VirtuaVerse – Review

What is it?

VirtuaVerse is a retro-styled point & clicker set in a cyberpunk future. As you might expect, it’s absolutely drenched in early 90s nostalgia, particularly for old school adventure games but also for vintage tech and the cracking and demo scenes of the Commodore 64 and Amiga. 

VirtuaVerse was developed by Theta Division, published by music label Blood Music and released on 12 May 2020 for Windows, Mac and Linux. It’s available on both Steam and GOG

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

That definitely sounds like your cup of tea!

Well actually, I’m more of a coffee person! But yup, I’d been hyped about Theta Divison’s VirtuaVerse for quite a while, partly due to the people involved but also because I bloody love cyberpunk, pixel art, and old school adventure games.

VirtuaVerse first appeared on my radar after seeing the animated music video that the game’s artist Valenberg made for Perturbator back in 2016. I instantly fell in love with Valenberg’s jaw-dropping pixel art and then subsequently discovered some screenshots he was showcasing for an upcoming point & click adventure.

A year or two later, I happened across the brilliantly unique chiptune metal of Master Boot Record (MBR). When I realised that he was the main driving force behind VirtuaVerse, I got pretty excited. According to the man himself, writing the music for VirtuaVerse was the very genesis of MBR.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

What’s the plot?

VirtuaVerse throws you into a not-to-distant Neuromancer-esque future of megacorporations, omnipotent AIs, hackers and cybernetic implants. It’s a world where most people are permanently chipped into a neural network known as augmented virtual reality (AVR).

AVR is like having the internet jacked into your brain and provides an interactive holographic overlay that you can bring up at any time. But it’s also an incredibly invasive experience that feeds on your data and warps your perception of reality – ads and spam constantly pollute your visual space, people hide their true appearance behind avatars, and many of the more unsightly aspects of reality are concealed beneath virtual facades. So, not that much of a leap from where we are today!

You find yourself taking the role of Nathan, a black-clad be-hooded smuggler of modded hardware and cracked software. Aside from seeming to lack an actual face, he’s one of the few not permanently chipped into AVR. Instead, he sports a custom headset that he can switch off at any time to see the world as it truly is. The trouble is, he’s just broken that headset and his girlfriend Jay has mysteriously vanished, leaving him locked in his tiny, dingy apartment.

Nathan’s quest to find Jay leads him on a strange odyssey through a seedy underworld of bizarre subcultures where he encounters technomancers, AVR graffiti artists, hacker crews, cryptoshamanic cults and enigmatic AIs. And ultimately, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens the very nature of reality and human civilization.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

What do you actually do?

At its core, VirtuaVerse is a loving homage to early 90s point & clickers, particularly LucasArts’ Monkey Island and Indiana Jones games and Charles Cecil’s Beneath A Steel Sky.

As such, the gameplay is very traditional. You command Nathan using a simple contextual mouse interface, and most of the action revolves around exploring locations, talking to oddball characters and amassing a collection of seemingly random objects that you must somehow combine and utilize to progress the storyline and access new areas.

So, if you aren’t a fan of those type of games, then you’re probably not going to get on too well with VirtuaVerse.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

Well, what did you think of the puzzles?

Luckily, I am a fan of those type of games and I thought the puzzle design in VirtuaVerse was excellent.

I’ve played a lot of modern point & clickers over the past few years and many do struggle to strike the right balance both in terms of tone and challenge – the puzzles are often a bit too earnest and are either far too easy or ridiculously abstruse.

What I enjoyed about VirtuaVerse’s puzzles is that they brilliantly capture the spirit of the genre classics. The problems are varied, logical, multi-stranded and satisfying to solve, but they’re also amusing and often involve some very goofy set-ups.

I loved all the tongue-and-cheek genre tropes such as bottomless pockets and gleefully shoving massive objects like ladders and broomsticks down your trousers. Like Guybrush, Indy, and Robert Foster, Nathan also has an uncanny knack for getting other characters into trouble, sometimes with rather brutal consequences. And, of course, no self-respecting point & clicker would be complete without filling up a bucket and fashioning a makeshift grappling hook.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

But I also appreciated the cryptic riddles, the Fate of Atlantis-style map games, and, my personal favourite, hunting through a box of inextricably tangled cables.

That said, there were a couple of puzzles that I solved more by pure accident than deduction. And I thought some puzzles did drag on by having too many steps or excessive toing and froing between locations. There was also a moderate amount of pixel hunting but that’s pretty standard for this type of game.

