If Playstation VR is Sony’s maiden voyage into virtual reality gaming, Batman: Arkham VR is a strong wind to cast off with. Developed by Rocksteady Studios, the game immerses you the moment you lock on your headset, or rather don the cowl. At face value Batman: Arkham VR offers the Arkham universe’s defined aesthetic and cast of quality voice actors from a very different perspective.
Batman: Arkham VR Details:
PlayStation Store Page
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: WB Games
Available On: PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation VR
Release Date: October 13th, 2016
Arkham VR differs from series predecessors—which had a healthy mix of fast paced combat balanced by a strong story and interesting puzzles—by focusing heavily on Batman’s detective work. Arkham VR is more of a slow burn then the ‘BIFF, BAM, POW’ series fans are used to. The game is an impressive first effort for a veteran game studio that is just beginning to delve into virtual reality.
Stepping into Batman’s cape and cowl, players have access to several highly detailed environments like the Batcave, Wayne Manor, the Iceberg Lounge, and other elements of Gotham’s seedy underbelly. To explore these environments, you’ll brandish three tools off of the Bat’s utility belt: a grappling hook, a forensic scanner, and Batarangs for days. You will use these to hit buttons, scan evidence, and zoom around the Batcave in ways that allude to other Arkham games, except this time from a first-person perspective (and with major tweaks for VR comfort). The tools are not only fun to play around with, but also end up driving the player’s attention to the important narrative, ensuring you don’t miss the serviceable story.
The first playthrough, which is unfortunately short (around two hours), takes you through the standard pallet of Gotham noir-esque hangouts like crime scenes, morges, and sewers searching for your missing Batfriends. Although there is a lot to see and much to interact with in these environments, what the game possesses in storytelling and detail it lacks in action and length. Once the initial novelty of ‘being’ Batman in Gotham wears off, you quickly realize that the narrative is being spoon fed to you and the story mode ends rather abruptly without a single punch being thrown.
There were several moments where it appears the player will finally get to crack some heads, until the screen instead fades to black only to see the smoke clear and all of your enemies defeated off-screen. This sort of controlled storytelling is rampant throughout the game, and takes away from your ability to “be the batman.” In short, players only seeking the thrill of busting up the Penguin’s cronies or grappling with Bane need not apply.
Most of the locomotion throughout the game involves predetermined teleportation nodes, though it’s occasionally dressed up in the form of using your grappling hook to pull yourself from one node to the next, which is well executed and feels more cohesive than the moments of pure point and click teleportation. Most of the places you’ll teleport to are surrounded with things to interact with, some optional, and some critical to moving the narrative forward. This can be tedious, especially when you need to retrieve an object to solve a riddle which is on the other side of the room.
Each ‘act’ is primarily planted in singular spaces like a large room or a balcony which has several of the aforementioned teleportation nodes available for you to move to. It isn’t until the end of the game that you really get to kick around a somewhat larger environment, which again, still leaves a lot to be desired as it is essentially just a larger space with more predetermined nodes. This shortcoming, which would likely be less of a problem with a room-scale system like the HTC Vive, is somewhat overcome by the plethora of objects to interact with at each point.
Upon completing the first playthrough, Arkham’s classic Riddler content is unlocked which (cheaply) lengthens the game by adding an abundance of mini puzzles and secrets to find on your second playthrough. These can actually be quite tricky if you are unfamiliar with Batman canon, so the (re)playtime may vary. Despite this gambit, the overall length of the game still feels lacking. A lot of detail was clearly put into the story and the environment, but a longer experience is needed to capitalize on the other solid parts of the game. At a 1/3 of the price ($20) of a full game, Arkham VR feels like it has 1/4 of the content.
Unfortunately the slow pace, and lack of action make Arkham VR somewhat one dimensional, and to an extent, it seems limited by Playstation VR’s capabilities. Although you can swivel, peer over edges, and draw the three tools from your belt, they made no attempt at having you interact with other characters beyond the most simple of movements (i.e handing them an object). This is enjoyable for about as long as the game is, but future renditions of Arkham VR ideally would include a combination of more tools, at least a few fights, and more interaction with characters.
It is certainly worth mentioning that the game seems like a great foundation for more Batman VR content, and is ripe to be followed by more content releases, perhaps in an episodic fashion (just speculation for now, but we’d certainly welcome it).
Game Director Sefton Hill emphasized developer Rocksteady Studios’ commitment to staying true to the characters and utilizing the VR platform to innovate the player experience. As expected from Rocksteady, Batman: Arkham VR delivers a deeply engaging experience into the DC Universe.
Arkham VR’s graphics are impressively detailed, and the environments are riddled with subtleties; the game proves that a skillfully optimized VR experience can look great even on three year old console hardware.
