Review: Batman: Arkham VR

Disclosure: A review code for Batman: Arkham VR was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive

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While I wasn’t exactly a fan of the direction Rocksteady took in the last Batman game, Arkham Knight, I have to say that the studio’s ability to create a rich world full of little nuggets of pure comic book based geeky goodness is unsurpassed. Moving from Arkham Asylum’s constrained walls to a larger world in Arkham City, and then to the open world of Gotham itself in Arkham Knight, which was grand and detailed and so well developed, it seems like a no-brainer that just as much thought and care would go into creating a VR game starring the Dark Knight. Thankfully, Rocksteady opted to utilize Batman’s skills as a detective to showcase its vision for the Arkhamverse in VR, instead of trying to shove an action brawler into virtual space.

What I wasn’t expecting from Batman: Arkham VR was just how well Rocksteady was able to manipulate my emotions, all by simply shifting the perspective at the very start of the game. When Arkham VR was announced, much ballyhooing was made about using the magic of VR to don the cowl and look in the mirror to see yourself as Batman. All manner of excitement and praise was heaped on just how well that simple act proved the potential for good VR games could be. I would posit that the opening moments of the game are even more striking and powerful than putting the cowl on for the first time. The origin of Batman has been told and retold far too many times, to the point that any new interpretation feels old and boring. But that’s not the case here. True fear, pain, and shock welled up as the opening of the game played out. Emotional weight of loss ground Bruce Wayne’s motivation to become Batman in a way never before shown, from that of your own perspective.

The game then moves forward in time to the interior of the Wayne mansion, where a grand piano sits directly in front of a pair of bruised and worn hands. From behind, Alfred appears and lectures Bruce about needing some rest after countless nights in a row of crime fighting. Before walking away, Alfred holds out a key which fits into the piano. Lifting the lid, the bruised hands plink away at the keys and then suddenly the floor shifts to reveal an elevator descending into the depths below the posh and lavish public life of Bruce Wayne.

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Going through a series of steps, putting on the suit, donning the gauntlets and cowl, and then equipping a grappling gun, high tech flashlight, and the signature Batarangs, Arkham VR begins in earnest. Once the elevator finishes descending into the heart of the Batcave, movement is accomplished by firing the grappling hook to shift from one station to the next. Alfred informs Batman that both Nightwing and Robin have stopped communicating with him. Activating different Batcomputers and radio interceptors, by reaching a Move controller forward so that Batman’s hand flips a switch or grabbing a handle by pulling a trigger on the Move controller and then rotating the handle left or right, the player is able to determine likely locations of where to find Batman’s former ward and current partner.

Traveling to a dark alley via the Batwing, which is unfortunately nothing more than a dark screen with audio cues playing jet engine noises, the next scene unfolds on an escape perch above a clearly dead Nightwing. Using the high tech flashlight, Batman scans Nightwing’s body and then downloads data from his suit to be able to playback the events that led to his demise. Twisting the Move controller left or right fast forwards or rewinds the playback, allowing for Batman to scan different moments of the battle to find clues as to who the killer was. Playback eventually reveals that a witness associated with The Penguin was also in the alley, providing the next lead to solving the crime.

The investigation then leads to the top of a skyscraper in the heart of Gotham, where there are different perch points to jump between while watching events unfold as The Penguin tries to find out who blew up a bomb at his Iceberg Lounge. This scene in particular harkens back to moments from the previous Arkham games, where the player can move Batman around to find the best spot to ambush a group of thugs by looking at the various perches in the scene and then pressing the Move button to launch Batman to the new spot, all while feeling like one false move will send you plummeting to the ground far below. Doing what Batman does best–albeit masked by a smoke screen as 3D audio cues provide the grim details of Batman taking down a handful of thugs–the Penguin is tied up and hung upside down to question for further clues as to who killed Nightwing. What’s truly remarkable about this moment is the direct eye contact Penguin makes with the player. Whenever you tilt your head one way or the other the Penguin’s gaze always follows. This level of head tracking adds to the immersion and truly sells that you are the god damn Batman.

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Penguin gives up enough information to send Batman to the morgue to examine bodies of thugs killed during the explosion at the Iceberg Lounge. Again using the high tech flashlight, Batman examines both superficial and deep tissue wounds of the dead thugs, little details that add to the immersion of performing detective work. Finding a partially complete anatomy bust on one counter turns into a seek and find to collect the rest of the body parts to complete the dummy. A 3D model of the bomb fragments found in the dead bodies offers a cool puzzle of rotating pieces until they snap together, revealing the location of where the blasting cap for the bomb came from.

I don’t want to give away anything else that happens over the remaining scenes, but I do want to touch upon the brilliance of what Rocksteady has accomplished with the story. Unreliable narration is a plot device that has served many stories well, whether it’s Fight Club, Gone Girl, Catcher in the Rye, American Psycho, Spec Ops: The Line, Call of Duty: Black Ops, or many other examples from books, games, and movies.  Adding the unreliable narrator to a first-person virtual reality experience cuts through and leaves you questioning your own sanity. In a world that feels and interacts at such a high level of truthfulness–playing the piano, picking up part of anatomy for a dummy, or waving a hand in front of your face in a mirror–having you question everything you’ve seen and done to that point exemplifies exactly what makes VR the next big leap in gaming.

Once the game is complete, a new game plus mode is presented in the form of Riddler challenges. Three different challenges are found in each area previously discovered during the first playthrough. What I truly appreciate about these Riddler challenges is the fact that they aren’t just perspective puzzles, but rather actual interactive challenges. Tasks like picking up objects with colored dots, indicating positive or negative in a summation challenge, or putting a broken object back together from pieces, give weight to the world. Some challenges also involve throwing Batarangs in timed sequences or spelling out words by hitting targets in the correct order. These challenges are clever and fun–and fortunately there aren’t an absurdly unrealistic number of them to complete, unlike the other Arkham titles.

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Arkham VR isn’t entirely without fault. My biggest complaint is the fact that the game offers the choice of playing either standing up or sitting down, but no matter how I arranged my room I could never get the game to see my PSVR in the game’s expected location while playing from a seated position. I don’t mind standing to play a game, but at the same time, there are a few moments of almost having vertigo spells kick in due to the movement presented in game or the fact that I’m standing on the edge of an epically tall skyscraper. I also encountered one or two moments where the camera couldn’t track where my hands were, even though I was clearly standing in the spot where the game expected me to be.

With Arkham VR, DC superhero fans finally have a game that puts them directly inside Batman’s boots, cowl, and gauntlets. Even though the story in Arkham VR is fairly short, the game as a whole is completely satisfying. The controls are simple yet effective, and the sheer amount of interactions and incredible level of detail put into each scene makes for a rich and immersive experience. The Riddler trophies provide another level of polish and attention to detail, as well as worthwhile new game plus replay value. Rocksteady truly has pushed the medium in a bold new direction, offering a different perspective on the studio’s Arkhamverse vision of the Dark Knight, while also demonstrating fun and unique methods of VR interaction.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Dark, compelling story
+ Immersive details with tons of interaction
+ Character eye contact adds to the believable virtual reality
+ Fantastic use of size and height of characters

Cons:
– Weird tracking problem when sitting down

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation VR for PlayStation 4
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: 10/11/2016
Genre: Adventure / Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Amazon.com or PlayStation Store for 19.99

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.