosmic horror is also here. Yeah, it's a bit slow in the first half, and might feel a bit cheesy and childish, but all of that is just to introduce the player to the characters and concepts. The second half of the game really kicks things into overdrive, and absolutely nails the ending! By that halfway mark, I had a really hard time putting it down.

I wish Déraciné didn't have to end as quickly as it did. But my time with the children is over, and that's something that I'll just have to accept.

A preoccupation with the past can prevent a person from living in the present, and hurt those around him.

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