Polybius review (PS4/PSVR)

Polybius is the latest title by Llamasoft and had a great story behind it even before its creators started thinking about making the game. It’s available now for Playstation 4, with Playstation VR support included.

The story behind Polybius has been around for years – predating the current Llamasoft release by decades. It’s been claimed to have been an arcade game from the early eighties, shrouded in pop culture mystery. It was allegedly very popular, but would drive gamers towards physical and mental discomfort. In addition, secret government agents were said to have collected data from the machines, fueling speculations that it was part of a big mind control experiment. Then, after only a month, it was removed from its arcade and never seen again.

The consensus is that Polybius, the arcade game, never really existed – but it has now inspired Jeff Minter’s Llamasoft to develop a modern day version inspired by that classic videogame myth. Minter’s track record is a fitting one as well, since he’s been around for about 35 years and I remember playing some of his earlier work back in the eighties on my Atari. And, fairly consistently, his games have had a certain degree of weirdness and psychedelic visuals – they’re never quite mainstream, even when they enjoy mainstream success.

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Polybius fits perfectly within that body of work – and you’re initially greeted with a screen that warns you about flashing images and psychedelic graphics, tying in nicely with the Polybius lore. It couldn’t be more true though, because when the game properly starts (without much of an introduction) it seems almost insane how much stuff is going on on-screen. You’re controlling a ship that’s constantly thrusting forward through a tunnel-like environment and all you know is that you can fire bullets and move around.

Bright colors, different shapes, electronic music and a female voice form an audiovisual spectacle and score/multiplier counters help you keep track of how you’re doing. You’ll also see a few hints pop up and information about your shield status, but you’re constantly left wondering “what am I supposed to do exactly?” as you start playing a “shoot everything that moves” on-rail shooter. And then you pass through a gate that speeds up your ship, making things even harder and more overwhelming. Yikes.

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As you play more and more, you start finding out more and more about the game dynamics. When you’re focusing on score, you’re likely to miss some of the hints – so it helps to take things easier at first. Some aspects are never quite explained though, and just have to be experienced and learned. This is definitely true for what can kill you as well, since sudden deaths are common until you start developing an eye for what does what. Finding out and thus gradually improving your scores is part of the fun, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

When it comes to score, there is a nice progressive element to Polybius. When you complete a level, your score and shield status is saved and you take that to the next level. Go back to your initial level later and improve your score and shield status, and you can make your life easier for subsequent levels. This doesn’t quite work this way in the game’s harder modes, but it’s great for making sure you get to see a lot of what’s on offer and it increases replayability as well.

Keeping the Polybius theme of messing with your mind intact, the best way to enjoy the game is by playing it through Playstation VR. Not only is it more immersive – there’s also the feeling that there’s no escaping the insanity around you, making the reward even sweeter once you start feeling more and more in control. Another unique experience by Llamasoft, doing for Playstation VR what they did for the Vita with TxK.

Score: 8.4/10

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