Supernatural VR is a enjoyable cardio recreation for the exercise-averse
I’m floating atop a massive lake in Iceland where black and white balloons are flying at me faster than I can process them. No, I haven’t become an Icelandic, balloon-fighting wizard. I’m working out in virtual reality.
Supernatural is a VR workout game from developer Within that optimizes the popular concept of a VR rhythm game (like Beat Saber) for exercise.
It’s available for the Oculus Quest, a cordless, all-in-one VR device that currently costs $399 – $499, depending on the model. Although, now it’s largely sold out. On top of the necessary hardware, the game itself costs a regular subscription of $19/month after a 30-day free trial, or $179/year if you’re committed. Oh, and you should really get a silicone face mask liner to protect your Oculus from sweat.
Once in VR, the controllers in your hands transform into two batons: one black and one white. You slice through and knock away balloons with the batons of the corresponding color, sometimes following the trails of the balloons to make sweeping motions with your arms. Glowing triangles also hurtle toward you, which is a signal to squat or side lunge through them. You do this all in time to music, with the encouragement and occasional tips from a coach, while looking out over beautiful lagoons, mountain scapes, and other vistas all over the world.
At the end, you get one score for the accuracy of your hits, and another for your power. You’re also drenched in sweat.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Supernatural succeeds as a fun, challenging game with a cardio upside. Unlike other home workouts, I wasn’t counting down the seconds until the end of every 20-30 minute workout, but rather taking it one fun song at a time. It helps that Supernatural’s licensing deals allow it to set workouts to songs from popular singers like Ariana Grande, or even indie favorites like Bloc Party.
However, the fact that Supernatural is first and foremost a VR game undermines its potential as a workout. Sometimes, I found myself skipping squats in order to make balloon slices. Often, I realized I wasn’t using good form because the workout just went too fast to brace my core or activate my back and arm muscles every time. Sloppy form doesn’t just result in a sub-optimal, imbalanced workout. It can also cause immediate back pain or other types of strains, and, worse, the sorts of imbalances that can lead to pain or injury down the line.
Meanwhile, after several sessions in Supernatural, I have yet to experience an incident-free VR session. If the controller wasn’t running out of juice, the software needed to be updated, or the boundaries I set for the room didn’t keep me from banging my hand on a low coffee table, and, oh yeah, my face — even with a silicone headset protector — it’s so, so sweaty.
Supernatural exemplifies the potential for a VR exercise game. While working out at home is still a necessity, it’s a great way to get your heart pumping if you’re someone who wouldn’t be inclined to go for a run or do another type of home exercise (or if you’re just plain sick of HIIT videos). Even if I have doubts that it qualifies as a good, balanced “workout,” and with the challenges endemic to VR, an experience that can get you off the couch and actually having fun while moving is worth the 30-day free trial, plus the virtual trips around the world.
What is it about slicing through objects in time to music that’s so satisfying in VR? Your first interaction with Supernatural is a calibration section so that the game can learn about your height, foot, and wingspan. That way it will send the balloons and triangles flying your way at a height that you can hit them.
Supernatural takes you through an introductory session that teaches you the concept of the game, which is great if you are new to a rhythm-style VR game. One of several teachers will be your instructor, who stands before you in VR — a mostly realistic 3D rendering of an actual human — on their own yoga mat floating in space. While you’re playing the game, they’ll appear for a warmup, and then their voice will encourage you along the way.
Coach Raneir Pollard leads stretches while floating above a beautiful reef.
Credit: screen shot / OCULUS
The Supernatural intro also teaches you what the various symbols mean and how you should react to them. For example, a straight up and down triangle means you should squat through it, a triangle angled to the left or right means you side lunge through the corresponding side, and various tails attached to the balloons mean you should move your arms up, down, around, or thrust to the side. This lower body exercise is Supernatural’s biggest differentiator as a workout from a pure game like Beat Saber.
Once you finish your introductory training, you’re off to the races. You can choose between 20-40 minute sessions of low, medium, or high intensity, which often have different musical themes, like indie rock or “girl power.” There is also a new workout every day, so if you want to make Supernatural a regular part of your life, there will always be fresh content, imbued with that sense of urgency that comes from returning for something new. I even found myself gravitating to some teachers more than others, even though they were pre-recorded versions of humans in VR.
You also get to choose your physical setting, which is one of my favorite aspects of the game. You’re situated above or within stunning real natural vistas all over the world. Over the course of your workout, you’ll be turning 360 degrees multiple times to hit the balloons, so you’ll get to inspect nature while smashing targets — if you have a moment to look around, that is.
On some songs I got into a super satisfying flow while playing. I would drop into a squat or a lung just as the beat dropped, learn the patterns of the balloons to hit in time to the music. I would be breathing heavily, exerting myself, and not notice the physical effort I was putting out until a song break. At the end of every song, you’ll see a score for accuracy and power. Through a companion app on your phone, you can chart your improvement over time.
