In February 2019, months before the Quest was released, Facebook made it clear that the ecosystem for this new standalone headset would have some more robust criteria than the Rift store. Facebook set about creating a particularly high-walled garden for their new ecosystem to bring VR into the mainstream, with limited developers’ access. Only vetted titles would be allowed to be sold officially. In a medium as new as VR, this was indeed something of a turning point.
No longer would studios be able to bring their games to the point of readiness and charge gamers for the chance to help get the game to its full potential. No longer would there be barely finished concepts, shilled under the pretence of early access only to be abandoned. In Oculus’ brave new world, newcomers to VR could rest assured that every purchase would meet a stringent level of quality testing, that all titles on the store have earned a rightful place in the Pantheon of the Quest.
While these are indeed lofty ideals, and in fairness, probably in the best interest of this fledgeling attempt to bring VR into the mainstream, they do come at a price. Without that testing ground for indie experimentation and improvement, which had arguably been the bedrock of every advancement in VR over the last x years, the medium’s future development seemed to sit solely with those who already had the experience. That, or the correct funding and connections. While building a wall around your garden can seem safe, it can also cut it off from the very things that it needs to grow.
That situation lasted a matter of days.
A STAR IS BORN (INTO EARLY ACCESS)
Within a few days after Oculus launched the now revolutionary Quest, the SideQuest platform was born. Offering a way to upload games, apps and mods directly to the Quest and bypassing the Quest store itself, SideQuest provided the much-needed open-access platform that VR game development so sorely needs. Developers could upload games that needed testing and community feedback and hobbyists could share their passion projects. Even demos began to appear of games available on the official store.
In the beginning, it seemed that Facebook was happy to turn a blind eye to SideQuest, given that the games were free, and that users knew that they were leaving the gates of the garden. Oculus could not be held accountable for what was found out there. But in any pseudo-storefront, there will inevitably become a time where the boundaries get pushed. In the case of SideQuest, the release of To the Top for sale at $14.99 was just such a moment.
Developers Electric Hat Games had completed the Quest port of their successful PCVR title, To the Top, but were denied access to the official store. With nowhere else to go and a quality product on their hands, Electric Hat became the first developer to release a full-length game for sale on SideQuest. Fairly soon, others began to follow, and before long, the SideQuest ecosystem had started to evolve. Soon it offered not just a range of free titles (some of which, like Hyper Dash, are outstanding), but an increasing number of paid titles as well.
It was a risky move, especially given Facebook’s predilection for destroying anyone seeming to offer competition. But somehow, against the odds SideQuest has gone from humble beginnings to now being a widely recognised and almost officially sanctioned part of the Oculus Ecosystem. In fact, just recently SideQuest became part of the VR/AR Association, fair and timely recognition of their contribution to the medium.
Back in when almost all SideQuest games were free, we probably wouldn’t have considered reviewing them. Generally, when a game is free, the risk is so low that it doesn’t warrant the time to write the review (unofficially I’ve already given Echo VR a much-deserved 9.5). There was also a sliding scale of expectation on the platform, with games being excused for a general lack of polish because they were “just” SideQuest games.
With the increase in paid titles appearing, however, the needle has shifted on that viewpoint. Many of the paid titles on SideQuest are now retailing at prices close to games found in the official store, albeit the cheaper ones. As a result, the theory that a game is “just” a SideQuest game no longer holds water. If you pay $15 for a game, your expectations will likely be uniform, regardless of whether you purchase your game from Steam, Oculus or SideQuest.
To that end, we’ve taken a look at some of the top-rated paid games available on the SideQuest platform to see if there is a reason that they didn’t make the cut and to see if they are worth your hard-earned money.
Below are 5 mini-reviews, intended to give you a slightly clearer picture on these titles and where they sit in the ecosystem. There is also a poll at the bottom so that you can vote for which game you’d like to see a full review of.
Before reading the reviews, I would like to give the following caveat. Supporting indie devs is, without a doubt, an essential part of growing VR. Honest criticism is vital, especially for people with limited budgets for their gaming, but the ability to make some sales via SideQuest can be the thing that keeps smaller studios in the business. There would be no Half-Life: Alyx without the countless indie VR games that came before it. Those games were vital in shaping and moulding gameplay mechanics and laying the foundations of modern VR.
At the end of the day, though, a game should still be fun and engaging no matter the price, and there’s only one way to find that out. In the immortal words of Wayne Campbell…GAME ON!
TO THE TOP
To the Top is a first-person platformer which sees the player bounding, climbing and otherwise traversing impossibly vertical courses in a race to the finish line. Although it shares some broad similarities with games like The Climb and even Sprint Vector, there really isn’t anything else like it on the Quest. It can take a little while to get the hang of the movement system, but once you find that all-important “flow state” the game becomes frighteningly addictive.
Essentially, the movement system is a fancy VR version of leapfrog. Both hands are used to grab a surface, you look in the direction you wish to travel and propel yourself with both hands. Simple. With the exception that you can only use particular (blue) objects to propel yourself. Failing to make it to the next assigned piece of the level will either see you stopping in your tracks, or falling to your death and restarting from the last checkpoint.
