Back in 2016 Sairento VR hit PCs and rapidly became a fan favourite due to its blend of gun and sword play coupled with free movement and layered with an interesting futuristic story. Three years down the line and it has been ported to PSVR so a new batch of gamers can get to grips with being a cyborg ninja. How has the technically demanding shooter/slasher fared in its transition to console, and does it still retain what made it a sleeper hit originally?
If the PC release of Sairento VR passed you by it’s not necessarily a big surprise. With it being in early adopter territory and every man and his dog putting a shooting game out on Steam, it was possible to miss it entirely. The critical acclaim it received tended to be from niche outlets and it never really arrived in the mainstream VR consciousness, which is a shame because it really does offer up a full VR story. Set in in a world where augmentations are the norm, you play as a Sairento (a silent one) – a ninja assassin basically – who’s investigating why her colleagues are going nuts and killing people. Chieko Hatsuri heads out into a futuristic Japan guided by her sensei Broke to solve the mystery using violence… as is the way in all things near future and involving global corporations. The premise is a bit Ghost in the Shell meets Bladerunner, but the action is pure Matrix. Dual wielding combinations of swords and guns, wall running, and getting airborne is the order of the day as you take on overwhelming numbers of enemy fodder.
Within the campaign there are 10 levels to master, each offering up a slightly different challenge, but with the same central mechanic – clear all enemies from an area to progress. Most of the environments are wide open affairs that give you the opportunity to let loose with the ninja capabilities which largely involves leaping in the air and gunning opponents down before running at whoever’s next with your sword ready to strike. Stealth is usually viable on the first enemy or two, though it’s not a contextual move, simply getting in behind them and stabbing with whatever is in your hand. Once the alarm is raised all foes in the vicinity will make a beeline for you and it’s time to get into the action proper. Using a combination of strikes and shots it’s possible to keep everyone at bay and steadily whittle down their numbers, though because they come from all angles this is a dangerous tactic. Get on the move and head into the air where bullet time comes into effect to truly get the upper hand.
Locomotion around each environment is through a combination of steering via the headset (looking where you want to go), turning by pressing the buttons on the right Move wand (sorry, no DS4 support here), and using the jump button which acts a bit like a teleport in most other VR games, but allows double and triple jumps to stay one step ahead. Using the additional jumps slows down time so you can pick a secondary landing point, and crucially lets you target and fire as everything moves at a crawl. There’s the ability to turn in mid-air too, so it can be used not only for offence, but for a bit of scouting and getting the chance to breath. Combining the mechanics with the sword opens up the possibility to deflect projectiles, or shoot them out of the air, and nailing these can reward with additional chakra energy that’s used to manage your powers. It’s this freedom in movement that sets Sairento VR apart from some of the other shooters, you genuinely feel in control of the abilities and are embodying the role of master assassin. Unfortunately it’s probably also the biggest downfall of the game on PSVR.
Mapping the turning controls to the buttons Move wands is really the only option the developers had – the nav controller from the PS3 days has an analogue stick, but that seems to have been consigned to history now as an unsupported peripheral; so it means that movement isn’t anywhere near as fluid as it really needs to be. Jumping in the air and slowing things down gives the time and space to survey the action, but movement on the ground is clumsy at best, and frustrating at worst. It lacks a strafe option and you end up getting stuck behind obstacles too frequently in the middle of combat. The digital response of the buttons also means that it’s hard to move small distances and at the places that require interaction you can end up in a ballet of incompetence as you continually overshoot the objective. It’s far from unplayable, though it will need a certain amount of patience, perseverance and adaptation to get to the end.
That end won’t take too long to reach either, Sairento VR doesn’t really believe in dragging things out, which is a good thing in the action oriented campaign, but not great for the story. Just as it’s all starting to get interesting it’s over, and without even an obligatory boss fight. The abrupt end to the campaign does lead into a continuous objective based “arcade” mode, yet doesn’t really feel satisfying. It’s at this point that you might start looking around the options menus and suddenly realise that there’s a lot more on offer than is first apparent. With the tutorial only covering the movement side of things it’s easy to miss that this has a lot of RPG elements and that there are ranks, upgrades, loads of different weapons, and augmentations to add in to the mix. These are the key to making you a more impressive warrior and taking on the challenge mode where it does get much harder.
Obtaining relics from kills in the missions allows the upgrade of specific weapons and gear, and skill points let you develop the overall traits of Chieko Hatsuri so that she becomes more badass. It’s a reasonably deep system too that allows specialisation in a lot of different areas. Given the movement issues this is one way of sidestepping the problems and putting the focus into what works for you. Whether you want to improve sword or gun damage is a personal choice dependent on playstyle, but with the over-reliance on bullet time having more powerful pistols, rifles and shotguns is never a bad thing. At least the weapons seem to be balanced with none have a specific advantage over another, and there’s the ability to mix and match loadouts (and save them) so that it doesn’t have to be a symmetrical balance each time. Selecting something mid-fight is simply a matter of reaching to the assigned holster, and reloading only requires flicking downwards, so there’s no hardship in experimentation.
Sairento VR’s visual style is an interesting one that lends itself to the action, though the PSVR version doesn’t have the same level of detail as its PC sibling, but it’s decent enough. I like the focus on text readability which is something that often gets overlooked, in here it’s clear and sharp. There’s nothing awe inspiring about the level design sadly, and it does get a bit repetitive when jumping into the challenges later on. Sound design is good too with the weapons having the right level of oomph, and the enemies telegraphing their moves through both visual and sound cues. It also manages a decent variety of bad guys with different attacks and weaknesses to understand, though doesn’t ditch the bullet sponge option with some of them. There are a couple of odd choices in the damage system, you seem to be able to take a lot of punishment, though there’s an enemy that has the power to one hit kill in the later stages which really breaks up the flow. Whether this is intentional or simply a bug I can’t say, but I only encountered it in the last level of the campaign, even though the enemies were in some of the others.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Sairento VR, from the story driven levels to the freedom of combat approach… yet it has a lot of drawbacks. It’s hamstrung to a degree with the controllers available on the PSVR, but there are also pieces of sloppy implementation. Menu options have to be double tapped with the triggers to make them work, but sometimes don’t register at all or register straight away causing a painful navigation system; gameover screens can pop up and disappear in micro seconds so you’ve no idea why it’s ended; trophies don’t pop at all, or pop for the wrong thing; the lack of explanation of the systems; etc. However, there’s something compelling about it that means you overlook these elements and just enjoy jumping around in bullet time and feeling incredible. It’s definitely a unique experience and something that action focused VR fans will get a kick out of.
A PSVR copy of Sairento VR was provided by Mixed Realms PR team and the game is available now on PC and PSVR, with the latter being distributed by Perp Games for around £26.