Originally published on Trevor Trove on October 24, 2016
TL; DR(eview) – A well-crafted look into the psyche of Batman that feels like a series of deleted “Detective Mode” segments cut from Batman: Arkham Knight.
The VR Experience
The menu screen of Batman Arkham VR has you, as Batman, standing atop the GCPD, looking over Gotham with the bat signal spotlight on behind you. A slight rain falls around you. I found myself just sitting on this screen for a couple moments. Turning my head or leaning over the edge of the roof to explore my surroundings is certainly a surreal experience. As an Arizona native who doesn’t get a lot of rain, I even found myself looking up and smiling at the rain fell around me.
The sense of immersion in a game like this certainly wound up a very unsettling experience for me, in all the right ways. I have never been a fan of horror (so something like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is unlikely to find its way into my library) and in the VR setting, there’s nowhere to hide. There were certainly sequences in this ground-level, first-person version of Gotham where I found myself closing my eyes or looking down at my (non-existent) feet to avoid what I knew to be happening around me. But there are also moments in the game where it forces you to confront those fears. A sound cue to my left would indicate that I at least had to turn in that direction to move the action along, allowing a scene to my right to appear and startle me. This cemented the idea that you’re unlikely to find me playing something like Resident Evil 7 in VR as I could feel my heart rate climbing in these surprisingly claustrophobic scenes. While I knew I had my studio apartment around me, being trapped in a small enclosed space in VR tricked my mind into temporarily thinking there was no escape. I had to confront the story Rocksteady was telling me.
The gameplay elements introduced in Batman Arkham VR are somewhat similar to the detective sections of the previous Arkham games. Bruce must examine his surroundings for clues to determine what happened and where to go next. Movement in this game is largely a stationary affair. Rather than running around fighting thugs, the VR experience is structured more toward teleporting from point to point in a given area with the 360-degree to investigate and/or identify the best vantage point. For most of the brief, hour-long experience, you will be equipped with the Bat Claw, Detective Scanner, and an endless array of Batarangs. The uses for these items are pretty straightforward throughout the main campaign but they become far more useful upon a second playthrough once the Riddler challenges are unlocked.
As with previous Arkham titles, the Riddler has hidden puzzles throughout the game. Some of these puzzles are as simple are examining an object in the world. Others are akin to the perception/vantage-point puzzles of previous titles where you’ll see the top half of a question mark in the work and have to find the bottom point, grab it, and align it in the right location. And, of course, using your Detective Scanner will uncover hidden riddles, which will tease an object that will need to be scanned to solve the puzzle. There are also “breakable objects” such as security cameras or fuse boxes, just like in previous entries in the franchise. These extra little puzzles probably add another hour to an hour and a half to the game.
Set between the events of Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Knight, Bruce is in the throes of his investigation into the samples of Joker’s Titan-infused blood that were released into the wild. He is distracted from this trail by a murder and sets off to investigate this new crime. This takes him through Gotham’s back alleys, the morgue, and the sewers, leads to run-ins with Penguin and Killer Croc. Without delving into spoilers, this is certainly a psychological battle for Batman and is very reminiscent of the war waging in his mind in Batman: Arkham Knight.
The acting performances are all just as well-realized as you’d expect from any of the other Arkham titles, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill once again thriving in their respective roles of Batman and the Joker.
Aesthetically, the game absolutely feels like the rest of the Gotham set forth in the previous games. Locales like a back alley, and the sewers feel as though they already existed and we’re just experiencing them in a first-person perspective for the first time.
Character models feel a bit like a hit-or-miss, especially when viewing them in the Bat Cave as unlockable extra rewards from completing Riddler challenges. The Penguin, in particular, felt very rough around the edges, while someone like Harley Quinn (who really only factors into the game as one of these bonus models) oddly comes across as a much more fully-realized model.
The VR tracking itself was quite hit-or-miss as well. The game offers up a variety of ways to play: standing vs. sitting and with a DualShock 4 vs. two Move controllers. Standing takes full use of the head tracking, allowing you to turn around in order to see behind you, whereas sitting instead gives you the option to immediately turn 180-degrees at the click of a button. Move controllers seem to be the most instinctual control scheme as you can simply reach down to your waist and pull the trigger on the controller in order to grab the desired object off of your utility belt. The DualShock 4 on the other hand has tools mapped to different buttons and just didn’t feel as immediately understandable.
The larger issue I found was that there was occasionally an apparent difficulty in my camera reading where I was in relation to the game world. I tended to play seated with Move controllers. And even though I was the appropriate distance from the camera and had my headset lined up in the box during the game’s calibration, about half of my game sessions who have my characters and hands stuttering back and forth about a foot or two, as if I was a glitch in the Matrix. I’d be sitting at the Bat Computer trying to grab something and suddenly I’m a foot above my seat and the object I was attempting to grab is now suddenly out of reach until the game stutters me back into place.
The issue also affected my ability to progress through some of the puzzles. I’d be presented with a collection of fragments I’d have to piece back together hologram-style but the stuttering of my in-game hands would be so wild that it probably took two-to-three times as long as it would if the tracking were less temperamental.
I tried playing in full-light and no-light settings to see if that resolved the issues but was unable to identify a common root cause. Sometimes the system just recognized where I was and other times it didn’t. It didn’t completely tarnish my experience with the game as I was never in a time-sensitive encounter where such precision was needed but it was certainly an example of the tech not having all of the kinks worked out yet.
Batman Arkham VR is a great example of the kind of story that is enhanced in VR. While I certainly think it could exist as a standard non-VR experience, the immersive and tactile feel of being Batman is an exciting way to introduce PlayStation VR to the world. My friend came by my place to pick something up while I was playing it for the first time. I let her try on the headset and Move controllers and she was immediately sold on the potential of the technology and enamored with the simple act of looking around my apartment but instead seeing the inside of a Gotham morgue. Setting some buggy camera-tracking aside, this certainly felt like a worthy side-story to Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise.