A great use of VR’s potential hamstrung only by its brutal brevity
Developer Rocksteady has made quite a name for themselves in recent years with their Arkham series. The Kentish Town, London-based studio has defied the players’ expectations time and time again, proving that, contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to deliver an incredible licensed experience. However, while previous Arkham games have thrown players into sprawling sandboxes teeming with lowlifes and murderous supervillains in adventures filled with high-flying fisticuffs, their latest release in the hugely popular franchise is an entirely different beast than we’ve come to expect from the team that rose to fame with Batman: Arkham Asylum way back in 2009.
While the previously mentioned games put a premium on flashy combat and spectacular set piece moments, Batman: Arkham VR shies away from them entirely. Instead, the game focuses on the Caped Crusader’s detective prowess, inviting players to “be the Bat” in a brief but fascinating story which, while light on gameplay, manages to make the absolute most of the PlayStation VR’s capabilities, delivering a spectacular tool to showcase what Sony’s new HMD can do.
Arkham VR wastes no time immersing the player in its gritty setting. The 90-minute story begins with a familiar scene as we witness Bruce Wayne’s parents brutally murdered. It’s hardly the first time we’ve seen this scene play out, but viewing it from the eyes of a young Bruce himself in virtual reality adds an entirely new level of visceral intensity to the proceedings. The sense of scale the new medium provides is nothing short of incredible as you stare up at the attacker. It’s a sensation that’s executed so masterfully that you feel you almost feel like you can feel the warm, putrid breath of the mugger wafting into your headset as he looms over the pint-sized protagonist.
Moments like this are peppered throughout the entire experience, too. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep your jaw off the floor the first time you suit up and descend into the cavernous belly of the Batcave, where a mammoth waterfall rages and bats circle menacingly overhead. Everything feels tangible and the sense of existing in this virtual depiction of Gotham is incredibly convincing, thanks in no small part to the PlayStation VR’s excellent use of stereoscopic 3D. And while many of the platform’s other launch titles suffer from some harsh jagginess that pulls you out of the experience, Rocksteady has shown some impressive care in rendering the visuals, with everything looking crisp and clearly defined.
Batman: Arkham VR’s story has players investigating a handful of locales as they work to uncover the mystery surrounding Dick Grayson’s death. To do so, you’ll need to make use of a variety of handy gadgets including a forensic scanner, batarangs, and the ever-essential grapnel. The forensic scanner is essentially an extension of the Bat Computer, allowing you to reconstruct crime scenes, investigate corpses with its X-Ray capabilities, and even reconstruct the debris of a bomb to identify its origin. Batarangs, on the other hand, are an effective tool for flipping switches and pegging the occasional fire extinguisher to disorient some baddies. Lastly, the grapnel is simply a fancy way to get from one location to the next, or occasionally snag out of reach items. You’ll also get access to some of WayneTech’s fancier toys, like the Batwing and Batmobile, but sadly these only serve to journey from one location to the other, and we’re never given a cockpit view, which seems like a real missed opportunity.
As I mentioned earlier in the review, you can wrap up the entirety of Batman: Arkham VR’s story in less than two hours. Of course, after the credits roll you can dive back in to uncover a handful of Riddler puzzles to unlock more character bios and vehicles to inspect in the Batcave, but with the game being such a linear adventure it’s hard to imagine many players repeating the story over and over again to do so. Even still, it’s hard to knock Rocksteady for trying to add some replayability to such a brief yet tantalizing experience.
Despite its brevity, Batman: Arkham VR does a great job of showcasing the strengths of Sony’s new headset when put in the hands of an experienced developer. It’s a jarringly brief yet painstakingly crafted tour of a virtual Gotham that does a great job of offering a more nuanced and intimate look beneath the cowl of the Caped Crusader. If you’re hoping for an action-packed epic in the vein of the other Akrham games that will keep you busy for weeks on end, this probably isn’t the game for you. However, if you’re looking for a showpiece to show off the strengths of the PlayStation VR, you’re not going to find much better than this among the hardware’s launch lineup.
Even still, the game’s sky high production values can only carry it so far, and the credits roll just as soon as things really come together. I sincerely hope the developer decides to revisit Arkham VR with some fresh DLC. After all, Gotham is a massive metropolis brought to life by a rich tapestry of compelling characters, and I’m dying for another excuse to don the cowl and hit the city’s seedy streets once again. As it stands, Batman: Arkham VR a delicious but minuscule morsel that I hope is just the appetizer for a more fulfilling main course.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed); Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment ; Developer: Rocksteady Studios; Players: 1; Released: October 11, 2016 ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Batman: Arkham VR.