As the current PlayStation VR launch line up resembles as a wasteland of throwaway gimmicky titles, it's refreshing to see that Farnborough-based indie nDreams has carved a different path, one that is narrative-driven and more grounded in reality. The title is the first fully-fledged release from the studio and has been turning heads since its E3 debut in 2014. Whilst attending an exclusive press event held at nDreams' studio we had the opportunity to play through the first six chapters of the game and delved deep into the morally questionable world of The Assembly.
Concealed deep underground and cut free from the moral restraints of society is The Assembly, a secret organisation where values are compromised in the pursuit of scientific discovery. What is unclear, however, is what secrets they have locked away and just how far they would go to retain their hushed existence. The intriguing narrative was penned by Tom Jubert, who has previously lent his talents to the likes of The Swapper and Binary Domain.
Cast at the forefront of The Assembly's 12-chapter story are two protagonists; Madeline Stone and Caleb Pearson. Unwillingly selected by The Assembly, Madeline finds herself torn from her old life as an aspiring teacher and is pushed through an intensive induction program. Whereas Cal works directly inside the organisation's network of laboratories and is on a pursuit of uncovering The Assembly's darkest secrets. The trials that you partake in as Madeline as part of her introduction are puzzle-sections, and contrast deeply to the more exploration heavy areas where you play as Cal. Having the opportunity to play as two different characters helps to evoke curiosity in the story as you are constantly being fed new information from two different perspectives.
During the title's opening section Madeline is strapped to a gurney and wheeled into The Assembly, appearing motionless and disorientated. While you are left to take in your surroundings you'll catch a glimpse of several hints that signal the severity of The Assembly's operations. These stem from its remote desert location to its impervious level of security, with cameras around the perimeter pinpointing your every move. As you enter the elevator and descend into the depths of the bunker, snapshots of labs will flash before you revealing the enormity of their operation.
The story later switches to Cal who is left searching for answers after making a curious discovery. Sections featuring Cal are particularly slow-paced, giving you the freedom to explore and dig through labs full of empty cupboards to your heart's content. Most of your time in the labs will be spent searching for codes, inspecting samples and finding data to uncover the true motives of The Assembly. Inspecting samples under a microscope was an interesting mechanic to implement in VR, as it feels like you're actually peering down the lens when examining batches of cells.
The Assembly's moody cold palette and ambient sounds work to create an atmosphere that feels frightfully tense, especially when you're trespassing in your co-workers offices and prying for information. When entering a new room there's the unsettling sense that somebody may be soon to return as computers remain active, speakers boom with music, and experiments are ongoing
If you have expert sleuthing skills, you may stumble upon additional information or be able to obtain codes to grant you access to rooms hidden off the main path. As well as enhancing replayability, the extra information offers clarity to character's actions and may even change your entire perspective on the story. During the early section of the game you'll be engaging with a number of objects and it isn't always immediately clear if they will have an impact. An action as small as throwing away a co-workers sandwich is enough to trigger a chain of events that wouldn't have otherwise have happened.
While being assessed by The Assembly, Madeline is put through a series of trials to identify her skills as a new recruit. The first is a puzzle where the goal is to slide a yellow block onto its corresponding tile. This may sound simple enough, but the grid is obstructed by a number of obstacles, which must be lowered by sliding other blue and purple blocks into the correct place. We may have seen similar puzzles time and time again in other titles, but it functions incredibly well in VR as you can simply tilt your head to see your desired path more clearly.
The second trial puts your detective skills to the test as you're presented with a mound of evidence and must informatively make an all important decision. Here you're thrust into a blackened room where a dinner party of mannequins has ended in cold blood. The responsibility is then on you to listen to alibis, scavenge through emails, and comb through any other evidence to figure out which two guests conspired to the murder. We also felt this section lent itself well to VR, as it added an extra layer of immersion when physically inspecting evidence. We also couldn't escape from a looming sense of doubt when approaching the suspects that we may have made the wrong choice.
Adding a much needed sense of depth to the VR platform, The Assembly is one that instantly drew us in with its intriguing concept and dual protagonist story structure. It's an experience that we felt carried a sense of mystery and discovery throughout and its exploration and puzzle-solving mechanics although familiar, made a smooth transition into the world of VR. The Assembly is set to be released July 19th on PC and in late 2016 on the PS4, and includes flatscreen compatibility for those who have yet to take the plunge. This duality is represented by the control scheme for the game. You can play with a standard controller, although you can also - as with so many other VR games - teleport between locations if walking isn't your thing.