From a whirring, high-tech cloning chamber I spring forth, fresh from my most recent demise and ready to take on yet another run of developer Firesprite’s sci-fi roguelike, The Persistence. Originally released for PlayStation VR in 2018, it now makes an appearance on non-VR platforms for unfortunates like myself who have yet to ascend to a glorious, virtual plane of reality. I confess to having feared that, without its VR selling-point, The Persistence would have little else to offer and prove to come up short against the million and one other roguelikes/lites on the market. After all, even the most fabulous peacock is just a misshapen bird without its feathers. Thankfully, the compelling—and at times, tense—gameplay and mechanics more than hold their own against other titles in the genre, even without the benefit of VR.
An unexpected encounter with a black hole has fried the inner-workings of ‘The Persistence’, a colossal starship set to ferry an entire colonisation community. As a result, the ship has become stranded in deep space; its cloning facility has malfunctioned, spitting out endless crazed and deformed clones of its residents; and—in true roguelike fashion—the various floors have begun endlessly reshuffling their layout (this phenomenon is half-explained in-game, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t really matter). By the time protagonist Zimri, product of the only properly-functioning cloning facility, staggers into the scene, almost everyone else is either dead or a crazed clone. With the guidance of Serena, the only other survivor, Zimri will brave the onslaught of abominations populating the ship and work to escape by repairing the severe damage that has befallen it.
Taking on the enemies that stalk the ship’s dimly-lit corridors and atriums, it’s a treat to find such a varied selection of combat options on offer. In addition to a variety of guns and melee weapons, a slew of inspired gadgets can be fabricated and permanently upgraded from machines scattered around the levels. Using these, players can turn invisible, control enemies’ minds, fling them through the air and a lot more. A particular favourite of mine enabled the pulverisation of any enemy upon teleporting into them—messy. Need just a little more combat depth? No worries: The Persistence also encourages ‘harvesting’ enemies with a context-sensitive takedown move which grants upgrade currency (spent between runs). Activated by either sneaking behind an enemy or stunning them with a satisfying parry mechanic, the ‘harvesting’ mechanic injects a rhythm into combat that makes the whole game genuinely engrossing, again, even without the need for VR.
While randomised in their layout, each of the four floors are still formed of prefabricated room types and therefore soon become familiar. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily equal monotony, although The Persistence does veer towards the repetitive when it comes to the levels, especially in the game’s first half. The ‘challenge rooms’ strewn around levels do add some variety, rewarding players with upgrade currency and stat boosts for facing waves of enemies. Each stage does culminate in a set-piece too; these provide some much-needed narrative structure and also present some of the game’s most significant challenges. I do wonder if merely turning up the lights might have alleviated some of this repetitiveness; the near permanent darkness is intended to create a sense of tension, but it more often obscures any detail within the environments.
Enemies, too, suffer from a lack of variety; it was a disappointment to unlock an achievement for encountering every enemy type within the first hour or two of booting up the game. Shambling humanoids, charging beasts, shrieking teleporters and blind gun wielders pretty much make up the entire roster of in-game foes. Over the course of the game’s 10-or-so hours, fighting these things eventually becomes a mechanical exercise rather than a real challenge; a few more mutated monsters would have helped matters greatly.
The translation of a game from VR to non-VR is risky: a sensible design decision for one platform might lead to downright disaster for the other. Surprisingly, The Persistence largely survives the transition; in some ways, it even benefits from having been a VR-first title. Features like short-distance teleportation and button-free container looting, while clearly intended to smooth out a VR player’s experience, go a long way to making The Persistence’s environments a pleasure to navigate and interact with for non-VR players. Regular movement might be slightly too slow, presumably to prevent VR motion sickness, but even this is a minor niggle due to the aforementioned short-distance teleport ability. Sadly, the horror aspects of The Persistence are perhaps the most significant loss of the VR-to-TV transition. It’s easy to see how the game’s dark, rickety and isolated environments could create an intensely atmospheric experience with a VR headset. On a TV, however, they just don’t come together to evoke anything even resembling tension, let alone fear. Still, the game is compelling enough as a stealth/shooter roguelike; lacklustre horror components don’t detract much from the experience.
By restricting the amount of stat boost items that players can equip at once and offering a choice of starting perk for each subsequent run, the game also adds a small element of character building. It doesn’t compete with even the simplest RPG, but the ability to spec in favour of a preferred ability or playstyle is appreciated and helps it compete in the crowded roguelike market. Smart usage of these items also lets a player counteract any trouble they may be having with the game’s various mechanics. Having a hard time parrying? Equip the relevant item and enjoy the benefits of a sturdier shield. Endlessly searching for health kits? The right suit upgrade will let you leech additional health from defeated foes.
Losing progress in a game can be disheartening, especially one with upgrades and permanent progression like The Persistence. Irritatingly, I was forced to restart the game at about 75% completion due to some unknown save file error. While it was a nuisance to lose my progress, upgrades and earned currency, I found myself more than willing to restart Zimri’s journey through the ship from scratch. The game’s combat and progression loop was engaging enough to have me entertained through almost two back-to-back playthroughs. If anything demonstrates my enthusiasm for The Persistence, it’s this.
For every element that may have worked better in the original VR version of The Persistence, there are three that thrive when placed onto a TV. With a simple but engaging upgrade system; enough weapons and gadgets to make James Bond blush; and a great parrying mechanic that brings an unexpected rhythmic element to combat, this is one title that warrants a purchase even without any fancy VR setup. Repetition with enemy variety and level structure may mar the experience for some players, but it’s easy to overlook these faults when the core game has so much to offer.
The Persistence (Reviewed on Xbox One X)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
With a simple but engaging upgrade system; enough weapons and gadgets to make James Bond blush; and a great parrying mechanic that brings an unexpected rhythmic element to combat, this is one title that warrants a purchase even without any fancy VR setup. Repetition with enemy variety and level structure may mar the experience for some players, but it’s easy to overlook these faults when the core game has so much to offer.