However, if you’re familiar with the conventions of classic point & clickers, explore each scene thoroughly and carefully listen to what Nathan and other characters have to say, most of the puzzles can be readily solved with some brainpower, imagination and experimentation.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

What else did you like?

The pixel art! Oh my gosh, the visuals are just awesome – Valenberg is truly the king of cyberpunk pixelation! In fact, VirtuaVerse is worth playing just for the phenomenal intro sequence you’re treated to after first leaving Nathan’s apartment.

I like how the artwork seamlessly pulls from a range of influences – from video games such as Beneath A Steel SkyMonkey Island 1 & 2The Fate of AtlantisFlashbackDreamwebFuture Wars and even UFO: Enemy Unknown and films and anime such as Blade RunnerAkira and Ghost in the Shell.

In itself, with its solid shading and simple outlines and features, the art style is rather minimal and nicely reminiscent of early VGA graphics. But every single scene in the game is brought to life with an obsessive amount of detail and lore.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

The animated backdrops and foregrounds are always buzzing with activity – cars and drones fly by, people chat and do their thing, and rain constantly batters the neon-drenched streets. And I adore the myriad posters and stickers, the adverts and graffiti, the flickering lights and tv screens, the grime and debris, and all the other incidental objects that populate each location. Oh, and those reflective surfaces are to die for!

There’s also the clever use of perspective and silhouetted foregrounds to really draw you into the scenes, something that was also used to great effect in many of the LucasArts games. As such, the locations are very natural and entertaining, and you feel like you’re there, peering in from the periphery.

One of my favourite examples of this is the bathroom at the Cubus nightclub, which is portrayed through a wall mirror. It’s like you’re at the washbasin, furtively watching Nathan in the reflection.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

I also enjoyed the variety of environments within VirtuaVerse. Without giving too much away, you eventually leave the grimy metropolis and find yourself exploring a jungle, frozen wasteland, desert and even the open seas.

As a big fan of MBR, I’m also happy to say that the soundtrack didn’t disappoint and for me, it was an instant purchase. It’s a little more cinematic than his usual output, which is to be expected, but it’s still a spine-tingling symbiosis of demoscene, chiptune, metal and classical. The tracks complement Valenberg’s artwork perfectly and together they create a wonderfully immersive atmosphere. I also appreciated the musical nods to Another WorldSyndicate and Monkey Island.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

What could have been better?

While I really enjoyed the story and the absence of voice acting didn’t bother me at all, I found the dialogue a bit stilted on occasion and I feel that it needed a tad more characterisation. But this is a minor complaint that didn’t impact my enjoyment of the game.

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

Favourite part?

So many good bits! As mentioned earlier, the intro cutscene is amazing. I also thoroughly enjoyed Nathan’s visit to the Cubus nightclub. There’s just so much crazy shit going on in there, and every room and person looks fantastic and the music is great.

Also, the cracktro sequence! The music and animation are so spot on and it took me back to the days of X-Copy and swapping Amiga floppies at school. Happy times!

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

Final word

VirtuaVerse is a brilliant game with satisfying puzzles, stunning pixel art and superb music. As a homage to classic adventure games, it ranks up there with Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park.

But I also really enjoyed the William Gibson-style storyline and the rich cyberpunk universe that Theta Division have crafted. And I was quietly impressed with the game’s exploration of how our ever-increasing dependence on the internet and digital technology can lead to distraction and alienation. I don’t want to spoil the plot but there’s also a surprisingly environmental message underpinning it all.

Yet, despite some heavy subject matter, VirtuaVerse is a very funny game that nicely captures the screwball humour so characteristic of Ron Gilbert and Charles Cecil’s point & clickers. I dig how Nathan always talks back to you in a mocking, sardonic fashion as well as the constant onslaught of silly in-jokes, self-reference and innuendo.

Of course, VirtuaVerse is also chock full of geeky references to the late 80s/early 90s computer scene. I couldn’t help but smile at the rather unsubtle allusions to the Amiga 500 and Atari ST, and the super nerdy coding jokes made me chortle. By the way, the Ultra Glove of Power that Nathan carries around for most of the game is sort of a real thing! It’s based on Elder0010’s (Theta Division’s coder) Power Glove Ultra, which is a modded version of the iconic Nintendo Power Glove.

Anyway, VirtuaVerse a great game. Buy it, listen to the soundtrack, and spread the code …

Screenshot from VirtuaVerse

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