The hero of Batman: Arkham VR is a little clumsy. His hands shake from time to time. He sometimes drops his Batarangs. He doesn’t drive his own Batmobile, and he spends a lot of time standing in place as other people move around him.
This Batman is not the aspirational, acrobatic crusader game creators usually offer their customers a chance to control.
He is the awkward, weird Batman made possible by the imperfect virtual reality technology of late 2016. More specifically–and until a five-month exclusivity window closes–he is the best Batman made possible by the PlayStation 4's intermittently impressive and infuriating new virtual reality set-up, PSVR. He is a Batman through whose eyes you can see Gotham City all around you, immersed like never before. But he is also a puppet on the shaky strings of a VR system that does not track its players as steadily as it should and requires most Bat-actions be done silently and with the mobility of a man whose pants are around his ankles.
Beyond all that, this Batman is the star of a surprisingly interesting, uneven game that shows where a virtual reality Batman VR game might go even if it this initial entry feels clipped and confined.
Arkham VR is played with a PSVR headset on your face and two Wii Remote-like PlayStation Move controllers in your hands. Spoiler: You don’t look much like Batman when you’re playing it in your living room.
This short new game occurs after the events of 2011's Batman Arkham City and carries players through nine chapters of a mystery. If the Arkham games are a Batman simulator, Arkham VR is a Batman standing simulator. You play as Bruce Wayne standing at a piano, listening to your butler, Alfred, and then descending into the Batcave where you can stand in front of a variety of computers. You play as Batman, standing in a morgue investigating clues and, later, as Batman standing in a supervillain’s trap trying to escape. On rare occasion, you will play as Batman moving down a hallway, but you will do this by standing still and warping forward, one controller click at a time.
You see the whole game through the eyes of Batman, as projected in front of your eyes in the VR headset. Ostensibly, you’re him. Look up and you’ll see the Gotham night. Look down and you’ll see your utility belt. Lift your hands as they hold the Move controllers and you’ll see them as Batman’s hands. In a fun moment early on, you don the batsuit and then look into an in-game mirror. That’s him/you/me right there, being Batman, tracked by PSVR.
With VR games, functionality is defined by physics and human biology. You, as Batman, stand still in the game, because the PlayStation VR camera needs you to remain visible to its sensor set-up in front of the TV. You can turn your head and body some, but it’ll lose your hands if you turn your back to it too long.
You warp when you move from place to place (see here), as you do in many other VR games. That’s because the kind of smooth analog-stick-driven movement that shows you moving from point A to point B in a non-VR game like Call of Duty or Overwatch can be nauseating in VR, especially if you’re walking in one direction while turning to look in another. Your inner ear gets confused and virtual reality sickness quickly sets in. Since the launch of the Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets earlier this year, VR developers have circumvented this often presenting forward or even head-turning movement as a series of jumps and cuts. It helps, and usually reduces the nausea risk, especially if the character is already also moving on another axis. It feels too gross to run down a hallway and turn your head at the same time. Arkham VR’s designers skip the former to allow the latter. That trade-off, though awkward for the Batman fiction and standard design for Batman games, feels physically fine.
From a standing position in Arkham VR, you can move your hands, the better to point a forensic x-ray scanner at a corpse or assemble an artifact of the Riddler’s as if it were a floating jigsaw puzzle.
You just shouldn’t move your hands too high or too far away. The sensor may lose them, and Batman will drop what he was holding. Here’s the range of movement for a player’s hands in the game, as tested in the Arkham VR’s title screen:
Few game reviews require this much verbiage just to explain how they work or even whether they work, because, over the past decade, video games have gotten basic functionality down pretty well. Stuff usually runs. VR gaming resets a lot of that. Getting a VR game to operate smoothly in this first calendar year of major VR headsets can involve lots of trial and error. That’s especially true with PSVR, which relies on a camera mounted near the TV to track a player’s face and hands. The game offers a calibration test, but I passed that test and still had too many objects in the game wind up out of reach. Camera below the TV = not so great. Camera above the TV (as seen above) = way better, but still with a bit of a low sensory ceiling.
