Now that virtual reality has come around the block a bit and has started to age from its awkward teenage years, the technology has received a glut of games in a tiny chunk of genres. First-person shooters, puzzle games, and rhythm games have proliferated — no doubt because they make the transition to the medium intuitive and painless. Enter 17-BIT – an indie team ready to take on the impractical task of creating a virtual reality-only survival game, Song in the Smoke.
What was the de facto best virtual reality survival sim when it was released in 2021 still retains its place on that throne to this day. This latest Rekindled edition brings the concentrated effort to far more powerful hardware that makes the game shine even brighter despite its imperfections.
Song in the Smoke shoves aside the base building and multiplayer shenanigans so prevalent in the survival genre to instead focus on the basics – exploration, resource management and combat. This simplicity allows developers to capture what matters most and work best in a virtual reality space.
The greatest achievement of the game is the creation of an atmosphere. Each of its phases surrounds you with the chirping of crickets, the rustling of leaves and the cracking of branches. As night falls, the songs of birds and the chatter of marsupials subside, giving way to the eerie footsteps of something stalking in the darkness.
The ridiculously detailed soundscapes allow for equal parts great stillness and intense hilarity. It’s one thing to know an enemy is chasing you in a video game, but it’s quite another when you hear that enemy’s footsteps behind you getting louder and feel your head rumble with increasing intensity the closer they get . It’s exciting enough to often evoke a real fight-or-flight response – something survival games so often aspire to but so seldom achieve.
Prototypical survival mechanics are designed to add a layer of added excitement and intensity to your jungle exploration antics. Every swing of a club or release of an arrow comes at a price – whether it’s a wear and tear on an item’s durability or the loss of valuable ammo. Song in the Smoke Rekindled isn’t stingy with its crafting materials, so you’re never far from a replacement, but inventory space is very limited, meaning you’re forced to constantly make sacrifices and judge on-the-spot you flush.
Luckily, sorting through your belongings is a surprisingly pleasant affair. There are no nested menus or tabs to scroll through here – just a cloak that opens to reveal your entire inventory, split across a finite number of easily accessible and well-distributed packs. It’s an intelligent system that puts you in control of everything in no time, which is all the more important when your trusty bow’s string snaps in the middle of a fight with a ravenous hyena.
The interface is kept squeaky clean thanks to a handy gauge on your left wrist that shows your current hunger and fatigue levels – but keeping the pangs of hunger and exhaustion at bay is when Song in the Smoke is at its least exciting. You need to set up camp, keep a fire burning and sleep in the game to be successful.
The adventure is broken down into a handful of easy stages, all of which start with collecting some glowing bricks and end with a unique set piece. It takes a good dozen hours to fully complete, making it surprisingly extensive, but much of that time is spent on typical survival work. Sort your inventory to craft what you need, cook food to lower the hunger meter, and keep your fire burning so the nocturnal predators will give you a good night’s sleep.
On the other hand, all the survival quests admittedly make your actual adventures seem more special. There is a special satisfaction in defeating a huge lion with primitive tools, especially when your victory is the result of patience and careful preparation beforehand. You never know how you’ll progress thanks to a handy map that fills in as you explore, showing your current objective, but there are plenty of environmental and beast obstacles to overcome.
Despite the “Rekindled” subtitle, there isn’t much standing in the way of completely new features here. The headset’s haptics are spared but well used, and there’s a new free-jump option that lets you forego the point-to-teleport system for vertical navigation if you’ve got the iron stomach to handle it. Thankfully, free-jumping is off by default, and motion sickness is unlikely to be an issue, regardless of your sensitivity, thanks to a whole host of accessibility options that let you customize the virtual reality experience to suit your preferences.
The lack of new features doesn’t stop Song in the Smoke Rekindled from taking immense advantage of the new PSVR2 hardware. Inside-out tracking allows for dramatically improved locomotion, and a full 360-degree range of motion feels truly liberating in a survival environment. The PS5’s horsepower is put to great use to increase the level of detail and image quality to make a pair of glowing eyes unmistakably clear in the twilight. It’s all borderline transformative when compared directly to its PSVR1 predecessor.
Song in the Smoke Rekindled brings one of the best virtual reality survival experiences to a platform where it can be best enjoyed. If you’re willing to pound your way through run-of-the-mill resource management, you’ll be rewarded with delightfully suspenseful sequences punctuated by superb sound design.