The Room VR: A Dark Matter fulfills the promise of VR puzzle games

The Room series of puzzle games on mobile devices has consistently delivered some of the best puzzle design in the industry, combined with a powerful sense that you are playing with physical objects that have their own weight and “feel.” It was always the perfect setup for a VR game, and Fireproof Games has delivered exactly that with The Room VR: A Dark Matter, out now on the Oculus store, Steam VR, and PlayStation VR.

What follows aren’t a series of escape rooms, exactly, but an exploration into the mysteries of missing people that quickly shifts to a journey into the supernatural.

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While the previous releases have mostly focused on singular puzzle boxes or objects that gradually open up as you solve the puzzles, The Room VR expands the concept further, spreading puzzles around small environments at first — such as a tiny police station — before expanding into places like an ornate church that holds its own series of secrets. Each setting has a collection of hot spots for you to stand in, look around, grab objects to add to your inventory, and try to figure out what’s going on and how to keep moving forward.

I can’t overstate the importance of virtual reality to how well this game works, and how craftily the team at Fireproof Games learned to work with point of view and scale to mess with your expectations. Getting stuck isn’t a problem, as a series of clues unlock with time if you fail to progress. Those clues are designed to teach you how to think about these puzzles for future reference as much as how to solve the particular puzzle in front of you.

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These are people who understand the art of frustration and release when it comes to puzzle design. Giving up to look at a clue always feels like a personal failure and not an issue with the design itself. I would often feel silly about what I had missed, although one or two steps in a particular puzzle did make me wonder how I was supposed to notice a particular detail. It’s not perfect, in other words, but it’s much better than just about any other puzzle game released in VR to date.

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The Room VR is also filled with so much good VR design that I barely noticed all the things it does well until I was able to interview one of the members of the development team. You can set the game to be played while sitting or standing for accessibility reasons. It’s impossible to drop an item and have to bend over to pick it back up off the floor or have it roll away from you, and there aren’t any puzzles that require you to get all the way down on the ground or to stretch up on your tiptoes.

That all sounds limiting in some ways, but I never noticed any of those decisions until I was told about them. The puzzles just felt organic and fun, and the clever design means that more people get to play comfortably.

Fireproof Games is operating on a much smaller scale than Valve Software, obviously, but both companies seem to understand good VR design on a level that’s a step above most other studios in the business. Playing The Room VR alongside Half-Life: Alyx was an amazing one-two punch of experiencing how familiar genres can and should work when brought over to VR.

Despite the outstanding puzzle design and clever use of scale throughout the game, my favorite aspect of The Room VR may be its sense of place. The general tone of the game shifts quickly from the mysterious to the otherworldly to the ghastly, and that change is done almost entirely through the design of each environment itself, especially once you start manipulating your surroundings to solve each puzzle. There was always a sense, as I threw levers, turned cranks, and even played musical instruments, that I was toying with powers and situations far beyond my control, and that it might have been better if I had just turned this case down.

You’ll never find solid answers to the questions the story asks, but that’s beside the point: The Room VR traps you inside a wonderfully cohesive world with internal logic that doesn’t have to play by the established rules of our reality. It forces you to think your way out of things while greater powers always seem right around the corner. This is dread, disguised as a puzzle game, and VR has only made it better.

PS VR Mega Pack Bundle

The Mega Pack includes a PlayStation VR headset, PlayStation camera, and download codes for Astro Bot Rescue Mission, Everybody’s Golf VR, PlayStation VR Worlds, Skyrim VR, and Resident Evil 7.

The Room VR: A Dark Matter is out now on the Oculus Store, Steam VR, and PlayStation VR. It is playable on either Oculus Quest or tethered headsets. The game was reviewed with an early build, and then a final copy, provided by Fireproof Games, and played on an Oculus Quest. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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