The first day of high school is one filled with anxiety, hope, and more than a bit of wonder as students are thrust into a new environment that places far more agency in the hands of its students. Gone are the days of being walked around in single-file lines by teachers. Students can select courses that interest them and socialization takes a new form with four grades interacting with each other between (and during) classes.
Cosmonious High manages to echo this fantastic period of discovery, bringing players through a fully realized alien high school as they come into their own with unique powers.
The title is developed by Owlchemy Labs, the same developers behind VR experiences Job Simulator and Vacation Simulator. These early VR titles were some of the first fully-realized experiences available in VR. Owlchemy Labs’ experience in creating these environments for virtual exploration comes to fruition within Cosmonious High.
An aspect of parenting that not many realize is that, when you send your child to an institution of learning, you are ultimately rescinding a lot of power and protection you have over that kid. It’s a daunting process, so when Cosmonious High fell into my lap I readily recruited my daughter to help give it a hearty shake. After all, she’s just started middle school (much to my chagrin), and she has less ‘Dad time’ in her daily schedule than she used to.
I get to talk to her about high school, and she has to do my work. Seemed like a win, for me at least.
New me, new you
Players will step into the otherworldly shoes of a Prismi, a new student to Cosmonious High that happens to suffer from a meteor shower on the same day. Exploring the high school introduces players to multiple classes where new minigames are introduced, new powers are revealed to the player to interact with the environment, and new objectives are presented to players to surmount for credits.
These credits are ultimately what unlocks other powers and classes within Cosmonious High. Credits can be earned traditionally within classes (by completing assignments, or extra credit objectives) or by exploring the high school, putting things right with the newly revealed powers. Sometimes, space dust will need to be blown away— other times, dangerous fires crawl across halls while students seem unaware of the general dangers.
I was struck watching my daughter progress through the title while I watched, learning new powers and experimenting with them to explore precisely how she can use them to impact the world around her. It was similar to watching her learn lessons at school, and then implementing those lessons in her daily life to become stronger as a person.
In game, this consistent evolution of the played Prismi struck a chord with how high schoolers are developing physically and mentally. In many ways, the player being able to develop their powers as they progress mirrors both puberty and self-exploration during a frankly daunting time of human development. Cosmonious High manages this deftly and with subtlety to spare.
It wouldn’t be high school without social connections, and Cosmonious High nails the dialogues throughout the title between the player and NPCs. Waving to NPCs has them face the player, and begin dialogue based on the current event. Players can motion from their mouths to speak to various characters, bringing a unique interaction within VR beyond the standard pushing, pulling, and a bevy of murder.
Something you miss as a parent is how your kids socialize in school. Cosmonious High has multiple archetypes that fit into most high school veneers — you have the goths, music heads, nerds, teacher pets, and the ilk. My daughter absolutely bullied some types in VR, such as the ‘teacher’s pet’, but actually enjoyed socializing with others in the play space. It wasn’t a necessary task — she wanted to see what else certain characters had in store for her.
Exploring the high school was a constant treat due to how well the NPCs interacted with the player. Listening to them even talk amongst themselves with witty banter was a fantastic way of fleshing out the world even further. Whether players were stepping into art class or gym, new characters were introduced that gelled well with the environment. I appreciated how the NPCs throughout Cosmonious High were not only fully realized as characters, but would comment on my actions near them with resounding accuracy, whether I’m freezing everything in sight or expanding their heads to fill rooms.
Of course, it’s still VR. My daughter spent the appropriate amount of time hitting other NPCs, throwing things at their heads, and generally being a nuisance. Some teachers manage to catch the items, throwing a ‘nice try’ at the player, meaning players will need to be a bit more creative to abuse the VR NPCs as we’ve all come to expect. But the characters react to being hit, with dialogue and flinching, beyond a three-second animation.
As far as is possible within a VR title of the modern era, Cosmonious High teleports you to a unique in-depth environment that I haven’t appreciated since Half Life: Alyx. This alone is an achievement worth celebrating, and makes Owlchemy Labs worth noting within the emerging VR space.
It can be a victim of its own success, however. Exploring new environments and gaining new powers is so exciting, filling players with an unabashed sense of wonder and fascination, that when gates to progress appear it can be frustrating. In order to progress, players will need to accumulate a specific number of credits to open new classes and rooms. Surely, there are credits to be gained throughout the school, in all manner of ways encouraging exploration and experimentation, but damn if my daughter and I didn’t both feel a bit stymied that there were more adventures locked behind a gate.
Every time we ran into a credit gate, we would resign to melancholy and reenter past areas to poke and prod around. Thankfully, the Grand Hall within the school readily lists how many credits are available in each room, informing players as to where to go, but these gates consistently impeded our progress of exploration. Needing to solve puzzles, as ingeniously constructed as they may be, can become a weight that holds players back from seeking even more that Cosmonious High has to offer.
Ultimately, Cosmonious High paints a brilliant picture of the competence of Owlchemy Labs. The setting and storyline both are intelligently blended to surpass the obvious into a statement of self-exploration and discovery. The world is fully realized with bizarre characters and unique possibilities, encouraging players to explore every nook and cranny. While it readily appeals to a younger crowd, even jaded gamers will find something brilliant to appreciate within the halls of Cosmonious High.