Previews

The day I punched a Parshendi — A preview of The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains VR Experience

Pretty much everyone who grew up reading science fiction and fantasy has yearned to escape from the drudges of every day life and into the pages of their favorite book. Thanks to the magic of virtual reality, I was able to do just that, stepping into Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series in the Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains VR experience. This immersive, narrative VR experience is divided into two distinct parts; the first is exploration, allowing you to delve into the Shattered Plains and interact with the characters, creatures, and world of Brandon Sanderson. The second part binds you to the cosmos, requiring you to fight for your life against alien enemies, burning the experience into your mind as it burns your muscles in a short but demanding physical fight.

Escape the Shattered Plains begins with a brief tutorial on how to move about in virtual space, and then promptly dumps you into the middle of a Highstorm. These massive storms rip through the land of Roshar frequently, bringing with them all the fury of a hurricane. You, as Kalandin, have been chained by both wrists, exposed to the elements, and left to die. It’s a stunning and terrifying introduction, as wind howls through your ears, red lightning crackles in the clouds above, and, as book readers will be terrified to discover, Kaladin’s sprite-like companion, the Windspern Syl, is nowhere to be found. Without her protection, you are truly at the mercy of the storm, and completely helpless when debris comes hurling at you.

The world goes black.

When Kaladin wakes, you find yourself alive, and, oddly, glowing with white wisps of light, at the bottom of the chams. The Shattered Plans are a harsh, cracked, desert battleground, a bleak, bitter land where humans have been waging war with a strange, savage species known as the Parshendi for seven long years. Of course, all of that happens on the planes themselves; you’ve awoken hundreds of feet below them in the bowels chasms, the treacherous, maze like trenches which run between the plateaus.

I found myself greeted by a familiar voice, though it takes me a moment to realize that it’s a voice that I’ve never actually heard before. A ribbon of white light slides between me and the barren landscape, coalescing into the form of a tiny, floating young woman with wind-wild hair and a girlish skirt. Sylphrena sounds exactly as I imagined she would, and if I have one complaint about her appearance, it’s that her skirt has a distinct hemline, rather than misting away at the ends, as it’s described in the books.

“Look at your hands, Kaladin!” She exclaims, and I find myself doing just that. Heavy shackles still hold my wrists, their chains broken. Beyond them, smoky wisps of white light rise from my skin. I’m filled with Stormlight, a magical energy radiating through me due to my exposure to the Highstorm. Syl takes on the role of narrator, walking me through the mechanics of the experience, the world’s lore, and even a bit of science regarding the plants and animals in the chasms.

Navigating this world is an easy and familiar experience to anyone acquainted with VR, as it uses the industry standard method of pressing the button atop the Vive wand to trigger a “fishing line,” allowing you to teleport to the selected spot. Despite the tutorial instructing me to turn from side to side using the buttons on the Vive wands, a mechanic which served as  my single biggest complaint about Skyrim VR, I was delighted to find that this is an option rather than a restriction, and I was able to freely turn myself around in the virtual space, the natural movement making for a much more enjoyable experience.

Pointing at an object and pulling the Vive wand’s trigger activates Kaladin’s special brand of magical powers, known as Surgebinding. This ability allows Kal to adjust the way gravity interacts with an object. Point at a rock, pull the trigger, and your hand becomes ‘down’ for the rock, causing it to fall towards you. Point your hand elsewhere and release to ‘bind’ the rock to that spot, sending it flying off into the sky, wall, or whatever unfortunate plant you want to see react. Have I mentioned that plants in Roshar react to touch? More on that soon.

Trapped by rubble within a small chamber at the bottom of the Shattered Plains, Kal would be as good as dead if not for his ability to Surgebind. At Syl’s instruction, I reach towards the mess of debris and boulders blocking my way, lashing them to a distant point in the sky, sending them shooting off into the distance one at a time. The path opens, and golden triangles explode and reform around my head; Gloryspren. With the way forward clear, I’m free to explore the chasms, practicing my Surgebinding as I go.

One of the first things I spot is a tall, orange, not quite flowering pant, surrounded by glowing, bobbing, green motes; Lifespren. “That’s a rockbud,” Syl comments before explaining more about the plant life in Roshar, and even adding a bit of information about spren themselves. I rather rudely ignore her, as I’m already familiar with the lore, and reach my hand toward the plant. Quick as a blink, the rockbud pulls down, and the four ‘leaves’ laying prone at its base clamp closed, leaving the plant protected inside a rock-like shell. The Highstorms are so destructive that plants needed to adapt in order to survive their fury, growing and withdrawing into hard, stony shells, or folding up into crevasses in the rocks at the slightest disturbance.

The discoveries continue as I open up new passageways, stumbling upon skeletons, debris, and new kinds of life, including Frillblooms and even a chull, a large, docile, crab-like creature with a rocky shell. The chull is large enough that I approach with caution, but the crustacean seems to be as nervous about me as I am about it. Carefully, I reach out to try and stroke its stony shell, and literally coo in delight as it reacts to my touch with a clicking, happy sound. It’s a big, strange, dead-eyed crab-thing, and yet it’s somehow cute. Inexplicably, I feel a connection with it, as I would with a skittish but friendly stray cat.

