i-expect-you-to-die-2-is-the-most-fun-i’ve-had-solving-puzzles-this-year

You’re not really a secret agent until you put on a funny hat and fake mustache while you’re trying to stop an evil conglomerate from filling a theater with poison gas. At least, that’s what I Expect You To Die 2 posits, and I think it’s about right.

I Expect You To Die 2: The Spy and The Liar is a sequel to one of the first hit virtual reality titles, which was released by Schell Games in 2016 for first-gen VR headsets. The series riffs on James Bond and other classic super spy franchises. Using motion controls and a headset, you play a field agent whose missions invariably turn into convoluted deathtraps, and you have to escape using whatever objects happen to be nearby. Behind its tongue-in-cheek tone and colorful retro stylings, it’s a master class in translating an often frustrating genre for an often frustrating piece of hardware — and it’s the most fun I’ve had solving puzzles this year.

I Expect You To Die 2 descends from the kinds of classic adventure games that punish tiny slip-ups with a horrible demise. Like the original, it pits you against the evil organization Zoraxis, which has a mysterious plan for (obviously) world domination. Where the original game featured almost totally standalone scenarios, the six new missions are an extended cat-and-mouse game involving an actor named John Juniper. Juniper, voiced by Wil Wheaton, gets a genuinely Bond-worthy character conceit: he prepares for roles by commissioning an elaborate mask of the person he’s embodying, then wears it continuously until his premiere.

Larger narrative aside, each mission is a puzzle box full of secret compartments and props for you to throw around with your virtual hands. You do this all without leaving your chair; when something is too far away, you can grab it telekinetically with a button on your motion controller. If you know exactly how to solve each puzzle, an I Expect You To Die level might take a few minutes to complete. But as the name suggests, half the experience is watching things go wrong.

Poison gas was my worst enemy in I Expect You To Die 2, although I’ve also been sliced up by a sharpened pendulum, killed by a grenade in a dumbwaiter, and offed by an exploding cigar. Each failure just leaves you staring into a briefcase with a little slip of virtual paper explaining your cause of death, plus an instant restart button — so it’s not really a big deal. (You see essentially the same thing when you win a scenario, except that you get cake instead of death.)

I tend to find adventure games, especially VR ones, deeply maddening. When you’re already stumped trying to guess how developers want you to solve a puzzle, being stuck in a headset while you’re thinking through it is even worse than staring at a screen, and that’s hampered my enjoyment of other titles like The Room VR. Additionally, in the I Expect You To Die series, physics and motion controls add a layer of uncertainty to all your problem-solving. I got hung up on the sequel a couple of times when I was convinced I’d found the right solution but couldn’t quite maneuver it into place, before realizing that I was missing an obvious step or two.

The player lighting a cigar in I Expect You To Die 2

But these hangups highlight how well Schell’s overall trial-and-error setup works. I Expect You To Die 2 is built around quick little loops of gameplay complemented by a bunch of random silly fun, and restarting is a chance to explore more pieces of a level. Your long-suffering mission control (voiced by Jared Mason) can offer some gentle hints over the radio, but rather than spelling out solutions when you repeat a level, he cuts down his lines so you can focus. Conversely, because you spend each level in one place, every prop offers a Chekhov’s gun-like hint at a later challenge that you can feel extra clever by averting.

I Expect You To Die 2’s puzzles generally have one solution, and a few parts focus a little too heavily on hitting control panel buttons in a given order. But the developers evoke the feeling that they’ve anticipated all kinds of little sequence-breaking tricks and virtual interactions, rewarding you with a visual flourish or some dialog. (The outfit mentioned above, for instance, will earn you a snarky comment from one character.) One of the sequel’s rare new features is a simple achievement system, which offers cryptic clues about its Easter eggs.

Even if you’re stuck, you’ll always have something to do in a level. And some actions overlap with the anti-frustration features. Without spoiling the encounter too much, one of my favorite moments in I Expect You To Die 2 involved realizing that I did not, in fact, have to indulge a villain’s monologuing.

I Expect You To Die 2 is only a couple of hours long, although if it follows the first game’s pattern, Schell will add a few bonus missions after release. But even at that length, it shows how solid the series’ formula is. I Expect You To Die wants you to fail, but it makes failure fun — and lets players feel like they’re in on the joke.

I Expect You To Die 2 was released on August 24th for the Oculus Quest, PlayStation VR, the Oculus Store, and SteamVR on PC.

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