Episodic videogames are a tricky proposition. They give developers plenty of scope to provide a more TV series-like structure to their narratives, one that can be tweaked and refined with each release. The downside is that gamers only get a small slice of the content, which can mean a short, unsatisfying experience. And as streaming services like Netflix have proven, the general public just loves their binging sessions. And so onto ROTU Entertainment’s launch of Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia, a gorgeous nugget of VR gaming that’s just too bittersweet.
Stepping into Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia for the first time the narrative and visuals offer a grand vision of a beautiful forest world, inhabited by strange and wonderful plants and animals all under threat. While the Oculus Quest version has noticeably taken a graphical hit, the PC VR version really does show attention to detail. Some of the epic visual set pieces look like you’re on Avatar’s world of Pandora, offering a rich tapestry of colour and glowing mushrooms that you can play.
And it’s that musical prelude that Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia is built around, from the playable shrooms to the puzzles that all have their own melodies. They’re all based on real instruments so in one puzzle you have to play a metal drum whilst a couple of others you get to jam on a xylophone that appears to have grown out of a tree.
ROTU Entertainment has really gone for the environmental element throughout the title, whether that’s habitats under threat of destruction to walking through old temples taken over by plant life. There’s a natural synergy to the whole experience. That’s also been reflected in the real world with a small percentage of sales going supporting the Wildlife Warriors Worldwide organisation.
Unfortunately, that’s where most of the goods points end because Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia doesn’t live up to the grandiose vision it has for itself. As mentioned, the problem starts with the episodic design, with the studio having previously said seven instalments are planned. Whether that’s still the case isn’t clear, what is clear is the 45-minute run time over five chapters. A good chunk of that time is taken up with backstory sequences to build up this fantastical realm, yet you’re given so little time to interact with it there’s no real connection. Especially when it comes to the briefly mentioned Tritone army that’s destroying the world, a part of the narrative you never get to see.
You play a mute lad called Allegro, who alongside his very talkative sister Allegra tries to save the Harpa, a mystical creature dying from all the deforestation. What this actually turns into is you listening to Allegra talk at the start of each chapter, follow, solve a puzzle then move onto the next level. There’s no exploration in Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia, just a very short point A to point B wander. It would be amazing to investigate the depths of the world, but you can’t.
The most you can do is climb. In fact, Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia has a significant amount of climbing for such a short adventure, with vines or jutting out bricks glowing yellow so you can see where you’re going. These sections are the closest you’ll get to feeling even slightly connected to the world of Ionia. The rest of the time you’ll be teleporting around.
It’s very easy to tell Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia was initially built around teleportation, making it nicely accessible to all players. Direct locomotion is there it’s just quicker to teleport – some sections even mandate it. If you are well acquainted with VR head to the options section and up the walking speed to the max as the default is slow; fully running feels like the proper walk speed. Crucially, do this before starting the videogame as none of the settings can be accessed mid-game. Worse, going back to the main menu means you have to start the chapter you’re on from the beginning!
There were other various bugs and glitches that hampered the overall experience like getting stuck on invisible walls when walking or Allegra’s twitchy animation – she also rarely looks directly at you, either off to the side or like she’s staring right through you which is both annoying and slightly unnerving. Yet the one glaring issue with Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia is the emptiness. Sure, there’s plenty of foliage giving the impression of a lush environment except you do want something to do. Those musical moments are too short and far between and are way too underused, symphony of the universe this is not.
What this all leads to is Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia giving the impression of a VR experience from a couple of years ago rather than a properly immersive 2021 videogame. There are plenty of issues that still need refining like opening the menu, lack of saving and lack of a properly seated option. Even with all of that, there’s still hope. The world-building and narrative ideas show great promise and it would be tremendous to see further editions expand the premise. Only then would Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia be worth exploring.