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Review: Gnomes & Goblins

There has been some truly stellar virtual reality (VR) releases in 2020 from the likes of Half-Life: Alyx to Phantom: Covert Ops and Iron Man VR. But these are all quite heavy, action-oriented experiences with a lot of shooting. One title which has been awaited for the past five years and doesn’t involve any of that style of gameplay is Wevr’s Gnomes & Goblins which has finally made its way to PC VR headsets. So after all this time, was the wait worth it?

Firstly, if you’ve been following VRFocus’ coverage you’ll know Gnomes & Goblins isn’t the work of one studio, rather a collaborative effort involving Golem Creations, MWM and the director of films like Iron Man and The Jungle Book, Mr Jon Favreau. As such, you can’t think of Gnomes & Goblins as a videogame, it has videogame elements where you can interact with this fantasy realm but it’s more akin to the growing roster of ‘interactive experiences’ arriving for VR headsets, blending film narrative into an immersive piece of content.

Some may remember the original preview of Gnomes & Goblins from back in 2016, with little goblins running around their tree houses inside a richly detailed forest. That essence remains, yet now you can really become a part of what turns out to be a bustling village full of little characters building bridges, tending to crops and drinking plenty of frothy fruit beer. All of which you get to do in what is really a two-part experience.

Rather than a traditional videogame storyline where you get the initial intro and then play the rest out, in Gnomes & Goblins the first 30 or so minutes is the entire story. You meet the tiny goblins who look upon you, not with fear, more hesitation because you are a giant stomping through their idyllic home. Not completely idyllic, however. As the bad guys of this story are the gnomes – yes they have pointy red hats – who live underground and generally seem perpetually angry the brief couple of times you meet them.

This whole segment feels like an extended prologue if you will, shrinking you down to goblin size to drink beer with them, play some of their festival mini-games and get acquainted with the basic controls, picking stuff up and moving. On that note, locomotion settings are a puzzling mixture of continuous, a really short teleport called ‘bump’ or a hybrid of both. Bump seems like a simulation of walking yet is so short you might as well be juddering through, stick to continuous if you can. Plus you can play seated or standing.

With their big wide eyes, the goblins are instantly adorable, like the Minions or those cooing alien toys from Toy Story. Large or small, you’d have to be fairly cold-hearted to not get attached to these cheerful creatures. And that’s the main draw of Gnomes & Goblins, a family-friendly experience where all the inhabitants are as Disney friendly as you’d expect. It’s a shame then that the initial ‘film’ intro isn’t that little bit longer. You can increase this by spending as much time as you like playing the mini-games but you can come back to replay any section. There was definitely that sense of pilot episode about it, setting the scene for further additions.

Once you made friends then it’s onto the ‘game’ section of Gnomes & Goblins where you get to explore the forest finding all the hidden secrets nestled away, learn to grow crops and make beer (there’s a trend forming here…). There’s just one tiny problem, up to this point Gnomes & Goblins was a lovely narrative with a goblin buddy helping move things along. In this second section, you’re left to your own devices and there’s a notable lack of information regarding how you go about doing this, which unfortunately becomes frustrating.

There are signs to various areas like the fields and brewing section and that’s about it. And thus commences several hours of wandering, picking up items which randomly disappear to the treehouse as you have no inventory or way to pocket anything. Trial and error can work when properly laid out, however, as Gnomes & Goblins is clearly designed for all ages some structure is clearly needed. And then there’s the fun task of working out how to make yourself small, or not bothering altogether.

What really is disappointing about a title like Gnomes & Goblins which clearly looks the part with some beautiful scenes – if your PC can handle the specs, at minimum everything had to be set on low – are the immersion-breaking aspects. The most glaring being the see-through controllers. No hands, claws, gloves or anything like that, just the two controllers waving about in this magical realm. Another was the exploration, made tricky by invisible walls or worse, a blade of grass. The paths have to be taken everywhere with no nipping between them because you naturally can’t walk through short grass. And then there’s trying to descend ladders which meant walking out into thin air to then reach down and begin the process, baffling.

Gnomes & Goblins started out so well and would have easily suited that style for another hour, providing a short entertaining experience. Instead what’s been presented is a piece of content with two distinctly different sides, the latter trying to flesh out the former with inconsistent gameplay which waters down the charm. If you pick up Gnomes & Goblins enjoy the beginning sequence and then replay, just don’t go any further.

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