Ubisofts mysterious new VR-compatible story game has some powerful friends in Tinseltown, but is it any good?
As the first video game to come from Elijah Woods production company, SpectreVision, Transference has already received exaggerated levels of attention. Its also garnered a fair amount of expectation, especially in the narrative and acting departments, given its association with the Hollywood superstar and former hobbit. Coming off the back of a glitzy E3 2017 reveal, something generally reserved for AAA games, there are a lot of people watching Transference.
It tells the story of a scientist, Raymond Hayes, whos discovered a way to upload human consciousness to a computer, thereby rendering his subjects effectively immortal. Naturally for any megalomaniacal man of science, scanning his own mind and putting it into cyberspace was never going to be enough. Instead he brings his son Ben and his wife Katherine along for the spooky and deliberately confusing ride.
Set in a digital recreation of a single house in Boston over the course of the early 2000s, Transference is a walking simulator, the derisively named genre that attempts to engender emotional engagement rather than testing your dexterity. As you switch between Ben, Raymond, and Katherine youll need to explore the house from their distinct points of view, and across several different time frames, soaking up the atmosphere, unravelling clues, and solving a series of simple puzzles.
Strolling about the intentionally glitchy, low-fi interiors youll soon discover all sorts of environmental storytelling, from childish scrawls on the walls to chunks of the house that warp in and out of existence. Sleeping pills and caffeine pills appear in the medicine cabinet, doors vanish and reappear, and the overheard voices of other family members call out to you from the void, gradually helping build up a picture of exactly what happened to the Hayes family.
Just in case the fragmented plot devices built into walls, floors, and cupboards are too subtle, youll also find that hoary old trope video recordings, made by each family member. They dont give you new information so much as elucidate patronisingly clearly what the environment has already told you. The interesting bit is that theyre filmed in live action rather than CGI, a decision that pays off in some recordings more than others.
Because, quite unexpectedly for a game with SpectreVisions pedigree, the acting is decidedly patchy – in some cases convincing, in others mildly cringeworthy. It also suffers from a dearth of plot. The fact that a scientist has uploaded his family to a computer is made clear right at the beginning, but no further revelation is made throughout the course of the rest of the game, which instead focuses on fleshing out aspects of their deteriorating relationships. Its disappointing, especially given that story and atmosphere are Transferences core features.
So that leaves the puzzles, which initially seem obscure but are all straightforward, requiring interaction with nearby objects and a touch of trial and error. Its in keeping with the walking simulator genre but given its shortcomings in other areas only adds to the sense of missed opportunity. It doesnt even fulfil its mild horror leanings, settling for a scattering of cheap jump scares rather than anything more visceral or psychological.
The area where Transference wins, is its atmosphere. The eerie, echoing voices from digital space and a sense of barely contained chaos as doors, fridges, and walls glitch out of existence, sustain a feeling of mild dread that the plot and action never manage to live up to. And while you can play this on a TV, in virtual reality its a more persuasive experience, the feeling of being locked in with the weirdness heightening the overarching sense of foreboding.
You can cheerfully polish off the plot, such as it is, in a couple of hours, and itll take another hour to hoover up every last hidden videotape and DVD, but even then its rather a brief experience for the price. Itll prove additionally unsatisfying if youve played other, better games in the genre, like the emotive Gone Home, the wonderfully sinister What Remains Of Edith Finch, or the genuinely mysterious Everybodys Gone To The Rapture – all of which are longer, more interesting, and have better characters and acting. Theyre also slightly cheaper.
None of them is in VR though, which is a nice point of difference for Transference, albeit not enough to make it great, especially if, like most people, you dont own an HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or PlayStation VR headset. Transference is a slight but well-intentioned piece of interactive fiction that fails to live up to its ambitions, and in spite of connections with the Hollywood firmament lacks the emotional connection or acting punch to make the experience memorable.
In Short: A mildly spooky walking simulator whose plot, acting, and puzzles fails to benefit from its Hollywood connections and is even more disappointing without VR.
Pros: Good at delivering an atmosphere of dread, it has an interesting premise, and some effective live action scenes. You wont get stuck on any puzzles.
Cons: Short, lacklustre, and bettered by practically any other walking simulator you can think of.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 18th September 2018
Age Rating: 16
By Nick Gillett