Virtual reality has the amazing ability to literally transport you into another world, and there are few things more astounding than finding yourself inside a new reality. The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains is a short but robust experience which allows you to do just this. This immersive VR experience takes its name from the first book of New York Times best selling author Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archives, and just as a heads up to those unfamiliar with the series, you will not, in fact, be playing as a king.
I’m not new to to the setting, having read Sanderson’s The Way of Kings several times over, in addition to having already gone through the experience, but that didn’t stop me from being genuinely excited about the ability to step into the world of the Stormlight Archives whenever I desire. While this experience is aimed at fans, it also seeks to draw in newcomers who are unfamiliar with Sanderson’s writing, so it felt important to include the feedback from a few such people in this review. I found myself a very willing test subject in the form of Tim Mattson, and we took turns exploring the virtual chasms inspired by Sanderson’s writing.
If there’s one thing that Escape the Shattered Plains excels at, it’s setting the mood. The experience starts with a black screen and a clap of thunder, a sound which Tim jumped at, immersed in the experience the very moment it began. This feeling continues throughout the narrative, from the cheery babbling of Kaladin’s spren friend, Syl, to the terrifying shriek of the giant chasmfiend you must battle. I’m going to gloss over some of the details of the mechanics, character design choices, and overall experience of The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains, as I already covered much of this in great detail in my preview article, so I’d suggest you give that a read if you’re interested in those specifics.
The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains is divided into two parts, one being exploration, the other a fight for your life. Exploring as a fan of the books is pure delight, as you have enough knowledge of the foreign flora and fauna in the chasms to have a pretty good idea about what you can and should interact with. Without this knowledge, however, this part of the experience can seem rather barren. As a book reader, I immediately sought out plants, knowing they would react if I tried to physically touch them, but this was not the case for Tim, who generally relied on his Stormlight to interact with the environment. When I asked him if he’d touched the plant, he was bewildered. “You can touch the plants?” He wasted no time in teleporting over, kneeling down, and poking at a rockbud, and jumped in surprise when it quickly pulled shut. I stooped down to pet the chull, making it click and glow with happy spren, meanwhile Tim moved too quickly around it, causing both the crab and the human, to jump in surprise. When he approached the Chull too quickly, it jumped in surprise, which caused him to jump, and left me doubled over in laughter as I watched. Tim surprised me when he picked up small cremling, something I hadn’t realized you could interact with, and tried to unsuccessfully feed it to the vegetarian chull.
Both our minds were blopwn when a third person jumped into the visor and picked up one of the Parshendi clubs, something neither of us had even thought of doing. Escape the Shattered Plains really does place you inside an environment and turns you lose to explore with very little indication about what you can and cannot do inside it. There’s very little indication about what objects you can interact with, something which is both a great strength, as I was still finding new things to do during my fourth playthrough, but also a weakness, as the environment can feel rather sterile if you don’t go out of you way to poke, prod, pick up, or lash the various items strewn about the chasm floor. Those unfamiliar with the series, or who aren’t overly imaginative, will probably have a hard time finding most of the many gems that this rich little VR title has to offer.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how amazing the entire experience looks inside the visor. There is an astounding level of detail to every object, and the screenshots simply don’t do justice to what it’s like to experience the world yourself. I’ve taken plenty of time to peer down plateau edges, spying on the vertical drops into the chasm, studied the mouth and carapace armor of a felled chasmfiend up close, and even snatched up skulls, frillblooms and flailing cremlings, just so I could study the textures up close. This experience really is impressively detailed, from the crevices in rocks to the way Syl’s hair moves about as it mostly ignores the pull of gravity. You can’t help but imagine the rough texture of the chull’s shell under your fingers as you reach out to pet it; the way Stormlight radiates off your hands, when combined with Syl’s explanation of the power running through you caused the fingers of even a non-book-reader to tingle. This world is real enough and full enough that your mind is eager to embrace it, to go along with it.
Syl is also a point of delight in and of herself. While her skirt may not mist away quite as I imagined, she moves in a sprite-like and entirely Syl fashion. If you look at her, she floats, flips, and lays sideways in the air, animating in just the way a creature who has spent her entire life ignoring gravity would do. If you look around, she does a beautiful job of tracking into the corner of your vision, staying accessible whenever she speaks while still not demanding all of your attention. Her voice acting is excellent, and she strikes a great balance, a familiar narrator with just enough of Navi’s Hey, listen! to guide you through the experience without being annoying. She’s also been written in such a way that she will skip over tutorials and flavor text should you rush through one section, allowing those who want to to power through to the next to avoid waiting through long speeches.
While I found this to be a delightful experience, I have to comment that it’s not completely accurate to the books. Kaladin lashes objects from a distance, without touching them; Parshendi somehow speak in subtitled English, and their language seems to lack the sing-song tones I expected. Kaladin needs the assistance of gravityspren in order to lash himself to a wall; there are countless little details which are off, yet they all make sense within the mechanics of the gameplay itself. Those who demand militaristic adherence to canon will doubtlessly find fault here, but for those who simply wants a chance to wander around inside the world of The Way of Kings, this adaptation does a great job of hitting all the truly important notes from the books while still allowing you to function easily within the restrictions of virtual reality.
Combat in the experience is fast and furious, and can be accomplished through a number of ways. Go bare-knuckle boxing against enemies who grow their own carapace armor, scavenge weapons on the field, or use your magic to pelt your enemies from a distance. There’s a number of ways to go about it, and a number of ways to die. You’re hopelessly outnumbered on the Shattered Plains, and apex predators are on the prowl. You’re going to have to test your skill against a chasmfiend, because the experience just wouldn’t be complete without that encounter. Like the rest of the experience, winning this fight will require observation, as well as a bit of skill and timing. Fortunately, you can’t accidentally fall of the cliff and to your death, so that’s a small blessing.
The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains is an amazing VR experience, intended to give newcomers a little taste of the world waiting for them within the Stormlight Archives, and fans the chance to experience the Shattered Plains first hand. It’s not entirely bug free quite yet, but it has amazing visuals, great music, and really makes you feel like you’re inside one of Brandon Sanderson’s novels. While it can serve as a stand alone experience, it’s best enjoyed as a supplement to the books, or by having someone familiar with the series provide a little additional guidance, clueing you into some of the more unique aspects of the world. It’s well worth playing several times, as I was still discovering new features, creatures, and ways to interact after several playthroughs.
Escape the Shattered Plains
The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains is a treat, allowing fans to experience the world of Sanderson's Stormlight Archives first hand. It will likely be a little less enjoyable for those unfamiliar with the books, but holds no fewer secrets for those imaginative enough to poke, grab, and fill with Stormlight.