My fellow fanatics, we really don’t have a lot of good Doctor Who games. One of the most iconic sci-fi franchises in existence known for its winding plots full of time-travel and big ideas, characters being clever, and elaborate plans to prevent the destruction of entire planets and solar systems never fully translates to a gaming experience. There have been a few disappointing and forgettable point-and-click adventure games that ran on moon logic, and the most recent big name attempt, Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock, managed to boil down adventures with the madman with a blue box to tedious stretches of lever and switch puzzles peppered with backtracking despite it having some solid writing and memorable performances by Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor.
Enter developer Playstack Studios and their latest crack at an interactive adventure, Doctor Who: The Edge of Time. A VR experience that gets quite a lot right and plays out like a classic Doctor Who adventure… when it remembers to let the player think for themselves.
The set-up is pretty standard for a Doctor-lite adventure. You are some random schmuck in some laundromat somewhere when things get weird. Alien beings start popping up in the washing machines and the outside becomes drenched in ominous red light. Then, one of the monitors flickers on with a garbled message from The Doctor herself (yep this is the 13th Doctor played by Jodie Whitaker), telling you that some alien menace threatens all life in the universe and has sealed her away at the very edge of time itself. Luckily, The Doctor is clever and managed to smuggle away both her sonic screwdriver and her TARDIS to your location, and is now counting on you to travel across time and space to figure out whose behind the threat and help save the universe.
Right away I can say Edge of Time nails the tone and style of Doctor Who. There are five distinct chapters in this game and each one hits on very particular adventures and styles of story the series is known for. The second chapter is a contemplative experience about identity and self-worth set on an alien spaceship. The third chapter is a horror-esque romp in Victorian London. The fourth is a nail-biting infiltration turned action escape sequence set in a pyramid. It is very clear Playstack has a love and understanding of the source material and spent a lot of time ensuring it shows through the technical limitations of the Unity engine.
In a way it’s a perfect interactive representation of Doctor Who as a whole: big ideas and unbridled scope shining through budgetary limitations and threadbare assets.
But as an actual gameplay experience, Edge of Time can feel uneven. On the one hand, the core gameplay is a collection of puzzles and navigation challenges. Find several doodads to open the way. Figure out how to distract a Dalek so you can slip past. There’s even a puzzle early on involving lasers and mirrors that is pretty solid. Each one is presented as a self-contained challenge, no backtracking or tedious hoops thrown in your way, and they can be thoroughly rewarding when you figure out the solution.
The problem is the game can feel impatient, almost indignant that you are even playing it. This is particularly bad in the very first two chapters. You need to get three items in order to summon The Doctor’s TARDIS, but before you can even start exploring the area for those items, The Doctor chimes in with a quick “hey, have you checked here yet?” robbing the sequence of any tension or intrigue. This even happens during a story beat where a supporting character tries to perform an act of self-sacrifice, but before I could whip out the sonic screwdriver and solve a pretty obvious problem to spare her life, The Doctor has to pop up and then tell me to use the sonic. It feels horribly inorganic and belittles my involvement as a player. Reminding me of early 2000s level design where the player was little more than a camera to show off the coolness of another character in the plot rather than have any volition of their own.
Thankfully this handholding lessens as you progress. The Victorian London chapter is a fantastic chunk of gameplay, including a terrifying stand-off against the horrifying Weeping Angels, and the penultimate chapter has an exciting action sequence that got my blood pumping.
The only other thing that keeps Edge of Time from being a truly amazing experience isn’t the fault of the developers, but the current limitations of VR game design. Playstack works admirably with what they are given, weaving story and gameplay to the best of their ability, but some of the more artificial parts can clash a bit. The most obvious part being right at the very end where the key to stopping a threat to all life in the universe…lies in an abstract find-the-hidden-object-in-the-room puzzle sequence.
This isn’t to say that Edge of Time isn’t worth it. As someone who is craving for more adventures with The Doctor, it is a delightful thrill ride of a VR experience, and gives me more hope for what Jodie Whitaker will continue to bring with her version of the iconic Time Lord in the future. If you have a PSVR, Oculus, or Vive, and have two hours to spare I do highly recommend it. Just be ready to be put on some very thick rails for the first half hour or so.