"You can be Batman" might be one of the more convincing virtual reality premises ever created, seeing as children born since 1940 have been running around in their backyards with makeshift masks and grappling hooks.
So, it's not surprising to see PSVR launch alongside a simulation of this childhood dream—and one developed by Arkham series creators Rocksteady, no less. At first glance, it seems like a formula that can't fail; but if you're hoping Batman: Arkham VR apes the actions and mechanics of Asylum, City, Origins, and Knight, you're in for a rude awakening. This iteration of Batman cuts out the action nearly entirely, and puts him in full detective mode, meaning you'll be doing less swinging, kicking, and punching, and more investigating, scanning, and analyzing. In some ways, Batman: Arkham VR feels like a new evolution of classic adventure games, but the sometimes-unreliable tech often undermines its goals.
You know Rocksteady isn't particularly interested in telling an original story when Batman: Arkham VR opens with the iconic slaying of Bruce Wayne's parents—finally, you can watch the moment you've likely seen one-thousand times play out in virtual reality! But, for the most part, the somewhat uninspired narrative doesn't matter all that much: Simply put, it's pretty cool to just be Batman. I'm sure Rocksteady could have done something more creative with the character, but Arkham VR only aspires to give you a sampling of Batman-related stuff in one virtual reality experience: a dash of The Joker, a sprinkling of The Penguin, a pinch of Alfred, and so on.
Arkham VR plays out by pushing you through a series of distinct scenes (tied together by an overarching narrative) with their own interactive environments and distinct goals. In the beginning, you'll find yourself in Wayne Manor, tasked with finding the secret entrance to the Batcave, while later scenes ask you to do heavier lifting in terms of puzzles. And to solve these challenges, Batman has three tools at his disposal: a high-tech scanner, which can reveal fingerprints and see inside some objects, his grappling hook, which can pull things down and towards him, and transport Batman to different areas, and Batarangs, which are mostly used to hit switches. These items are fairly easy to access, too, and sit on the center, left, and right sides of the utility belt you see floating in mid-air while looking down. I played through Arkham VR with Move controllers, and selecting these items amounted to moving one of the controllers to the proper area on my own waist, and clicking the trigger button.
As with many of these early VR experiences I've played, I get the sense that Rocksteady doesn't quite know what obstacles players are capable of overcoming—though, to be fair, getting stuck on an adventure game puzzle in virtual reality seems like it would be a special kind of hell. That said, Batman's various investigations don't provide much of a challenge, though the intimate interactions with the environments—picking up items, interacting with objects, pulling switches—always feel satisfying. For the most part, Rocksteady doesn't want you to linger too much in any given area, seeing as most people have varying tolerances for how long they can stay in VR. But even if manipulating the surrounding world carries a certain sense of novelty, most of Arkham VR's puzzles don't go beyond Playskool-style "put the right shape in the right hole" toys.
Bright Lights, Big City
Since Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady has done a fantastic job of portraying the gloomy Gotham City, and Arkham VR is no different. With every new environment the game throws you into, it's simply fun to stop and look around—I especially liked peeking over the edges of towering buildings to see the teeming city below. For some reason, though, their human characters have a sort of uncanny valley effect that I didn't especially notice when playing the console games. Even when interacting up close with good guys like Nightwing, my brain couldn't help but send me "GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THAT THING" signals, which makes me think Arkham VR might be a little more effective had the art team gone for a more stylized look.
Arkham VR isn't at all interested in simulating the mobility or agility of Batman, though. For the entirety of the game, you'll mostly be standing around (and occasionally turning) in environments littered with prescribed nodes you can warp to with the push of a button. In some ways, Rocksteady seems deathly afraid of giving you motion sickness, since movement in Arkham VR is kept to an absolute minimum: Even grappling somewhere causes a fade-to-black where you hear the noises of Batman's movements rather than see them through his eyes. I appreciate that Arkham VR goes for more of an adventure game-y means of expression, but it would have been nice if they had the confidence to at least let you experience some of the more high-energy Batman moments. It can't help but feel especially disappointing when your interactions with the Batmobile amount to a black screen with VROOM VROOM noises.
Batman's Greatest Foe
While the Joker acts at the ultimate villain in Arkham VR, often, the PSVR device itself can be Batman's biggest enemy. As with many of the PSVR experiences I played, it doesn't take long for the weaknesses of the platform to reveal themselves. It's definitely very immersive to turn your head and see the entire Batcave around you, for instance, but the illusion falters a bit when the camera can no longer detect your controller, and Batman's hands stutter and fade out of existence. And, for whatever reason, my time with Arkham VR was somewhat "stuttery," with my perspective unexpectedly jumping forward a few inches, then correcting itself every so often. It should be noted that Arkham amounted to my most finicky VR experience to date: In order play the game while standing (as recommended), I had to shove my couch to the furthest wall of my living room, to the point where the backs of my legs were pressed up against it.
Arkham VR should only take most players two to three hours, though you can jump back in for a second playthrough for the sake of finding those infamous Riddler trophies—though, if you're anything like me, you got sick of hunting those down after Arkham Asylum. All in all, it does what it sets out to do, and its first-person tour of Gotham contains some especially cool moments. But once the effect of being in Gotham wears off, the lackluster puzzles and complete lack of action definitely left me wanting more. (And I was especially disappointed Rocksteady resorted to jump-scares in the final act, since that's the cheapest trick in the VR book.) Arkham VR has its redeeming qualities, but in the end it can't help but feel like a disparate collection of scenes strung together with some VR magic tricks. Now that they've proven Batman can work in VR, I'm hoping Rocksteady's next virtual reality adventure goes for something a little more ambitious.
The Nitty Gritty
- Interface: Gotham looks better than it ever did, even though some of those character models look unintentionally creepy when they're in your face.
- Lasting appeal: Arkham VR won't last you much longer than a few sessions, though you can always dive back in to explore the environments for those elusive Riddler trophies.
- Sound: Great sound design really helps bring the world of Arkham VR to life.
- Visuals: Gotham looks better than it ever did, even though some of those character models are unintentionally creepy when they're in your face.
You can't come up with a more intriguing VR premise than "Batman simulator," and developer Rocksteady has done their best to make it work. But despite how cool it is to simply exist in Gotham, the limited interactions and dumbed-down puzzles make the experience feel much less confident than it should be.
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