Batman: Arkham VR Review
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On 12/06/2016 at 12:00 PM
by Julian Titus
I am darkness. I am the night. I am Batman!
After spending time wearing the cowl of Batman in four games since 2009, I wasn’t all that interested in Batman: Arkham VR. It had “tech demo” written all over it, and seemed like an easy cash grab for the crucial first slate of PlayStation VR. Now that I’ve played through it I can easily say that it is far beyond what I expected, and while I had thought I had already worn Batman’s cowl it was another thing entirely to put it on myself.
Yes, Arkham VR is a small virtual reality “experience”. Don’t expect some lengthy campaign here, as you will likely complete the initial story in around ninety minutes. Playing through again allows you to find items and challenges hidden by The Riddler, but this works largely as a side story from last year’s Batman: Arkham Knight.
That should not suggest, however, that this is not a valid and impressive bit of Arkham’s ongoing video game universe. While I’ll be the first person to say that retreading on the tragic death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is getting to the point of becoming its own trope at this point, having to experience that moment as a young Bruce is affecting and chilling. The sense of scale is impressive; I am over six feet tall, but in that moment I felt very small and helpless, and looking down to see my (Bruces’s) mother bleeding out on the ground next to me was something that is difficult to describe without handing you the VR headset to see for yourself.
That, of course, is one of the ongoing problems with trying to explain or show virtual reality to people that are skeptical. You can easily find entire play throughs of this game on YouTube, but it’s not until you are in Batman’s boots that the impact of Arkham VR is felt. It’s the best-looking game I have seen on PS VR so far, with all the attention to detail I have come to expect from Rocksteady’s rendition of Gotham City. Bruce’s knuckles are bruised from the previous night’s exploits, the Batcave has the signature giant penny and tyrannosaurus statue, and the cells in Arkham have plenty of little touches to add to the atmosphere.
While the immersion aspect of virtual reality is most assuredly doing the heavy lifting here, I am glad to say that Rocksteady has put some entertaining gameplay into this product, and I was sad when the game ended. Arkham VR focuses on Batman trying to solve the death of a friend, and each scene tasks him with investigating the area, finding clues and piecing things together. As a Batman purist, I’m still annoyed at the strange holographic tech that Rocksteady has him using to recreate entire crimes with little evidence (how would a simulation spot a witness in an alley, anyway?), but there are enough eureka moments in this game that I would love to see a full six to ten hour adventure done this way.
Combat is wisely taken out of the equation here. That will probably turn a lot of Arkham fans off; after all, the series is synonymous with its rhythm-based melee combat at this point. As a player that enjoys the cerebral aspects of the character as much as his fighting prowess I was glad to see this take on the franchise. Even without the action bits, the sense of being Batman is so powerful; reaching down to grab the grappling hook from the utility belt is a simple stroke of genius. It’s a shame that there are only three gadgets to use here, but they each have their moments to shine.
What shines the most is the immersive nature of this game. I can’t stress enough how surreal and powerful it is to be in the Bat suit. I was a little disappointed to look down and only see a pair of disembodied hands and a utility belt, as I’ve played other VR games with a fully rendered body, but the PlayStation Move controllers work well as Batman’s hands, and there is so much atmosphere on display that it remains one of the most interesting things I have done with video games this year. Since the game is so short and many of the best parts are more effective without knowing details I will not delve deeply in this review, but I was happy to see that this was much more than an early VR cash grab.
It’s true that Batman: Arkham VR is a brief experience, and it is also true that I wanted much more. However, at a beginning price point of $20 for one of the most impressive things I’ve seen with PlayStation VR I can easily recommend it. While I won’t go as far as to say that this is the “killer app” for PS VR, I will simply say that no person that owns Sony’s VR headset should skip this one, especially in this first year of titles. So go on: be the Bat.