It may seem weird, but one of the thoughts I had while playing Papa Sangre II (out now, $3.99) is that it was my first true virtual reality experience. My poor old Virtual Boy doesn’t really count, and without ever having access to an Oculus Rift headset, Somethin’ Else and Playground Publishing’s game sure feels awfully close. What’s ironic about it is that unlike any other virtual reality device you don’t even need your eyes. Just plop in some earbuds, close your eyes, and become fully immersed in Papa’s Museum of Memories. The effect is rather astonishing once you get into it, but the game isn’t without its problems.
Unlike most games, in Papa Sangre II you die right off the bat, but it’s okay because that’s the point. In order to re-enter the world of the living with your soul intact, you need to help other souls escape being imprisoned in their memories. In the beginning you’ll have Sean Bean (yes, Boromir) helping you out, teaching you to walk, turn, clap, shoot, and anything else you’ll need to do. The voice acting is easily among the best you’ll find in an iPhone game, and not just from Bean. All the characters you’ll come across feel like real living, breathing people (despite being dead), and it does wonders to keep you immersed and engaged.
The game itself, as mentioned earlier, is played entirely without visual cues (other than the buttons for using your feet and hands). Everything you encounter is completely in the dark; every undead monster, every piece of music, every quacking duck. You hear them in 360 degrees, and the game uses your device’s gyroscope to figure out which direction you’re facing. It works amazingly well, to the point where you’ll even be able to hear something flying around behind you, spin around, and shoot it with pinpoint accuracy. It feels incredible, even — dare I say it — rivaling the satisfaction of a typical first person shooter.
While the added challenge of shooting, hiding, and searching around in the dark is undoubtedly thrilling, it can also be incredibly tedious and frustrating, especially toward the end of the game. In one later level, for example, you’re tasked with traversing a burning building in order to smash bits of music. You’re given a bag of sand to figure out where the flames are, so you proceed cautiously with a step, step, sand toss. Step, step, sand toss. When you hear a flare up, you turn around and try another direction. It’s very slow going, and eventually a can of oil catches fire. You need to put it out with your fire extinguisher, but when I tried it did nothing. My guide told me I missed, so I tried again. Same thing: nothing. Then I quickly caught fire and died (re-died?). I tried the level several more times with the same result. No matter how obvious it was that the sound of burning oil was directly in front of my face, I just couldn’t hit it. For the first time, I skipped a level.
The next wasn’t much better. In a cold, arctic landscape, you need to sneak up on polar bears and knife them. After several minutes of slowly murdering bears, suddenly penguins start following you (despite living on the opposite end of the – ah, whatever) and cracking the ice. You need to clap to scare them away, but of course that attracts the bears. When the bears chase you, you have to run. At this point the guide started telling me I was getting too far out of the level, but every time I tried to come back a penguin would crack the ice and my clap would cause a bear to chase me away again. It was incredibly frustrating, and when I finally got fed up and knifed a penguin, that of course made “five of his friends” come to make things even harder. Moments like those serve to shine a light (ironically) on some of the shortcoming of audio-only gameplay.
Still, the idea is every bit as novel as it was in the original game, and for the most part it works much better in the sequel. Plus, with the addition of achievements in some levels for added replayability, Somethin’ Else has created a virtual reality I can’t wait to spend more time in.
iFanzine Verdict: Papa Sangre II is a remarkable achievement. Using nothing but sound it manages to paint a vibrant world full of life, despite the fact that it’s populated entirely with the dead. It has action, adventure, scares, and even a little comedy (Bean references a popular meme he’s known for when you fail a level early on). It’s the whole package, and while it may not be perfect, I believe it’s essential.