The Last Worker’s immersive narrative works as well on Switch as in VR
Playing in handheld mode could be the best alternative to a headset
Having just celebrated its sixth anniversary, the Switch may be close to its twilight, and critics have certainly spent years before now clamouring for a hardware refresh. But despite being first designed for VR platforms, The Last Worker is just as well suited for Nintendo’s console, which we’ve finally been able to test out ahead of the game’s release on March 30.
It naturally helps that the game’s comic book art style, based on concepts by Mick McMahon, means we’re not getting a downgraded look compared to ports of beefy blockbusters like Doom Eternal. In fact, when The Last Worker was originally submitted to the Venice Film Festival in 2021, it was developed on Quest 2, so it was already targeting low-end hardware that could then be scaled up.
“We’ve always had in mind [the Switch], since we had to make everything look and feel good on Quest 2 for Venice,” Wolf & Wood founder and The Last Worker’s game director Ryan Bousfield told VGC. “We got that running, at frames, and then once we were comfortable with that, we went ahead and started bringing the other platforms into it a little bit more, focusing in on the controls of those ‘pancake’ platforms while bringing in more of that hands-on feel that you’re used to in VR.”
But while PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S ensure a crisper and smoother presentation, the benefit of Switch is being able to play in handheld mode, which is exactly the way we opt for in our hands-on.
We’re reminded of another VR game, Thumper, which we first played on PSVR1 and how that game’s rhythm violence intensity translated just as well when holding a Switch to your face. Likewise, handheld mode feels just as immersive and intimate when being transported into the shoes of Kurt, the last human employee at mega-corporation Jüngle’s giant fulfilment centre.
You spend your days picking up and delivering packages, or ‘dreams’, as goes the phony corporate euphemism for products that even has Kurt occasionally remarking, “Who buys this shit?” There’s a bit of sci-fi glamour to proceedings, since you have to navigate a warehouse the size of Manhattan so you get around with a floating pod that has GPS to track your next package’s location, while you also have a gravity gun to pick up packages.
With the gravity gun equipped, it’s also possible to make use of the Switch’s gyros to look around, although we had to crank the motion sensitivity to the max for it to feel more naturally 1:1. Looking around this way certainly does feel more immersive, especially as Kurt can look around his pod, where you can catch his reflection in the vehicle’s rearview mirror as well as a photo he keeps hung up showing his younger self and a special someone, back before automation had completely overtaken the fulfilment centre.
As a VR pioneer since the initial release of the Oculus Rift, The Last Worker is actually Wolf & Wood’s first release that’s also not just for VR platforms, so there had been an extra effort to make the flat-screen versions feel like it’s more than just simply having a first-person camera.
“We’re obviously referencing other first-person games with tight mechanics we’re used to,” says Bousfield. “Initially, we did go with the pod having tank controls, but that just didn’t feel right for us. So where you’re looking, the pod follows suit, and then we’ve refined on that idea.
“Obviously, we put the secondary action so you can have a little look around when you’re stationary, but if you’re flying around warehouses in a stealth section, you need to feel 1:1 with the character control, not like somebody who’s fumbling around a sort of contraption simulator.”
Obviously, without VR, some of the motion-based mechanics, like signing into your shift by making a J wave (incidentally the same initial to denote your highest grade after a shift) is replaced by a straightforward button prompt.
The core of warehouse work is still the same though, as once you pick up a package, you have to inspect that they’re the correct size and weight as labelled, and also ensure the packaging hasn’t been damaged. If it’s not in prime condition then they have to be labelled as incorrect or damaged before they’re sent to recycling instead – though we’re pretty certain they just go to landfill.
“It naturally helps that the game’s comic book art style, based on concepts by Mick McMahon, means we’re not getting a downgraded look compared to ports of beefy blockbusters like Doom Eternal.”
There’s something very Papers, Please about these shifts in that these are essentially very menial and monotonous tasks, and yet its gamification means we do get sucked into it, as we briskly move from one delivery to the next, quickly parsing whether a package has a tear, and sometimes trying to speed things up by launching packages with the gravity gun the moment the chute is within our sightlines.
Naturally, it’s something Kurt takes pride in as well – one of his lines following a successful delivery he taunts to no one, “Who’s the last one? I’m the last one!” – all in the name of getting a figurative pat on the back from Jüngle’s rainbow-haired founder.
Yet there’s no escaping the dehumanising mundanity of it all, with a layer of corporate nastiness. There’s the on-boarding that ends with you being deliberately put at high stress in a task that you’re designed to fail, the background music of your shifts also gradually ups in tempo as time ticks down, where you’re faced with the sack if you underperform. There’s even races, which aren’t the harmless co-worker bonding of Shenmue’s forklift races, but rather another test designed to cruelly separate the wheat from the chaff.
But similar to Lucas Pope’s dystopian job simulator, it’s also through this monotony that plot developments find a way to disrupt the grind, as Kurt suddenly finds himself sneaking off to parts of the fulfillment centre that’s off-limits, and possibly given the opportunity to help bring down his employer. Whether in the comfort of playing this while curled up on the sofa or in VR, we’re definitely intrigued to see where this story goes.