This was supposed to take a week. Instead, it took half a night.
I’ll put a disclaimer right here: I’m not going to be reviewing the VR properties of Transference for two reasons. One reason is that I’m on the Xbox One, the console with less reasons to purchase it than exclusives. The second reason is that when it comes down to it, at the end of the day, we’re all paying 25 bucks for a 90-minute game, and that’s a joke whether I’m fully immersed or not. Welcome to Transference.
This is the newest title from Ubisoft, a VR psychological thriller that was developed in collaboration with SpectreVision, the film production company owned by Elijah Wood. Unfortunately Elijah Wood isn’t in the game, which is a shame, but he did produce it, so he’s partly to blame as Transference is fairly lame, and not a pretty dame to say the least. Enough about the fame, what’s in the game, Shane?
You play as a dog named Laika, who is owned by the Hayes family. The Hayes family are a group of geniuses, a mind-bogglingly intelligent trio who all share different talents, with the father Raymond being a neuroscientist, the wife Kathryn being a musician, and the son Benjamin being a boy genius. Raymond has always put his work before his family however, which puts the strain on Kathryn and Benji, and after Benji believes that Laika is dead, Laika returns and finds out the family are being trapped in the cyberworld. He dons the VR headset to save his owners, and… yeah, I’m taking the piss.
Gameplay consists of normal walking-simulator type stuff: You walk around, you interact with every single item you see, along with every piece of paper this family ever jotted their thoughts down upon, and you get spooked. Make no mistake, Transference is a horror title, not a “psychological thriller”, because that implies I were to think about the events that preceded before me.
The game has got quite a hearty bunch of FMV cutscenes also, which contrast poorly when you realize that there’s also 3D models of the family in-game. No Ubisoft, you can’t have both because it breaks immersion. If I see the real-life lovechild of George Lucas and John Goodman standing in front of me, I’m going to be given immersion whiplash after I see his in-game model, and he instead looks like Snake Fist from F.E.A.R. 2.
Thus the cat is out of the bag, and the big elephant in the room is that Transference is actually a movie. Not just any movie however, a made-for-TV movie that doesn’t even last sixty minutes, if you know what you’re doing. Well shit, I’ve never reviewed a movie before! Not unless you count the joke reviews I used to pepper Letterboxd with. Damn, guess I’m actually going to have to sound intelligent. Ahem…
There are three actors in the entire game, with the child actor somehow being the best one. Benjamin genuinely sounds like a distraught child in the situations he’s stuck in, and some of the FMV cutscenes with him in it are genuinely unnerving. Kathryn takes second place purely for not being Raymond, who– Wait a minute, that’s Macon Blair. That’s not right, no, I’ve seen Macon Blair act perfectly in films before. Green Room, Blue Ruin, this man can act with the best of them.
I’m not going to blame Blair’s poor acting on Blair himself, because that’s completely unfair. The writing and directing are mostly to blame, as a lot of the time, it looks like Blair struggles to find something to do with the space given. His hands keep fidgeting around in places where they shouldn’t be, and I don’t personally believe it’s a part of the character.
He can definitely voice act, that’s for sure. When he’s not stammering and fannying about in a storage closet, Blair definitely brings some violent emotions to the ethereal voices heard throughout the game. That final crescendo of anger and fury at the end is also top-notch, where the characters are all just screaming over each other to try and get a word in; It’s brilliant.
The writing’s fairly solid, when it’s not trying to blow your mind with metaphors and other such nonsense. The relationship one can have with Transference and the player/spectator is a weird one, as sometimes the game will try to actively dissuade them from continuing. It’s a barrier all too often seen in walking simulators and here, it’s no different, as Raymond will constantly keep trying to blow your mind with Jodorowsky-levels of pretension.
With that being said, I will say that despite the game taking place in one simple household, a lot of the set pieces are varied and interesting. The main gist is that you’re inhabiting the minds of the three family members, and there is some absolutely fantastic subtle symbolism throughout most of it. If there’s one thing that I don’t get however, it’s the main source of horror.
There’s a certain force that remains in some of these mindscapes, in the form of a monster that’s reminiscent of the phantoms in OXENFREE. Come to think of it, there are various instances where Transference seems to reference of attempt to ape OXENFREE. The rock towers, the creepy radio messages that sometimes seem to play Morse Code. Someone at Night School Studios should have a look at this, see if it involves infringement, no?
In all seriousness, the monster that invades your personal space like a guy with no concept of personal hygiene only hurts the games mood. It doesn’t fit in with the game’s themes, not even when the wife Kathryn starts being less subtle about her hatred for her husband and writing songs like “I Wanna Stab My Husband In His Bastard Throat”. It doesn’t make sense as to why she would actively destroy people trying to save her, like the player.
There’s a lot in Transference that’s eerily reminiscent of Rabbits, the webshow that David Lynch made right before the release of Inland Empire, and that’s great if you ask me. Rabbits was an utterly brilliant piece of surrealist horror, and whenever I saw the connections, I let out an elated sigh of relief that this game wasn’t completely ripping off bad horror walking simulators for once.
The puzzle design is well done, but scarce and sometimes not even a puzzle at all. One minute, you’re trying to figure out the correct piano jingle in order to unlock a door, and the next minute you’re looking for a stupid light switch hidden in some vague area. Don’t give me that stupid “oooo! butt we r in a crayzee mans mynd!!” excuse either, you know that isn’t a watertight argument.
Transference is short, almost insultingly so, with my first playthrough genuinely reaching under ninety minutes. I get that this is a VR thing, where titles are still experimenting with the medium and seeing what they can make games out of, but the thing that pisses me off is that the Xbox One has no VR support, and is still being sold at full price. You’re kidding, right?
I also know that VR titles are mildly overpriced, with Time Carnage being a prime example. Its VR counterpart on Steam and PS4 is twenty dollars, but when Wales Interactive decided to port Time Carnage over to the Xbox One, you know what they did? They slashed the price in half, because they’re not unbelievably greedy like Ubisoft. I don’t care whether you can’t buy Alpha Packs with a premium currency or not, Ubi, I know your deal here.
Is Transference good? Arguable, but I’m going to side with “yes”, as it showcases how to be inspired by a title like Layers of Fear or OXENFREE, without directly ripping it off. Is Transference worth 25 bucks? Absolutely not, even if you’re a VR owner and are used to having your wallet wiped clean with ludicrous transactions.
In the end, I won’t say I’m disappointed with Transference, but I am annoyed that I wasted so much money on an experience equalled by most indie games for half of the price. It’s got some fairly decent writing when it’s not trying to be snobby, some great symbolism, and some see-sawing acting quality. So in short, it’s a Ubisoft title, but with the backing of Leo Biederman from Deep Impact behind it.
Damn, Deep Impact was a good film. Be right back.
This review of Transference is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
Dangerously overpriced surrealist horror.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.