Virginia review: Aliens, bison and birds, oh my! (PS4)

This review contains spoilers.

Virginia, the only game from developer Variable State, is an enigma. Having played through the game in its entirety three times, I’m still struggling to fit the pieces of this Twin Peaks-esque tale together. Not that I’m mad about it, though; after spending a year and a half glued to Overwatch, some mental aerobics is appreciated (I have to put my English degree to good use somehow). The story just doesn’t come together as well as I’d hoped.

The soundtrack is extraordinary, and the visuals have a hyper-polished Playstation 1 charm I couldn’t help but love. Unfortunately, these highs only serve to highlight the unfortunate lows like the nauseating controls and fumbled last act.

The Story

In a world full of half-baked “good cop, bad cop” duos, the relationship between Virginia’s protagonists is surprisingly dynamic despite the lack of voice acting. Anne Tarver is a newbie FBI agent with two tasks: investigate the disappearance of a teen in rural Virginia and keep an eye on the senior agent she is paired with. Maria Halperin, said senior agent, isn’t aware of Tarver’s ulterior mission until late in the two hour story.

Halperin’s reluctance towards Tarver’s tagging along is one focus of conflict as the pair arrive in secluded Kingdom, Virginia (a name so loaded it deserves its own dedicated post). The two women of color steadily grow closer as the mystery around them becomes almost psychedelic. Though the story is far from a romance, the fact that the two female leads are allowed to nurture a romantic relationship without homophobia being the crux of the conflict is refreshing.

In the pair’s first trip to the small diner, Halperin leaves Tarver with the check and a cold shoulder; in a surprisingly touching moment later on, Halperin pays their tab with a smile. Small gestures like this didn’t go unnoticed, and were made all the more powerful in the absence of speech. I’d be lying if I said Halperin leaving Tarver stranded at the gas station didn’t draw up a tear or two.

The other characters play off of established stereotypes — the priest with a secret and the cigarette-smoking hardass chief come to mind — though they’re done so in a way I didn’t find distracting. The stereotypes are perhaps necessary to ground an otherwise serpentine narrative without a clearly defined direction for the resolution.

And unfortunately, the second act of Virginia is seemingly intended to leave the player wondering, “What the fuck just happened?” There are numerous intertwining motifs — a bison, a dead cardinal and a secret room with a ghastly red light — which culminate in… something. Was Tarver’s acid trip real? Was her future as the ruthless leader of the FBI the real ending, or was it her final drive with Halperin? Surely the alien abduction teased throughout the narrative was real! Or maybe the missing teen really did just leave town after witnessing his father’s transgressions.

Lead designer Jonathan Burroughs had this to say about the ending in an interview with Polygon: “It’s its own thing and it’s up to each individual who experiences it to decide what it means for them.” That’s all well and good, but in such a short game that is entirely narrative driven, players expect some sense of closure.

The intent is noble, but the execution isn’t satisfying.

Visuals, Controls and Soundtrack

One thing is clear: Virginia is a gorgeous game. It’s bright and colorful and sinister and  somber at all the right times. In a world crafted without speech, shading and colors help determine the atmosphere. The mysterious red light is a warning sign, yet we become drawn to its mystery; early fall foliage grabs the eye. “Ominous curiosity” is what I felt throughout the game, and the visuals really pushed this.

Each character model is a unique treat. They have a certain charm I referenced earlier: Playstation 1 graphics for the new age. Should Variable State and publisher 505 Games get their hands on the Tomb Raider license, we would be treated to a gloriously retro reboot Lara Croft truly deserves.

And in the absence of voice acting, expressions and movements have to be spot on to portray the emotion and intent of each character; I was beyond satisfied with this presentation. Variable State’s members have spoken about the necessity of silence to keep costs low, but the decision wasn’t to the detriment of the narrative. Bad voice acting would’ve tarnished the best part of the whole experience.

However, we can’t ignore the bison in the room: the controls. There is a simple sensitivity bar which can be adjusted at any time, but I just couldn’t find the sweet spot. I was either turning too fast and becoming disoriented or moving frustratingly slow. This is an unacceptable flaw when trophy gathering largely relies on split-second reactions to events you didn’t even realize you needed to focus on. It didn’t ruin the experience, but some might find it too disorienting.

The soundtrack is the one flawless aspect of “Virginia.” From beginning to end, the tracks align perfectly with the atmosphere of their respective scenes. The title track? Hauntingly beautiful. The taxi ride? It evokes emotions of a grand, but direful expedition. Many developers should take note of this OST, because it’s pure artistry. This game warrants its multiple playthroughs for the audio alone (and believe me, you will have to play it more than once).

Worth the buy?

Variable State’s Virginia is a unique and worthwhile gaming experience, but with a few caveats.  Attempting to convey such an interwoven narrative through visuals and music alone is an admirable undertaking, but it is let down by a lack of story direction and frustrating controls.

This game will also irk completionists. I often collected trophies by accident, and without a guide, you’ll be replaying chapters more than they’re ultimately worth.

These are frustrating inclusions in an otherwise stellar game. Here’s hoping Variable State’s next project has the same vision of grandeur, but with better execution.

 

3.75 / 5

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