Polybius – The urban legend bought to life
If you’ve read up on an arcade game called Polybius, you will find information about an arcade cabinet from 1981 that became an urban legend. It was apparently a crowdsourced psychology experiment that produced psychoactive and addictive effects. The legend also talks of men in black attending the cabinets, simply for the purpose of data-mining. The arcade cabinet is as rare as rare can be and there are rumours that only a few of the original cabinets exist; one of which is stored in Basingstoke. James Rolfe, aka The Angry Video Game Nerd, did a piece on the legend too, so it has an interesting history.
That was true until 2017. You may remember that late in 2016 I attended the Play Expo and at the time of writing it was under test. I told you at the time that “Trying to describe this game is going to be pretty impossible” and having now played it a bit more, I am still struggling to find the words. A little warning, I have a deep love for almost everything Llamasoft do, so yes this review might be written with some rose tinted glasses on.
- Published: May 9th, 2017
- Platform: PS4
- Price: £13.99 from the PlayStation Store
- Genre: Arcade shooter
- Developer: Llamasoft
- Metacritic Score: 84%
Before you start the game, you are asked to confirm that you are fine with psychedelic visuals and flashing images. It’s probably quite important if you are sensitive to this sort of thing to pay a lot of attention to it. The last thing Llamasoft want to do is cause somebody a seizure. There are three game modes. Classic, which allows you to restart from your best effort and gives you an extra shield at the end of the level, Yolo where you are given nine shields to begin and no shield increase at the end of the level and Pure where you are forced to start at level 1. Entering the first level you are given very minimal instructions which is something that Llamasoft tend to do, the first bit of instruction being simply “Do what comes naturally“. What you’re about to experience is a pure arcade shooter which shows off the power of VR. Sadly I don’t have a VR headset so I have to play it in plain old 2D but the controls are simple, move your ship with the stick left and right and shoot with the X button.
Polybius is all about getting into a flow. You are encouraged to run through the gates put before you, but the idea is that you run through the gates that feel right, rather than trying to get through all the gates. Your eyes are somewhat assaulted by the speed and colours and it’s at this point I fear that Polybius may lose a lot of people. I think it helps that I am a seasoned Llamasoft game player because I actually really like how this is done, your eyes soon learn to relax past the initial onslaught and the game starts to show itself.
Every time I come back to Polybius I am constantly impressed by the speed and feel of the game itself. I don’t have a PS4 Pro but if I did I am sure that it would output in it’s advertised 4k at 120FPS. I love the finding out more about the game, the little almost subliminal encouraging messages or realising that I am being told how good I have been playing and awarding me for it. To top it all off there is a seriously good soundtrack for it that you can buy on Bandcamp for just £6, it’s good electronic music, made by the Llamasoft community and is really nice to listen to outside of the game.
It’s a marmite game for sure; one that might generate polarising views. Yes, it’s mostly there for the experience and I am sure that it looks and feels incredible in VR. I personally can only play a few games of it in a row before it all just gets a bit too much for my brain to handle, but in those games there is genuine enjoyment. Moments where you really feel like everything is racing past and you almost have no idea what is going on, but it feels so fluid that it is hard to look away from it.
It’s not without its flaws, however. It could be criticised for those moments where you just have no idea what is going on; some people have said that the hit detection on the gates are unforgiving, but when you’re going at such a crazy speed, or you’re messing with the flow, it’s hard to tell who was in the wrong here.
Jeff is not afraid of trying something different, even if it may only sell a few copies. A previous game of his, Space Giraffe, was a Tempest-like shooter that received very mixed reviews personally. I played it a lot on Xbox and thoroughly enjoyed it. How I feel about Polybius is very different – I can certainly appreciate the sheer speed and general feel of the game. There are times where I have no idea what is going on, but I am still enjoying it as an experience. Games get criticised for attempting to be an experience, Polybius does not attempt to be an experience, in my opinion.
It is one.
Tell us how you feel about games that either try to be or are an experience. If you have played Polybius then let us know what you think, if you own a PlayStation VR then please let me borrow it so I can experience this game as I believe it should be played. As usual, we are anxious to hear from you so use our comments section or get in contact via Facebook, Twitter or Reddit
Love and psychedelic visuals