Now virtual reality has been around the block a bit and begun to age out of its awkward teenage years, the technology has gotten a deluge of games in a small morsel of genres. First-person shooters, puzzlers, and rhythm games have proliferated — undoubtedly due to how intuitively and painlessly they make the transition to the medium. Enter 17-BIT — an indie team willing to take on the impractical task of making a survival game exclusively for virtual reality with Song in the Smoke.
What was the de facto best virtual reality survival sim when it initially released in 2021 still preserves its spot atop that throne today. This latest Rekindled edition brings the tightly focused effort onto far more capable hardware that helps the game burn even brighter despite its imperfections.
Song in the Smoke casts aside the base-building and multiplayer shenanigans that run rampant in the survival genre to instead focus on the basics — exploration, resource management, and combat. That simplicity allows the developers to hammer home the things that matter most and work best in a virtual reality space.
The game’s greatest accomplishment is its establishment of atmosphere. Each of its stages surrounds you with the chirps of crickets, rustling of leaves, and crackling of branches. As night falls, the songs of birds and prattling of marsupials subside and give way to the eerie footsteps of something stalking in the darkness.
The ridiculously detailed soundscapes allow for equal parts magnificent tranquility and intense exhilaration. It’s one thing to know that an enemy is chasing you in a video game, but it’s another thing entirely when you can hear that enemy’s footsteps growing louder behind you and feel your head rumbling with increased intensity as it gets near. It’s enthralling enough to often trigger a genuine fight-or-flight response — something survival games so often strive for, but so rarely attain.
Prototypical survival mechanics serve to blanket your jungle exploring antics with a layer of extra tension and intensity. Every swing of a club or release of an arrow comes at a cost — be it wear and tear on an item’s durability or the loss of valuable ammunition. Song in the Smoke Rekindled isn’t stingy with its crafting materials, so you’re never far away from a replacement, but inventory space is very limited, meaning you’ll be forced to constantly make sacrifices and on-the-spot judgments as you scavenge.
Thankfully, rifling through your belongings is a surprisingly agreeable affair. There aren’t any nested menus or tabs to flip through here — just a cloak that opens up to reveal your entire inventory, divvied up across a finite number of easily accessible and well spaced parcels. It’s a smart system that can have anything in your hand in a moment’s notice, which is all the more important when the string on your trusty bow breaks in the middle of a tussle with a ravenous hyena.
The interface is kept squeaky clean courtesy of a handy indicator on your left wrist, denoting your current levels of hunger and fatigue — but keeping the pangs of starvation and exhaustion at bay is when Song in the Smoke is at its least exciting. You’ll have to set up camp, keep a fire fuelled, and stay caught up on your in-game sleep to be successful.
The adventure is broken up into a handful of simple stages that all begin with collecting a few glowing stones and end with a unique set piece. It takes a good dozen hours to get through in its entirety, making it surprisingly substantial, but a lot of that time is spent doing typical survival busy work; sorting through your inventory to craft what you need, cooking food to stomp down the hunger meter, and keeping your fire lit so the nightly predators allow you to sleep in peace.
On the other hand, all the survival chores do admittedly make your actual adventures seem more special. There’s a specific satisfaction that comes from besting an enormous lion with primitive tools, especially if your victory comes as the fruit of patience and diligent preparations beforehand. You’ll never be at a loss for how to progress thanks to a handy map that fills in as you explore and displays your current objective, but environmental and bestial obstacles are plentiful.
Despite donning the “Rekindled” subtitle, there isn’t much in the way of completely new features here. The headset haptics are used sparingly but well, and there’s a new free jump option that lets you forgo the point-to-teleport system for vertical navigation, if you’ve got the iron stomach to handle it. Fortunately, the free jump is turned 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 tailor the virtual reality experience to your preference.
The lack of new features doesn’t keep Song in the Smoke Rekindled from benefiting immensely from the new PSVR2 hardware. The inside-out tracking allows for drastically improved locomotion, and having a full 360-degree range of movement feels truly liberating in a survival setting. The PS5’s horsepower is put to great use in boosting level-of-detail and image quality to make a pair of glowing eyes in the twilight unmistakably clear. It all adds up to be borderline transformative in direct comparison to its PSVR1 predecessor.
Song in the Smoke Rekindled brings one of virtual reality’s top survival experiences onto a platform where it can be enjoyed at its best. If you’re willing to muscle through some run-of-the-mill resource management, you’ll be rewarded with delightfully tense sequences punctuated by superb sound design.
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