Luna review: Charms with a light touch but doesn't have much staying power

The Pitch

Though often painted as the posterchild for successful VR, virtual reality gaming’s most compelling characteristic is sometimes just how experimental and fragile it all feels. Coming to the scene as someone who has spent a lot of their life playing regular video games, it’s fascinating to dive into a world where all the established norms and conventions of how games are designed don’t apply. With them out of the picture, where does that leave us?

Enter Luna, a first-person adventure game where you’ll solve puzzles and build mini-terrariums for the game’s menagerie of gorgeously cartoonish critters. The developer behind the game, San Francisco-based Funomena boasts ex-ThatGameCompany designer Robin Hunicke and tech director Martin Middleton among its team and the shared DNA between Luna and Journey is easy to see. Like a lot of popular VR games, it’s about creation rather than destruction and an experience that leans on the unique interactions that the technology can afford - even if it could stand to lean just that little bit harder.

Dustland Fairytale

The setup here isn’t too complex, nor is it particularly expository. Structured like a sort-of interactive storybook, Luna’s opening cutscene sees you introduced to game’s two principle characters - a chirpy red bird and an ominous owl. From there, each of the game’s levels sees you first solve a set of puzzles - pulling constellations of stars into shape - before then populating the game’s snowglobe-like terrariums with plants in order to make them habitable enough that wildlife will populate it. 

Credit: Funomena

That’s more-or-less the gist. However, the appeal of Luna isn’t so much in the mechanics as it is the tenor or tone of the experience. Sure, the puzzles get harder the further along you get. However, there’s a genuine magic in watching the game’s environments bloom into life. As you progress, you’ll learn more about the dynamic between the bird, owl and their world - and courtesy of Luna’s serene soundtrack (composed by Austin Wintory) - be drawn into it. Wintory’s melodies gel surprisingly well with Luna’s origami-esque aesthetic.

At times, it’s enchanting in the most classical sense and while there is a “2D” version of the game available, you’re better served pretending it doesn’t exist. The cause-and-effect relationship that Luna crafts between you, your actions and its environments feels like an irreplaceable part of the experience. The perspectives and interactions afforded by the technology allow the game to make you feel like you are as much a part of the world as the chirpy red bird you’re chasing.

Unfortunately, for all the things that I liked about Luna. There’s a shallowness to it as well. The small scope here served to put a soft-cap on my enthusiasm. Like a lot of VR games, it’s not particularly long (about two hours) and occasionally feels like it dawdles longer than it ought to.

To its credit, Luna is well-polished a way that many other VR games aren’t. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the puzzles and terrariums to get a little repetitive and the game’s limited scope to stomp on any hopes that it could become anything other than a brief experience you’ll probably only play through the once.

The game’s priced accordingly, but I still wish there was more ambition here. It just feels like an experience that’d be more at home on something like the GearVR or Google Daydream than it does the Oculus or Vive.

Credit: Funomena

The Bottom Line

The sound, visuals and mechanics of Luna are all charming and easy to engage with. It doesn’t take long to be won over - but it doesn’t take long to get over it either. Luna shines, but never so brightly as to erase the sight of its limitations. It’s well-priced, and well-paced, but saddled by a small sense of scope when it could be so much more.