Remember all that talk of Lucky’s Tale being the Mario 64 of VR? That was very on the nose, wasn’t it? Sure, it was literally a Nintendo-aping platformer but it didn’t carry the same significance that the Italian plumber’s transition into the third dimension did back in 1996.
Mario 64 was a playground of possibilities, a game you returned to time and again to not only relish but to push the boundaries. You wanted to see how far the game’s laws stretched, and if they’d bend to your own. Was it possible to make it to the top of Peach’s castle? Did the Mushroom Kingdom crumble if you reached some unseen vantage point? Every visit was part playtime, part R&D experiment.
I get that exact same vibe from Vacation Simulator.
Leaving On A Jet Plane
Perhaps that’s down to Vacation Island’s sheer optimism. Glistening beaches, dense forests and chilly mountaintops are just begging to be combed over. A colorful cast of bots tends to every corner of its world. Tasks are light and intuitive, understood in moments and mastered with enthusiasm. I suspect, though, it’s more to do with Owlchemy Lab’s unmatched grasp on interaction.
I’m not suggesting Vacation Simulator will go down in history the way Mario 64 did. Far from it, in fact. But this feels like another step towards a greater realization. It’s another chapter in the developer’s quest to make VR worlds that don’t compromise on authenticity and immersion.
You’ve jetted off on holiday, then. Only, as with Job Simulator before it, this is an approximation of R&R for a generation that struggles to remember. You have to make the most out of your time in the sun and snow by building memories, usually gained from completing minigames and requests from bots.
For the most part, it’s a virtual dream resort. Vacation Simulator is packed full of activities that consider both you and the world around you to joyus effect. On the beach, you can get in some volleyball practice with finely-tuned physics that do away with VR’s usual awkwardness. On the mountain a conveyor belt climbing wall had me addicted to its combination of fast thinking and frantic exertion. Meanwhile, sitting out by a lake in the forest I learned to skim virtual rocks and watch them skip off into the distance. There’s even a pretty hilarious parody of Beat Saber with an unusual weapon.
Invention Through Interaction
You can also scour each area for insects that need slow, precise movement to capture, or targets that demand skill with a slingshot to hit. Other objectives play on VR’s creative side, like paintings to dot around the world. I was a particular fan of a more theatrical task set in a darkened campfire that played on atmosphere. Bots, meanwhile, are instinctively alerted with a wave of the hand and your favorite moments can be immortalized with a virtual camera. Vacation Simulator’s best bits offer a virtual smorgasbord of everything that’s fun about putting on a headset.
Crucially, each of these minigames feels seamless and natural. Owlchemy isn’t interested in anything too complex or, more damningly, unrealistic. Vacation Simulator is limited to the things that work in VR and it’s not ready to cut corners. That’s why, for one of the first times since VR’s launch, I was able to sit back on a couch and laugh away at my partner playing for an hour without needing to explain how to carry out specific actions or convincing her to keep playing. VR should be this accessible and Owlchemy’s no-compromise approach is to be championed.
It’s fair to say, though, that there’s a somewhat unwelcome amount of repetition too. Many of the game’s most mundane objectives are the ones most often repeated; taking pictures of almost every inch of every environment, or revisiting Job Simulator’s cooking experience with little new to say. One has to ask if Owlchemy, once scratching the surface of current VR, is now at the bottom of the barrel. I certainly struggle to see how much more ground its experiments can cover with current tech.
Trouble In Paradise?
By the time I was ready to put the game down (with the story beaten and 63% completion after seven hours), most of the memories I had left to get were these simple scavenger hunts. But many of the memories I did make will remain just that, memories. Owlchemy hasn’t lost its penchant for charm and humor. Simple interactions like applying coolant to the back of an overheated bot entertain thanks to the game’s script (“I think we just accidentally made a memory together.”).
Something about this cheerful world-building compels you to stay in it. At one point I almost instinctively roasted a marshmallow over a campfire as two bots clattered on. Every time I found an item I need I could use in another world I’d rush back to try it out. Vacation Simulator might not have the biggest world, but I could already tell you where to go and what to do in every part of it.
And yet, for all its mad genius, Vacation Simulator rarely transcends its experimental roots. You can’t escape the feeling that this exhibition of interaction, as entertaining as it can be, is a proof of concept. The rock climbing is exhilarating, but fully accomplished within ten minutes or less. Handball is a blast to play, but lasts for 15 seconds. There are individual concepts here worthy of fleshing out into their own products, but you’ll only get a taste of them in Vacation Simulator.
Ultimately, that’s why I feel like the search for VR’s Mario 64 is still on. In a time in which VR games are getting deeper and more textured, I’m eager to see Owlchemy apply its findings to something richer. Something that doesn’t just prove how immersive VR can be but also why that’s an essential step for the future of entertainment. Vacation Simulator’s inner-workings are some of the best in the industry, but its context could be more ambitious.
Ironically, Vacation Simulator feels like a progress report. It’s an encouraging news flash from Owlchemy about where it is with making VR as immersive as possible as we continue to tolerate the shortcomings of other, ‘fuller’ games. But its philosophy of authenticity and intuition above all else is to be praised and preserved. There’s playful fun, immersive wonder and liberating agency all gathered under one roof, here. Vacation Simulator may only be a small step in a wider journey, but it’s one well worth taking.
Vacation Simulator is now available on PSVR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows VR. A Quest version will be arriving later in the year. Check out these official review guidelines to find out more about our process.