It must be said that the interaction design within the game is impressive. Interactions with various objects, from virtual drawers, touchscreens, levers, tablets, keys, and cartridges work exceptionally well, giving players a tangible connection into the world. It’s clear that much care was taken by Rocksteady in tuning these interactions to make them intuitive and functional. The sheer functionality of these objects and interactions creates a strong connection between the player and the game world which heightens immersion.
In Arkham VR you can interact with most apparently-grabbable objects in your environment but less so their associated parts. For example you may be able to interact with the panels on a cabinet but not the inviting books sitting within reach atop of it. This isn’t a huge deal, as the game still plays immersively with a plethora of objects for you to examine and manipulate, but on occasion you’ll find yourself grasping at air when scrutinizing some of the less important items around you as you look for what you might have missed.
There were several moments in the game where I’d noticed something was out of place, like a key card or a shiny object, and would only later find its cryptic purpose which would be to open a door or a panel revealing something novel, adding details from beyond the main story and into the broader world of Gotham. Coupled with the interactive drawing of tools from your utility belt, it’s easy to forget your parents weren’t really murdered one rainy night in Gotham.
Another appreciated feature, which is easy to overlook, is that the environment you’re in isn’t just a backdrop, it’s actually quite complete. For example, in Wayne Manor there are several pieces of furniture which you really have no business looking under, but yet the model is all there (don’t just take my word for it, kneel down and look at that woodwork!). This includes the objects you handle. Rocksteady went through great lengths to make objects real inside and out.
I recommend that hardcore Batfans or general fans of the Arkham series take the time to turn over every rock and peer around every corner, as there are tons of subtle easter eggs alluding to the previous games and other Batman canon. Throughout the Arkham series Rocksteady has consistently included elements for the hardcore Batfans, and this installment is no different. For a game which stands on object interaction, they did an excellent job constructing the play space.
One of the more difficult features to VR storytelling is directing the players attention to important events happening within the space. To Rocksteady’s credit, for a first crack at the VR medium, they did a great job focusing the player’s attention to story events by way of interacting with the environment. The environments are really detailed, and you can easily lose focus watching traffic in the distance or staring at the falling rain. This is combatted by your need to hit buttons or pull switches to solve puzzles which would, in turn, forward the story and inevitably draw your attention. This feels like a fairly safe method for enabling the player to experience the entire story, however there are several moments like the aforementioned ‘fight scenes’ which detract from you feeling immersed.
You’ll often be spoon fed directions by Alfred, or hints and narrative from Batman’s voice which inevitably remind you that you aren’t quite a free-roaming decision maker in this space, and that only specific actions will move you forward in the game’s story. This becomes less frequent as the game goes on, but it still detracts from the overall experience. This is juxtaposed by the total lack of clues you receive for the Riddler puzzles. These should prove to be challenging, and thought provoking, even for hardcore fans of the series.
One element that is pleasantly surprising is the use of attention-pivot mechanics for enhancing the story. There are several moments where your attention will be focused on something, look away, then look back to see the space has changed in some way. This is a cool mechanic and (without giving anything away) is well used for the more psychological elements of the game.
Generally speaking Batman: Arkham VR is as comfortable of an experience as the Playstation VR can offer. Several of the comfort issues may be attributable to the lack of a 360 degree tracking, which is a limitation that games on the platform are responsible for designing around.
Player movement in Batman: Arkham VR amounts to being able to peer around and over objects within the beautifully detailed environments, but in the end you feel teased. The lack of mobility, which has you twisting and turning to click to other stations, is compounded by the limited gestures used for gameplay. Specifically, most of the game is reliant on limited arm movements which become a bit tedious, and generate a pseudo-feeling of claustrophobia where everything you need to touch is even closer than an outstretched arm.
Several moments in the game when you need to turn around, the controller (and sometimes headset) tracking would drop out as you face away from the PSVR camera. This not only is an annoying immersiveness issue, but also proves to be somewhat disorienting as the general nature of your position gets jumbled, and things get a little shaky for a moment or two. To counter this, players can use buttons on the controller to spin their orientation 180 degrees, but that comes less naturally than simply turning one’s body around.
Although it is a cool mechanic and the centerpiece of the player’s existence within the game, Batman’s utility belt can be spotty at times. Throughout the game I found the belt would slide ‘into’ my stomach, making it impossible for me to grab tools from it without having to bend forward or ‘suck it in.’ To compound this issue, when trying to (quickly) and intuitively correct for this on the fly, your position within the play space would often shift and can be temporarily disorienting.
The game’s detailed objects tempt you to bring them in for a close inspection but often end up shaking somewhat in your hand because of the imprecision of PSVR’s tracking, making it hard to see and appreciate the fine details layered throughout.
The saving grace of the teleporting locomotion and lack of fighting is that there’s no concern for getting dizzy while zipping across the Batcave, or getting thrown to the floor; during these instances where you’d think you might normally find yourself getting nauseous, like grappling up to the Batplane, the screen fades to black and uses audio to guide the experience. This detracts from the immersiveness, but certainly saves your eyes from what would likely be uncomfortable movements.