Umurangi Generation VR: A Modern Classic from a New Perspective

Games Reviews umurangi generation
Umurangi Generation VR: A Modern Classic from a New Perspective

For all the magic that virtual reality has promised to offer, I’ve rarely had more fun than dancing to the beat of Umurangi Generation‘s soundtrack while painting a shitty drawing on a fake wall. The VR rendition of the 2020 photography game, perhaps unconditionally, elevates the original’s philosophy. The world is crumbling around you. Procrastinating on your tasks to embrace your creative self is not only tempting. It’s imperative.

Released on April 18 for PlayStation VR2 and Meta Quest devices, Umurangi Generation VR reimagines the first person photography sandbox to be played with a headset strapped to your face. If you haven’t heard about Umurangi (which was one of Paste’s five favorite games of 2020), it takes place in Tauranga Aotearoa, a region in New Zealand. It shares a tale about Ngāi Te Rangi, and a depiction of the Māori, both of which you should learn more about before diving in. (Dan Taipua’s review over at The Spinoff is still a great starting point.)

I reviewed the original back in 2020, and found it to be beautifully bleak. At its core, you’re a photographer who’s slowly documenting a doomed world that gradually gets worse. This is done by visiting set scenarios with a list of objectives—photograph seven birds in one shot, find specific curios around and take a picture of them, and so on. Over time you gain access to different lenses, photo editing effects, and some gadgets for traversal purposes. Umurangi Generation VR also includes the Macro DLC, which adds levels and a few features like the spray can.

Umurangi Generation VR

The experience itself remains largely the same. There’s a different main menu that lets you goof around with your VR arms and take on a tutorial if you need to, and then you’re off to the base levels. If you look at your left wrist, you’ll get the list of objectives from a watch. Around your waist are the camera, painting tools, and of course, an MP3 player. The timer from the original is gone, too, so there’s no pressure to finish your tasks. (A feature I didn’t enjoy, mind, but that was thematically interesting by accident.)

The novelty of VR didn’t take long to set in. At first, I was taking pictures with the camera from afar, which is undoubtedly underwhelming, until I had the reflex of leaning toward the viewfinder with my head. Once you do, the view changes to first perspective, and you can aim freely as you’d do in real life. I never felt limited in the way I wanted to set a specific angle. If I wanted a vertical shot, for example, I just moved my wrist until I had the right frame.

As I mentioned, things begin to shine when you ignore the objective and try to push the limits of VR (which is true for most VR games, really), especially since I remembered how to solve most photography tasks already. The spray can from Macro feels great to hold and even better to vandalize stuff with. There’s some trial and error involved while figuring out what you can paint over, as not everything is eligible, but the feeling is immediately gratifying. So is shaking the can to “reload” the paint, as the haptics mimic the clink clink clink vibration inside the can as you do. The marker is fun to use, too, and both painting tools have a selection of colors to switch from.

Your virtual impetus ends up making the experience, though. I immediately started getting selfies with characters around the map, while trying different poses with my hands. I’d usually place the camera somewhere and set the timer before running off to make a pose. Like actual selfies, you don’t get it right every time, but that’s half of the fun. You can even finger snap, which is more satisfying than it should be, and completely unnecessary, which is what makes it stand out.

Umurangi Generation VR

Thankfully, performance is quite stable almost all of the time. There were moments when getting too close to a corner slowed things down for a few seconds, and I got worried that I might feel sick. But they were far and few between. It’s worth mentioning that I have some VR legs already, so your mileage may vary. Even so, some camera turns definitely put me to the test, at least at first. Thankfully, there’s a long list of options to tweak around to try and mitigate the usual VR shenanigans.

It’s easy to tell where the development team made compromises with Umurangi Generation VR. The levels, as much as they try to retain the vibrant palette of the original, don’t have the same intensity, as lightning effects seem to have been toned down. As a result, some scenes lack a bit of spirit, especially the dramatic ones that happen later on. There’s also quite a bit of popping effects—in The Strand level, the memorable group of dancing rascals begins to disappear the further you walk in the opposite direction of the street. Same with a few buildings and structures closer to the sky. It’s distracting the first few times, but I stopped paying attention to it over time. 

In fact, I stopped paying attention to most things, except for my shitty drawings and the tapping of my foot as I selected a new song from the MP3 player. In the original, levels feel like set scenes frozen in time, offering the photographer power fantasy of giving you all the time in the world to line up the perfect shot. In Umurangi Generation VR, this is taken even further with your autonomy in this world as you paint over things and take pictures that weren’t possible before.

These actions result in stronger echoes of the game’s core principles. In the face of doom, after the government has failed to protect its people despite clear warnings, and rather further opened the wound, what is there left to do? In the original, seeing characters sitting alone in a corner wearing a VR headset made for a fun gag about a dystopian future. Now, I understand why they’d want to hold onto that escape for as long as the battery or motion sickness allows them to. I understand why people choose to gather together on the street to dance, even as they slowly fade from view.

Umurangi Generation VR was developed by Origame Digital and published by Playism. Our review is based on the PlayStation VR2 version; it is also available for Meta Quest.

Diego Nicolás Argüello is a freelance journalist from Argentina who has learned English thanks to video games. You can read his work in places like Polygon, the New York Times, The Verge, and more, and he’s usually procrastinating on Twitter @diegoarguello66.

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