Cold, wet and with a suspicious-looking mushroom you’ve only just picked off a fallen tree your only source of nourishment, your survival isn’t looking good unless you can make it back to your campfire and get it lit before the sunlight fades. Even then, your safety isn’t guaranteed because if that flame goes out whilst you sleep or you’ve chosen a really poor location for your campfire, making it through the night becomes a nightmarish journey that’s as scary as any horror videogame. Welcome to Song in the Smoke, one of the toughest VR adventure’s out there.
The very first virtual reality (VR) title from Japanese developer 17-BIT wastes no time in offering you some hard truths, this is a videogame about patience and determination. In this beautiful primordial world, everything is trying to survive and you become both hunter and hunted as the landscape unfolds, with evermore expansive and twisting environments just begging to be explored.
Song in the Smoke gives a short sharp introduction to the continual process of trying not to die, showing you how to make a knife, use a pestle and mortar to crush certain plants and most importantly of all, making fire. It can’t be overstated enough how vital the campfire is to make it through each and every day. This is where you can find warmth, sleep, cook food and make other useful kit like a drying rack to put animal skins on. Oh, and one other thing, this isn’t an experience for those that don’t like hurting animals, there’s a lot of killing as their skins are vital for survival.
So Song in the Smoke is all about that hunter-gather lifestyle, surviving from day to day. But, interwoven with this is a far more mysterious narrative that helps drive the gameplay forward and out of the safety of your cave. There’s a really weird bird creature you encounter along the way, it’s weird because it has three crow heads and a human face on its chest. Nevers says anything, just occasionally squawks. Each biome has glowing purple rocks to locate. Find them all and you’ll then be instructed to hunt a special spirit animal. Kill it and a portal to the next area unlocks, giving you access to new resources and new creatures.
There’s no rush to anything in Song in the Smoke, you can spend as many in-game days as you like foraging, hunting and collecting those stones. In the latter stages, it’s almost too easy to spend hours exploring all the nooks and crannies of the environment as there are hidden secrets like health bar increases or skull pots with random goodies inside. But doing leads to a lot of repetition, especially where the campfire is concerned, constantly looking for wood and making sure you’ve got enough to last the night.
Most of the experience is based around fairly realistic physics and interactive gameplay. You have to bash small rocks to make arrowheads or use your knife to slice up some kindling. It’s all very physical, hence why you have a stamina bar and have to sleep eventually. This means you need that fire to burn all night so you’re safe, building it up with kindling, then small sticks, medium sticks and large sticks. These all burn differently, with a big indicator circling the fire so you know what burns when and how long you’ve got – like the train scene from Back to the Future: Part 3. If the fire burns out too early and you’re out of wood then welcome to darkness…and the dangers that lurk within it.
Only three campfires can be made per level so a great deal of thought needs to go into where you hunker down. On the top of some cliffs is good, stops the animals getting to you but then if it rains that’s your fire destroyed. This simple idea is even tougher when you first enter an area as the map on your chest is blank until you uncover some of the environment. This seemed to be where you become most vulnerable, with numerous deaths occurring from wild animals (panthers, wild boars, lions) whilst trying to get a feel for the landscape. What makes it more frustrating is the complete lack of checkpoints.
Going through to a new area or locating all three stones you might think that an autosave might be dropped in. Oh no, all saving is manual at the campfire so you have to remember to save, save and save some more. Suddenly realising you’re close to death and you haven’t saved for an hour isn’t great. And there are numerous ways to meet your end, not just being lunch for a stealthy predator. Cold, bleeding out, hunger, fatigue, they’ll all have an effect on depleting your health. Keeping an eye on your inventory is critical so you’ve got food and other resources, adding another layer to Song in the Smoke long list of things to keep you busy.
Whilst there is plenty to do, see and interact with, providing an amazingly rich VR experience that you can get lost in, there are a couple of mechanics that don’t make sense; breaking the finally crafted immersion. These are made instantly apparent in the tutorial and are two of the key features in Song in the Smoke, eating and climbing. With so much work on the intricate crafting mechanics, why is it that when anything is eaten a big scroll wheel appears to show you’re chewing? Instantly breaking that sense of immersion, made worse by the fact that you have to regularly eat, constantly popping up in your face. Definitely not a fan of that.
And when it comes to climbing the only option you have is teleporting, with a little green indicator having to momentarily charge up before you can jump/climb up or down a ledge. Song in the Smoke has plenty of physicality to it but no climbing? Plenty of VR titles utilise physically grabbing ledges as a means of grounding you in their worlds, to bypass a mechanic like that just seems odd. It means even if your settings are on full immersion (smooth locomotion and turning) you still have to teleport. Likewise, all the usual comfort settings are there so most players should find a happy medium.
Even with all that said, Song in the Smoke is thoroughly engrossing to play. The level design is magnificent and becomes a real challenge the deeper in you get. Every day feels fresh and new, a mixture of joy when a new area is discovered and dread when a menacing growl suddenly appears from behind you. It’s a huge experience that you can get lost in, spending hour upon hour taking it all in. Song in the Smoke looked like it was something special and it is, one of the best VR games of 2021.