Despite being anime-as-fuck, 'Gravity Rush 2' takes on some surprisingly complex themes.
All screenshots courtesy of Sony.
It's been five years since Gravity Rush was released, and while I can't recall the particulars of what happened during my hours with the game, its core sensation has stuck with me. It's that feeling of gracefully defying physics and tumbling through the air, the overwhelming stomach-in-knots sensation as you leap from the top of a building and fall for miles and miles. Returning to those moments with a sequel's ambitions on more powerful hardware was the biggest reason I was looking forward to Gravity Rush 2. What I didn't expect was all of that, plus a surprisingly on-point critique of oppressive class systems wrapped in anime trappings.
I don't remember the original game having anything like that, do you?
In any case, Gravity Rush 2 moves our main characters to a new floating locale, Jirga Para Lhao, where your first interaction with the city is a vibrant, bustling marketplace. There are people everywhere, suggesting a place with a robust economy of citizens eager to both buy and sell. But if you start to poke around, it's clear there's far more going on in Jirga; what you've been introduced to is only the city's middle class. Hovering above the marketplace are the city's elite—rich citizens in sprawling mansions that openly share their disdain for the people below.
"Everyone has their place, you'd throw us into chaos," laments one affluent citizen, responding to the mere suggestion that Jirga Para Lhao work towards a fairer, more just society.
If you float a little bit further up—provided you're able to avoid cannon fire—you'll discover the city's militarized bureaucracy, authoritarian cabals pulling the strings and ensuring class strife both lines their pockets and ensures any unrest is directed at each other, not them.
"They're nothing but old monsters, sucking the city and everyone in it dry," remarks Raven, one of the main characters, during a mission. "They don't care about anything but money."
But there's more. Hidden miles beneath the busy marketplace, underneath enough layers of cloud cover that you begin to think a game over screen is imminent, are the poorest residents of Jirga Para Lhao, individuals doing little more than getting by in wooden huts. Dubbed criminals and vagrants by propagandists, the colorful above masks the reality of the city's underclass.
What did you think of that moment?
God, Patrick, the first time I fell through those clouds in Jirga Para Lhao is definitely going to stick with me all year.
It isn't just that the game transitions from the bright and musical marketplaces to the drab, rambling shantytown of houseboats, it's how that transition happens. You fall for so long before seeing the first structures appear.
It was the first time that I saw that Gravity Rush 2 took itself seriously despite all of the fun, anime packaging. I don't just mean that I could tell that the story was going to get a little heavy, I mean that it became clear that Gravity Rush 2 was going to actually do surprising things—both narratively and mechanically—with verticality and scale.
(In this way, it ended up reminding me of something like Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra, both of which build on top of familiar martial arts and superpower tropes to tackle some complex themes. And both of which are shows you should watch with your daughter when she's old enough. Promise me this.)
But at that point, I was still pretty sure that the disparity between classes in Jirga would just be window dressing. But I was wrong—and heads up reader, I'm about to get into some spoiler-y stuff about this act of Gravity Rush 2.
You head down to Lei Elgona—the city's "slums"—to chase a group of thieves who had stolen something important from your crew. And while I was shadowing the thief, I thought I had the game pegged: I'd find out that the poor folks of Jirga Para Lhao were just ordinary people beset by poverty and crime. Maybe she'd track down a kingpin, beat him up, connect the poor folks down their to a wealthy benefactor higher up. Maybe someone would plant a tree, or the smog would change into bright white clouds.
And at first, my theory looked right: I followed the thief through the twisting hallways of some smashed-together houseboats, was cornered by a group of confused, angry citizens—the thief had stolen from us to feed these people. The confrontation erupted into a brawl—everything was going as I thought it would. As that came to a close, a group of soldiers from Jirga's militaristic junta kicked in the door. "Ah, okay," I predicted, like a cynical asshole, "Now someone will be arrested and I'll see that thing's aren't as black an-"
But before I could finish my thought, the soldiers—their faces hidden behind masks—raised rifles to their shoulders. This happens in a cutscene; there's no chance to intervene. Kat watches as they cooly close their fingers around triggers, and hold. There was no attempt to arrest these citizens. This wasn't a "mistaken identity" story. No one thought that the whole group was part of the gang. These weren't rogue soldiers. This is what they were ordered to do, and they did it.
It—and what follows—totally took me by surprise. It's not what I expected from Gravity Rush 2. The original definitely had some notion of the haves and the have-nots, but it never went this hard. And GR2 was so bright, so colorful. I thought (maybe even hoped?) that it had no interest in being grim. Don't get me wrong, the game does get anime-as-hell eventually, but not here. Not yet.
So, what did you think, did this work for you?
I was, uh, surprised at how effective this was? It caught me off-guard, which worked in its favor, especially at first. I was expecting to play a video game where I fly around and beat up stereotypical bad things trying to destroy the universe, and while there's plenty of that, it's mixed with serious and considered observations of class structure and how people's own ignorance embolden those who take advantage of them. Given that Gravity Rush 2 separates its classes by literal islands in the sky, it fits nicely with all the recent talk over "bubbles."