As much fun as it’s been exploring the chasm floor, one can only spend so long down here, and a not-too-distant trumpeting sound, which is foreign yet somehow still predatory, does not bode well for my chances of survival. It’s time to leave, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

The chasm walls are too steep and too smooth to climb, but fortunately, Kaladin is a Surgebinder, and he’s about to acquire a new ability. Through Syl’s guidance, and aided by a flock of shimmering, eel-like Gravityspren, Kaladin learns to use his powers to lash himself to the wall. All at once, the world shifts. The wall becomes the source of gravity beneath my feet, the chasm floor is suddenly a wall to my right, and as the world tilts, my stomach does one slow half rotation before everything rights itself. I’m prone to motion sickness inside VR, and this was the part of the experience which I found myself most dreading. Despite the fact that it did cause a few moments of discomfort, it’s over in a flash without any residual effects. Beyond that, I more fully appreciate the challenges Kaladin faced while learning to lash himself to the chasm walls in the books, and instantly felt a touch of sympathy and guilt for laughing at his many spills while he practiced this craft.

I look around, reaching out touch the chasm floor as it rises like a short wall to my right. The other wall looms close overhead, like a ceiling, as I start to walk up the wall. Frillblooms retract into their crevices as I pass, the blue sky above slowly grows from a ribbon to a river to an ocean as I, at long last, emerge into the bright, bitter sun as it bakes the desolate, rocky tops of the plateaus.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone.

A group of Parshendi warriors has gathered at the top, harvesting a gemheart from a chasmfiend chrysalis. Humans and Parshendi have been fighting over these gemhearts for years, and the Parshendi war band is surprised and incredibly displeased to find a human intruding on their prize. Savage, tribal, and strong enough to jump from plateau to plateau, Parshendi are humanoids with marbled skin peeking from beneath naturally growing carapace armor. They have no hesitations about spilling Kaladin’s blood in order to protect their gemheart. Escape the Shattered Plains quite suddenly morphs from a passive, exploration experience to a fight for survival, and this battle is incredibly unfair in the most rewarding of ways. Outnumbered and unarmed, you’re forced to fight with only your bare fists against aggressors who grow their own armor, attack with carapace spikes at their elbows, shoot arrows from afar, and come armed with steel cudgels.

Punching, ducking, and teleporting around the small plateau, dodging attacks, and destroying foes is as challenging as it is exhilarating. What feels like endless waves of Parshendi descend upon Kaladin; the boxing match leaves him exposed to arrows, and the player physically exhausted from an extended fist fight… unless you remember Kaladin’s Surgebinding and make use of the many boulders strewn across the plateau. Syl shouts encouragement and concern, and while her help isn’t terribly useful, it’s nice just to be reminded that you’re not entirely alone on the plains. No sooner does the battle feel like it might turn in Kal’s favor than a trumpeting sound shatters the pace of the fight.

A chasmfiend claws its way to the top of the plateau.

I’ve read descriptions of these massive, armored predators countless times in the pages of  Stormlight Archive, and staring up at one, I freeze for a long moment, just taking the monstrosity in rather like a certain artist from the books. It’s huge and narrow, built like a scorpion, with four claws as large as a horse, and a pointed face filled with rows and rows of teeth. The fight is no longer human verses Parshendi, it’s a matter of combined survival against an apex predator which is intent on feeding. The methods to conquering this beast, and the rewards for doing so will have to remain in the imaginations of readers, and those who take on the experience themselves.

The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains offers fans an amazing chance to step inside the imagination of Brandon Sanderson and see the world of Roshar as he intended it. The simple ability to both see and interact with a universe which had previously only existed in my mind left me feeling more familiar with and more connected to the world of The Way of Kings than three readings of the books has ever allowed. The narrative is delightful, providing something familiar for fans while acting as a wonderful gateway drug into the books, offering just enough information to tantalize those unfamiliar with the Stormlight Archive. The experience will teach you all you need to know about the basics of Surgebinding and provide a good introduction to the general world, but you’ll have to pick up the books if you want to learn how Kaladin came to possess the ability to Surgebind, or why exactly humans are at war with the Pandreshi.

While not a full game, the first episode of this narrative experience provides plenty of action mixed with the wonder that comes with taking in a new world filled with strange life. It’s exciting and invigorating, spurring the imagination while also requiring a bit of physical exertion. While I did experience a frame rate issue or two, the March 2nd release should give Arcturus and DMG Entertainment plenty of time to smooth out these minor hiccups. So long as you are observant, which I, admittedly, was not at one point, the narrative itself guides you seamlessly through the experience, even when you are rude as I, and choose to ignore Syl more often than not.

The first chapter of The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains will be coming to Steam and Viveport on March 2nd. The experience lasts 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your playstyle, and costs $10.99, with additional chapters (Syl promised to teach me how to fly!) coming soon. To learn more, visit the Seam Store and be certain to check out our interview with Chief Creative Officer Ewan Johnson.

 

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