The real challenge of To The Top, the core loop that keeps you coming back, is in the games’ inherent rhythm; each consecutively well-timed leap will increase your acceleration and fling you further through the course. Add to this the fact that the levels are both abundant and ridiculously well designed, and you have a game which might not grab your attention in the first 30 minutes, but with a little perseverance will soon enough rob you of no small amount of your time.
Given that I generally found this to be an excellent game, is it completely shocking to me that it doesn’t have its place in the store? Perhaps part of me could see why there may have been some reason to doubt this game in the earliest iterations of the Quest storefront. For starters, based on the locomotion system alone, this is not one for beginners. Making games accessible for entry-level users was paramount, so I can see why this potentially nauseating title might have been a cause for alarm.
Also, even though I genuinely enjoyed TTT, it lacks a bit of polish around the graphics, UI and tutorial, all of which left me with a relatively underwhelming first impression. The graphics have a rather basic aesthetic which grows richer and more evocative as the game progresses. Still, initially, the backgrounds are relatively flat and dull. Overall, I’m glad that I played this for a review. Otherwise, I may not have persevered long enough to appreciate what a well-conceived and executed concept it had laying at its heart.
There are currently thousands of Quest owners out there all enviously looking at Blade & Sorcery and wondering when it will come to Quest. The answer is, sadly, probably never. But don’t let that worry you too much, because Virtual Age are working hard on bringing you Gladius, the Quest’s first physics-based melee hack and slasher. For fans of the genre, there is some good stuff to look forward to here.
From a narrative point of view, Gladius is a straightforward concept. The player is a captured soldier, now a slave who has been given a chance to earn freedom through glorious battle in the arena. Cue Russell Crowe’s hand moving gently over a wheat field. After a brief chat with your new coach/master, you are treated to a short tutorial that runs you through all the basics; holstering your weapons, dismembering your enemies, and slowing down time. After that, it’s off to the arena for a healthy portion of death and glory!
Make no mistake, Gladius is NOT Blade & Sorcery. It doesn’t manage the same level of ragdoll physics, it doesn’t have cool spells to throw around, and the arenas are far less involved. Other than that, Gladius is a perfectly acceptable combat sim with some nice touches and solid gameplay elements that will no doubt make it popular. That is, once they iron out the kinks.
As it stands now, Gladius is very much an early access title. In buying it, you are effectively investing in the game it will become rather than outright purchasing a finished product. There are some major graphical glitches, holstering weapons on your back in clunky, and a couple of crashes. Still, overall there is a lot of potential here. Given the excellent work here already, if you’re the type of person who enjoys a bit of casual stabby stabby, you will probably find plenty of fun. However, Gladius is still a few updates away from being ready for the big time.
Gladius is a game that most definitely belongs on the Oculus storefront, just not yet. It’s a virtual cake that once baked will make a lot of people happy, but at the moment it’s still a bit raw and doughy. Also, I want cake…
CRAZY KUNG FU
Crazy Kung Fu is essentially a martial arts training companion as much as it is a game. Having never mastered a martial art other than holding a yellow belt in Google-Fu, I can’t really speak to how well this game has prepared me as a kung fu master. What I can speak to is the fact that I had a lot of fun trying.
There is a very simple mechanic at play in Crazy Kung Fu. Essentially, there is a pole in front of you that holds an increasing amount of rings that see different objects come swinging out at you, alternating direction as you go. Depending on the item you either need to punch, dodge or block, aiming for the precision of form and good timing required to increase your score. And that is pretty much it. There is also a Wing Chun training dummy to play around with, but there is not much else going on from a pure gaming perspective.
Now that may sound like a criticism, but it’s not really meant to be. If this game were launched on the official store, it would be slated for its lack of content. It is, essentially, a mini-game that you would expect to form part of a more extensive gameplay experience. But as a fairly cheap experience on SideQuest, it is really, really fun. I spent a couple of hours on Crazy Kung Fu without even realising it, caught in a “just one more try” cycle that unconsciously ate my time.
My only real criticism is that the difficulty curve spiked too quickly. Either that or the tutorial didn’t focus enough on teaching the correct timing techniques needed to jackpot your score. In the end, I stopped playing when I got stuck on an early level because I was unable to reach the required score, despite hitting all the objects. The reality is, if I had been able to keep progressing through a gradual incline in difficulty, I would probably still be playing it right now.
In all honesty, Crazy Kung Fu isn’t really a game that I think should be on the Quest store. It doesn’t offer enough to fulfil Oculus’ requirements for polish and content. An official release would just result in disappointment and poor reviews. But that absolutely does not mean that you shouldn’t buy it. To me, this game to me is a brilliant example of where paid content on SideQuest has merit. It would have failed with an official launch, but as it is, Crazy Kung Fu offers a simple, engaging and enjoyable experience that is well worth taking the time to look at.
Operation Serpens is a shooter. As far as games fitting squarely into a single genre go, Serpens is the prime example. There’s no tricky movement, no stealth elements or tactical manoeuvres, you just stand in place and, er….shoot. Enemies will come at you from down corridors, surround you in open spaces, or even charge at you from the back of trucks in some action movie style set pieces. Still, at the end of the day, all you have to do is shoot enough of them, and the level is done.
