In 1995, Interplay’s Descent offered an unique twist on the first person shooter genre which had been popularized by id’s DOOM in 1993. Instead of the player moving forward, backward, left, and right along a plane, Descent provided six degrees of freedom by adding pitch and yaw into the mix, making movement around the maze feel like flying in zero gravity. Trapped inside underground mines and hidden bases, the goal was to navigate each level, shoot enemies, defeat a boss and escape all within the freedom of simulated 360 degree movement. This made for a hectic and sickness-inducing action game that was slick, polished, and super fun. It’s been over twenty years since Descent made a splash on PCs and now, PouncingKittenGames LLC has revived the concept with Cavernous Wastes. By all accounts, this PSVR enabled Descent clone should be a slam dunk. In truth, it barely has a third of the other game’s fun and creativity.
Actually, a third is being generous. There’s nothing about this overly bland copycat that will hold your attention for more than a few minutes or until the motion sickness takes over. The setup involves the classic chestnut of humanity being forced underground as a result of some unknown cataclysm. In order to survive, the humans have carved tunnels and cave networks with the assistance of unmanned drones capable of boring through solid rock. They’ve also invested in portal technology in order to make getting deeper below the surface more accessible. However, something has gone wrong. As the player character, you suffer from a form of amnesia and are unable to recall the events that have caused the drones to attack the humans on sight. Only by collecting scattered journal entries does a picture of the machine uprising begin to take shape. Translated into gameplay, you pilot a small mining ship armed with a modest selection of weapons to help you escape the cavernous wastes, moving from one portal to another while battling violent machines. This sounds far more exciting than it really is.
Playing the game is an experience in monotony. The music uninspired and enemies don’t go out of their way to find you. The flight controls aren’t particularly great as the ship handles with the speed and sensitivity best suited to outdoor flight. You’ll find that it’s far too easy to overcompensate thrust and careen into the tunnel surfaces. And with no radar or compass, it is really easy to lose your sense of direction. I would be much more comfortable with steering the ship by tilting my head in the direction I want to move–a la Eagle Flight–which could make getting around a whole lot more intuitive. Apart from the walls, floors, and ceilings, you’ll need to be aware of a small army of rogue drones patrolling the tunnels. Well, “patrol” is too strong a word. Drones simply hover in one spot and wait for the player to reach their aggro range before they fly in your direction with guns blazing. The enemy AI is pretty terrible as drones make no attempt to dodge attacks or perform evasive maneuvers to avoid your attacks. They’ll just sit there until one of you is dead. Turrets aren’t any better as they are glued to the ground which does make their sustained laser blasts easy to avoid. Your own ship is equipped with its own set of guns and lasers, neither of which feel like they yield significant damage against different enemy types and…gosh, I’m bored just talking about it. I don’t know how it’s possible but Cavernous Wastes fails to muster any excitement over blowing stuff up.
The roguelike aspect of spelunking helps to break up the monotony but not by much. Besides the teleporters that take you to deeper underground, you’ll come across small glowing towers that provide your ship with random upgrades, like better weapons, increased health, and armor. In proper roguelike fashion, you’ll keep these upgrades (represented on screen as playing cards) until you die and start the game over again. A new game reshuffles the locations of teleporters, upgrade towers, and even the maps (although I noticed it recycles recycles the same course types pretty frequently).
Cavernous Wastes has all the glamour of something you’d find in the discount software section at an Office Depot. The bland and ugly graphics look like something out of a cop show involving a serial killer who hides clues to their next murder inside cheaply made video games. Actually, wait a minute. That makes me think of a movie from 1992 called The Double-0 Kid starring Corey Haim, Wallace Shawn, and Brigitte Nielsen. In it, Wallace Shawn plays a maniacal villain trying to take over the world and uses a “video game of doom” room to crush his enemies. At one point, Haim is captured and forced to play a game about a mummy surviving traps that have been recreated around him (fun fact: Corey Haim was also in an FMV game called Double Switch where he disguised himself as a mummy in order to kill people). Cavernous Wastes could easily be that game.
There’s nothing fun about Cavernous Wastes. It fails to generate any level of excitement and urgency as you blast drones in one tunnel before teleporting into another and doing it again. I couldn’t stand to play more than a few hours, not just because I lost all interest but how easily the virtual reality component induced motion sickness. I can usually handle some of the more intense VR experiences on the PSVR but like DOOM VFR, the speed of the ship’s movement combined with disorientation was more enough to make my stomach get really angry. The more I think about it, the less I feel this game really needs VR. You could easily get the experience of zooming around brown cave tunnels without putting on a headset and packing a vomit bag. In fact, the PSVR assists in making this already ugly game look worse because it the system doesn’t offer the high level of visual fidelity as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. There are so, so many better VR games available for the PlayStation 4 right now so save your money and avoid this muddy abyss.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.