In a menu of workouts, you choose the theme and intensity.
Credit: screen shot / OCULUS
The experience of playing a VR game for exercise was fun. I would end a workout with tired legs and arms, as well as a sense of accomplishment for making hits and increasing my power. It especially came in handy on days when I just really didn’t want to exercise, and I needed some extra motivation, and the incentive of a game to get moving. That’s Supernatural’s biggest pro: It helps get you off the couch because of the fact that it’s a game.
It’s also Supernatural’s biggest downside.
Tighten that core
In Supernatural’s introduction, the virtual teacher instructs you on proper form for a squat or lunge: Engage your core, shoulders back, make sure you’re sitting into your glutes, not just using your quads, to make the most out of the movement. The same goes for your arm movements: When you swing to hit a balloon, move your limbs with intention by engaging your back and chest muscles. Don’t just fling your shoulders and forearms around to make hits. And, as always, keep that core tight.
The problem is that the best intentions for form go out the window with speed and the challenge of slicing and squatting in time to the music.
“Doing it quickly, and having to focus on hitting all of these targets while you’re in a squat, even for someone as seasoned as me, if you have me in that pattern for an hour and also trying to hit all these targets, I’m going to forget about something,” Azul Corajoria, a Tier 3+ personal trainer at Equinox, said.
Keeping good form in an exercise is important for two reasons. The first is that it prevents injury. For example, “engaging your core” is crucial because it protects your lower back from swaying or straining. What’s more, the occasional reminders by the instructors to do so won’t help someone who doesn’t know what it means to properly engage their core muscles in the first place.
Squatting is a full body exercise if you take the time to do it right.
Credit: screen shot / OCULUS
Form also helps you make the most of your workout. If you do a squat correctly, you’re engaging multiple lower body and upper body muscles — which is why squats can be a great full body exercise! However, it’s easy to just bend your knees and forget about everything else you have to do, which puts a lot of pressure on just one or two muscles. And that’s where Supernatural’s other problems begin.
If you keep the form in all of your arm movements, Supernatural could, or should, work multiple muscle groups. But in practice, I realized I was mostly flailing my arms, twisting my back, and just doing squat after lunge after squat. That creates an unbalanced workout, which can have consequences beyond the extreme soreness you’ll probably feel the day after a Supernatural session from all that squatting.
“Repetitive movement done incorrectly causes injury, it causes imbalances, compensations, no matter what,” Corajoria said. “If you do anything incorrectly over time, it is going to catch up with you.”
Many other Supernatural reviewers tout the soreness they felt as evidence that it was a good workout. In fact, soreness is not necessarily a sign of a good workout. Instead, in the context of Supernatural, it probably means that the person likely overworked some muscles, without important counterbalancing movements.
“You want to balance everything out,” Corajoria said. “You never want to work out muscles of a certain body party way too much. That’s how people end up with compensations and pain.”
When Corajoria and I first began speaking about Supernatural, we agreed that it was a fun way to get moving, even if it wasn’t necessarily an optimal workout. But after she explained the adverse effects that an imbalanced workout could have, it seemed that relying on this particular title as your main form of exercise might not be a good idea long term.
After every session of Supernatural, and despite my best intentions to keep form throughout, I came away with a sore lower back. And sure, a session every now and then isn’t going to cause the sort of tightness in your quads that can lead to hip and knee pain. But played too often, the moves you do in the virtual realm can have real consequences in the physical one.
It’s not Supernatural. It’s VR.
Once again, Supernatural’s biggest hurdle is its value proposition: as a game in virtual reality. Not only are VR headsets far from mainstream, but Supernatural is also only available on the Oculus Quest — a device that’s often sold out.
If you do manage to have a Quest on hand, I found that all of the usual challenges with VR applied to Supernatural, and then some. When starting to play a VR game, it seems like there’s always something that goes wrong. The software needs to be updated, or a handset isn’t working, or you just can’t get your mask to feel right.
Setting the boundaries for Supernatural was also challenging. In VR, you designate a play area that’s supposed to be free of obstacles. Even in my moderately sized living room, the boundaries did not keep me from occasionally slamming my hand into a coffee table when I lunged or turned to hit a balloon.
All in all, VR is not convenient or mainstream enough to me for regular use as a way of exercising.
But if any game is poised to challenge that statement, it’s Supernatural. The more I played the game, the fewer problems I had with the technical aspects. The game learns from your movements and adjusts as it goes along. It’s also fun enough to keep me coming back for a round, even when the prospect of a super sweaty, mask-covered face also awaits.
Supernatural succeeds as a VR game that can deliver a cardio workout when you just wouldn’t have the motivation otherwise. I’m too wary of how repetitive squatting and lunging can adversely affect someone long term to call it a great workout. But as a beautiful game with an exercise upside, it can’t be beat.