There are elements of games like Pistol Whip. Bullets come at you at a pace that you can easily dodge or sidestep. This could even tread close to the bullet hell genre as the amount of enemy fire increases. However, the damage is not nearly enough to motivate you to split your attention between shooting and dodging. If enemy bullets were more threatening, this would have added some much-needed tension to the gameplay.
There are currently seven levels in the campaign mode and a horde mode that oddly features zombies that can also use guns. Each level has its own unique setting and boss to defeat, but despite attempting to give each a different flavour, they all end up just a little vanilla.
Similarly, the horde mode is fun but hardly ground-breaking. The necessity to dodge bullets while keeping an eye out for crawling zombies is a nice twist, but it’s not enough to keep you coming back.
Operation Serpens has gone for a blocky, cartoonish visual style which fits the gameplay nicely. The whole experience really feels like it’s a nod towards the idea of going inside the arcade machines of the ’90s, without getting bogged down in the specific pop culture references of games like Pixel Ripped. It’s not exceptional, but it works.
The sound design in Operation Serpens, however, is disappointing. It still needs a lot of work to round out the experience and ensure continuity of quality. The gunshots lack the “oomph” required to be satisfying to use, and the spatial cues are a bit muddy and get lost in the overall audio environment. The voice acting isn’t terrible, but the recording quality is pretty poor. Those of you familiar with my past reviews will realise that there’s a touch of cheekiness here, but it sounds like the voice work was recorded on a set up similar to the kit that I used for my Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge video review.
I hate saying it, but in terms of gameplay, this feels like a light gun game from the mid-’90s. It’s better because it’s in VR, but not by enough to justify its presence in the official store. Perhaps a better comparison would be that Operation Serpens is a game that would have been pretty cool in 2016, but in 2020 it just doesn’t offer enough depth and variety to beat out the vast array of arcade wave shooters (Space Pilot Trainer, Shooty Skies Overdrive, Shooty Fruity) that already exist on Quest.
REFLEX UNIT 2
Of all the games I’ve reviewed for this piece, Reflex Unit 2 is easily the most polished product in its graphics and UI. Unlike some of the other games, Reflex Unit 2 looks like a “real” game when you launch it. This makes it easy to wade into the gameplay with confidence about the experience to come. My first thoughts were of disbelief that this wasn’t on the official store. That was, however, until I started to play it.
Reflex Unit 2 is the VR version of a popular mobile game. That fact is unavoidable as you progress through the campaign. Played from a top-down perspective, Reflex Unit 2 starts you out as a soldier. It then quickly puts you inside a range of futuristic armoured vehicles as you take out enemies and move towards each level’s objectives. The player stands at the “War Table” which shows you a limited amount of the level environment, with a set of large screens above the playfield which display the map and position of nearby enemies and objectives. One controller handles movement and special abilities. The other controller handles the constant stream of gunfire that will see you through combat, with the control system operating in the same way that games like this usually operate on mobile devices.
Initially, I found myself drawn in by the nice aesthetics and straightforward interface, and I enjoyed the first level, but I soon realised this is not a game that needs to be in VR.
After about 30 minutes, I realised that I was playing the type of game that I might play for a few minutes on my phone to kill some time on my commute. However, reflex Unit 2 was not something that I would ever deliberately put my headset on to play. As I continued through the game, I grew painfully aware of this.
I guess if this is a style of game that you enjoy, or if you’re looking for a “lazy” game that you can play on the Quest while sitting about on the couch then this could have some merit.
A WORTHY QUEST INDEED
While the above reviews are all focused on paid content, make no mistake – SideQuest has some outstanding and innovative titles available for you to try absolutely free. From my own experience, a lot of it is still quite rough around the edges but mixed in the copious games on offer are some real gems. For new initiates to the platform, I highly recommend checking out Hyper Dash, Tea for God, and Deisim, for example.
There are also some fantastic technical experiences like Hand Physics Lab, which appears to be the work of a mad genius, advanced alien species, or both. SideQuest also functions as a springboard for some exceptionally talented individuals. The developer behind the popular Physics Playground was snapped up by StonePunk Studios to work on games such as the recently released Tarzan VR. The mind responsible for Sun Shard and Let’s Go Chopping has reportedly received support from Oculus to develop his popular SideQuest projects.
I’m sure as time passes, we will see more stories of brilliant developers beginning their careers through projects published on SideQuest.
With over 1 million downloads in their first year and news of Facebook opening up to unofficial content, SideQuest has a bright future ahead of it as part of the mobile VR ecosystem. It delivers a simple solution to Oculus’ curation policy, allowing Quest users the opportunity to explore alternate content and providing an outlet for some excellent software. Whether you’re using it to add wireless PCVR capabilities to your Quest (with the SideQuest version of Virtual Desktop) or to bolster your game collection with indie projects, SideQuest has a lot to offer. If nothing else, SideQuest can provide valuable insight into the backstage work that goes into making your favourite games and is well worth taking the time to explore.