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7.5
                         

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Owlchemy Labs

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Adventure

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PC

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Cosmonious High (PSVR2)

By Lee Mehr 27th Mar 2023 | 2,392 views 

Owlchemy Labs doesn't fully capture the potential complexity and polish of this VR template, but your first day at Cosmonious High is still a worthwhile treat.

After exploring VR through a Rick & Morty-licensed game and a couple of simulation titles, the well-named Owlchemy Labs has transplanted that knowledge into a light-hearted exploration of an alien high school.  Even stating the words "high school" elicits layered reactions from those who’ve left it in the rearview mirror.  Regardless of having a fractured or wholesome experience, it indelibly marks the first major transition period to full adulthood.  It’s through sprinkling subtler qualities of that young-adult environ between class periods that makes Cosmonious High more than a disguised simulator.

You step into the… metaphorical shoes of a Prismi, the first of this rare alien species to attend Cosmonious High.  This strange purple-and-sky-blue creature with no legs nor arms is quite jarring compared to every other attending alien.  Orientation takes a turn for the worse after your bus crash-lands and the school’s onboard AI – known only as Intercom – is on the fritz.  Now comes the balance between fixing the school’s many malfunctions whilst managing new classes and friendships.


Credit to this fictional high school: students are given some latitude with their class schedule.  After escaping the bus and quelling some small fires in the halls, "Chemosophy" and "Visualetics" classes are readily available.  Similar to many platformers or puzzlers, each class acts as a means to introduce a new elemental ability and mechanical interaction.  Said abilities are special to a Prismi too; those Mickey Mouse-styled gloves aren't just for show, they're essentially magic.  As they light up and rhythmically shake (calling attention to the Sense controllers' haptic feedback), you’re transported to another dimension to absorb a new power – be it water, wind, fire, or whatever else.  Owlchemy keeps a nice pace in doling out each ability, which will also come in handy elsewhere across the school.

You're not just putzing until getting a new ability either.  Take my first class, Chemosophy, for example.  Beyond learning the basics of exploring the room, using thought bubbles to ask/answer questions, and so on, you’re taking on assignments that make you play rookie chemist: mix two disparate ingredients in a beaker, add either heat or ice, and judiciously swirl into a new concoction.  Not overly complex nor demanding, but all of the secondary elements – otherworldly environment, creative science projects, and cheery atmosphere – make it feel more meaningful.

Why these classes succeed also stems back to Owlchemy oftentimes respecting succinctness.  Sticking with Chemosophy, outside of the prescribed assignments there are secondary chores smattered around that can be as little as mixing a soda can with a two-dimensional potion.  These extra credit trays will present a couple of pictures and make the necessary combination.  Again, most tasks are mechanically simplistic, but the variety of little things to do maintains interest.  Whether it's getting extra credit, connecting two color-matched nodes with a crystal chain, plugging up pipe leaks, watering plant pots, or solving logic puzzles to free squishy balls called 'Blebs,' there’s always a different bauble within reach.


Intertwined with mechanical tasks are student relationships.  Being the new kid and a unique alien affords you a special mystique.  As you're doing assignments and learning more about the slim number of other alien races, eventually students will enquire your help for something like getting pictures for the student yearbook or discreetly assisting a student with a romantic postcard.  While they're nice extras that supplement world-building, they still feel too constrained.  Since no one understands the Prismi language, conservation via thought bubble options doesn’t clearly explain your choices.  Hell, a few occasions of a character asking "should I do x or y?" are outright ignored.  The intuitive means of chatting (as though grabbing the thought bubble from your mouth) is an inspired touch, but the confused rules and inherent limitations feel like a missed opportunity.

A similar complaint can be made towards some control shortcomings too.  Since "walking" is really phasing from one point to another, this can sometimes lead to accidently clipping through the geometry or other characters.  My most nauseating moment occurred when teleporting near a teacher's desk and immediately seeing her wildly shake as though experiencing an exorcism.  In the same vein, lassoing mid-range and distant objects can be a hassle.  I don’t want to embellish the frequency or severity of these issues (not to mention initially getting soft-locked from the ending), but they distracted too often.


Technical mishaps aside, Cosmonious High impressively renders a Hasbro-flavored interstellar high school.  It doesn't amass a wealth of different alien races, but each one has unique characteristics that immediately stand out: walking blobs, extra-dimensional travelers, towering paint-roll heads, and the wonderfully-designed Prismi protagonist.  Even though it's a solid VR showcase, both aurally and visually, a case can be made against its overly bloomy bounce-house aesthetic.  This sheen is also replicated through the trope-y, meme-centric alien cast.  It's not bereft of quality kid-friendly humor and earned sincerity, but the writers can't help but overindulge in corniness.

Even though I still find my previously-stated critiques to be surface-level compared to Cosmonious High's sizable accomplishments, there's that extra… something missing here.  That's not to malign its content value, mind you.  Putting down $30 for a 5-hour main story – plus a few more for a deserved completionist run – isn't breaking the bank.   What I mean is another little thing, be it a side quest or mechanical tweak, which further illustrates the alien high school experience.  Maybe overheard gossip leads to a student's secret or pulling an elaborate prank; an extra wrinkle that incorporated a story beat with this Prismi's modest assemblage of powers would’ve gone a long way.  In other words: it's bordering on that tightrope between abundance of mini-games within a high-school setting and something more substantial.   


For a studio whose previous VR efforts include generic – if adequately received – simulation titles, Owlchemy Labs' latest feels like a logical next step: harnessing past experience for a new IP.  Beyond being the next stepping stone, Cosmonious High succeeds by pairing its buoyant personality with a cluster of engaging school-oriented activities, further bolstered by capturing the high-school minutiae.  That doesn't discount critiques like certain bugs or writing, nor yearning for something more in its design, but those never ruined my enthusiasm.  Even if Owlchemy's hypothetical sophomore year could hold more promise, it’s still easy to admire this freshmen start.


Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.


VGChartz Verdict


7.5
Good

This review is based on a digital copy of Cosmonious High for the PS5, provided by the publisher.


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