In any case, that scene sets into motion a series of fascinating dynamics that are more than just window dressing for Gravity Rush 2; they're the primary motivation for the huge parts of the plot, and if you spend enough with the side quests, you get all sorts of interesting windows into Jirga. I only wish it'd been easier to know which one of those would meaningfully pan out; half the side quests are little more than filler. But those are worth filtering through for the moments where you end up working for (and with) the people from the city's varied socioeconomic backdrops.
And it works because Kat, a cheery optimist, assumes the best in people. As you talked about on our podcast, that usually means Kat's getting the wool pulled over her eyes. It's not hard to trick Kat into helping you, which often results in Kat helping out the oppressors, despite her plight for the oppressed. This would've gotten on my nerves, except for the iiiiiiiiiinteresting directions the story eventually goes in, moments that open Kat's eyes—naivety be damned.
And thankfully, it's not all plot-driven. One of my favorite moments is when Kat's given the opportunity to hand over leftover fuel to the wealthy citizen that hired her to move it—or defy those orders entirely and deliver it to the city's poor, who have no fuel at all. It's here that Gravity Rush 2 gives players a chance to nudge Kat's in one direction or the other. If Kat acted according to "character," she'd follow through on her mission, as asked. But suddenly, you're allowed to push her towards a tiny but meaningful act of revolution within Jirga Para Lhao's hovering walls.
"Fuck you," I mumbled, as my version of Kat turned her gaze to the skies and plummeted away from a world of thoughtless plutocrats, a canister of gas slowly twisting in the wind.
What's amazing about that moment, Patrick, is that it's basically the only one like it in the whole game. I can't recall a single other moment where Kat is given a choice like that. I'm also super curious about what happens if you choose the rich folks in that moment—my guess, nothing, the larger story continues on unabated. But, still, I'm now going to go look for a let's play or something. (I also really want a Walking Dead style percentage breakdown. How many people gave the fuel back to the wealthy?)
I'm glad, though, that Gravity Rush 2 doesn't give you more leeway in how things unfold, because then it might try to paint a "both sides are wrong" story—a la Bioshock Infinite. It's better for it tackling this straight on. Because instead of retreating to a well-meaning ambivalence, it's able to make the case directly: In order to take down the oppressive council that runs Jirga, Kat has to get over her naivety and take a stand against the powerful.
This happens first through the sidequests you mention, which explore not only the militaristic overlords of Jirga Para Lhao, but also the day-to-day divisions of the city. There are stories about star-crossed lovers, sensationalistic journalism, and finding the small pleasures of life even in an unjust society. It's actually all pretty nuanced—even if it sometimes does involve racing birds through glowing rings in the sky.
The council actually itself veers on cartoonishly evil, though, which put me off a little at first. I'm always keen to remind folks that oppression functions not through mustache twirling villains, but through unfair policies, hierarchical systems of control, and the wide spread of harmful ideologies. But these days, it's hard to deny the value in showing someone stepping up to take on a more obvious form of tyranny, too.
And when Kat and her group does confront the Council, it isn't through a big speech about justice, or a super-powered show of force, or through the town lending Kat their power Dragon Ball Z style. It's through organized, armed resistance from a small section of the oppressed. And because of that, the result isn't a clean sweep of justice—it's a fractured society that its new leaders need to try to stitch back together. This might be a game about floating islands and cosmic animals, but in this moment it's as mature a take on revolution as I've seen in a big-budget game.
I wish we saw more of that, actually. Gravity Rush 2 leaves this conflict behind for new struggles. By the end of the game, we do see how Jirga has adjusted to the change—and that's interesting too, especially the little bit of cross-cultural exchange you get to witness.
But by and large, Gravity Rush 2 moves onto "bigger," sometimes even more existential threats. And it mostly does right by those things. But it's never as narratively surprising or strong as when it's tackling the class strife at the heart this floating city.
Couldn't agree more. For a game about flying, it's most effective at communicating the plight of its digital people when its grounded. And though Gravity Rush 2 gets more and more ridiculous as the plot chugs along, in service of a convenient-but-rushed attempt to quickly wrap up the game's mythology, I'll give it credit for continuing to weave these themes into its storytelling.
Again, warning: serious spoilers for the end of the game.
But that epilogue! Yes, it's unnecessary, forced, and drags an otherwise only slightly bloated game several hours past its expiration date, but it provides worthwhile color for Kat's character. We both rolled our eyes at her desire to always see the best in people. (Does that remind you of a certain recently retired President of the United States?) But that makes more sense—I'm sympathetic, even—when it's revealed Kat used to be an all-powerful ruler of the skies above. When her people became aware of an incoming threat to those below, where even Jirga Para Lhao's most powerful would find themselves at a loss, her first instinct is to buck the advice of his advisors (who tell her "Fuck those people, we need to horde our own resources") and find a way to integrate them into their world.
Kat's punished for even proposing this course, of course, but it thoughtfully contextualizes her attitude down below, far away from the life she once knew. Stripped of her pageantry, even then, she chooses to help people. In plainer terms, though the end of Gravity Rush 2 is full of overwrought world building, it's ultimately a debate over an impending refugee crisis, and the moral choices of the haves and the have nots.
That wasn't my takeaway at the time—I was mostly wondering when the game was going to end, and why it was subjecting me to a series of crappy, out-of-nowhere puzzles—but the more I look back at what Gravity Rush 2 was trying to say, the more I'm impressed at how well it weaved the politics of inequality, class, and immigration into a story about a girl who floats in the sky. Bravo.