If you can get the camera in the right spot and stand in the right place, the bothers of twitchy technology fade away enough to make Arkham VR a pretty cool experience. It’s only vaguely interactive and flows toward a narrative ending without much, if any, chance of failure. It’s not just narrow but overly guided, with Batman’s butler and other chirpy characters abhorring silence and quickly telling you what to do next even when you don’t yet feel like doing it. Shut up, Alfred! I’m admiring the Batcave in virtual reality. I’ve never stood in my living room and had it look like there’s a massive cave all around me. If Robin really is dying, well, he can wait. Also: isn’t Robin always dying? That’s his thing!
Arkham VR is made by Rocksteady Studios, the creators of the main Arkham games. This new $20 mini-release was made by core developers at the studio and is set after the events of Arkham City. It showcases the look of those games and brings back signature actors, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker. The main narrative throughline is short, just an hour from the start of its mystery to its eyebrow-raising conclusion. Nightwing and Robin have both gone missing. Alfred fears the worst. We, as Batman, investigate.
As the Batman of Arkham VR, you can do some cool things, or at least things that pass for cool in this the early VR age. You can go to the game’s lone crime scene and watch a digital recreation of a brawl happen all around you. With a twist of your wrist, you can rewind it or skip ahead. In the chapter set in the morgue, you can scan the keypad of a safe for fingerprints, figure out the code, punch it in with your Move-controlled Batman hand, open the door and grab what’s inside. At any time, you can grab a Batarang off your belt and throw it at targets. Perhaps as an acknowledgment of the fidelity of PSVR’s motion tracking or of the limits of player skill, the Batarangs are pulled to their targets as if magnetized. The game just doesn’t want you to fail.
The bar for novelty is low in a VR game. For now, it’s maybe too exciting just to have a lifesize virtual model of the Joker stand in front of you and say something. It shouldn’t seem so neat to have Alfred hand you a key that you can grab and put into a lock. This is a game that makes an event out of you putting on Batman’s gloves. In fact, virtually putting on Batman’s gloves turns out to be pretty cool.
More complicated Batman actions may be beyond the limits of early VR tech and game design. They might also exceed a player’s ability not to vomit. So, yes, you can aim the batclaw grappling hook at a few grapple points in Arkham VR, but you won’t see yourself zip toward your target. Instead, the screen will go black for a few seconds and then snap to a render of where Batman wound up. You can summon the Batmobile but not drive it. You’ll just see blackness, hear the sound of its motors and then see where you’ve arrived. These limits would be crushing if not for the wonder of just being able to stand in so many Bat-places next to so many Bat-people. The wonder is effective now, but is likely a one-time thing.
Above: A few minutes of gameplay in the game’s morgue. You’ll see how object-handling works in smooth and clumsy ways. You’ll also see how Batman warps from location to location to avoid making players sick.
From the start, Arkham VR’s developers have been clear that the game is short. Rocksteady creative director Sefton Hill told me back in June that it was originally going to be an even smaller affair, but the studio got excited and kept adding to it. Those additions might comprise much of the optional extras that players can discover as they poke through the game. There are bonus audio files and unlockable character dossiers (the Joker’s narrated list of crimes is a hoot). There are 30 little Riddler puzzles that are added to the world for players to discover during a second play-through. There are lots of items scattered about to fiddle with. There is, for example, a syringe near one of Batman’s batcave computers. You can draw your own blood, test it and learn something about Batman’s biology. There are bat-vehicles to peer at and a Batarang balloon-popping game that provides a brief arcadey diversion.
The game’s main adventure oscillates in quality. Some short chapters are barely-interactive bores, others neat novelty VR playgrounds. The second playthrough is an overall improvement. The hidden Riddler puzzles are a fun distraction and fit well into the game that is best at letting you stand in a place and look around in it for clues to point a scanner at or tag with a Batarang. It’s an altogether slight thing, though, and often feels more like a promotional tie-in than a standalone game in its own right.
Arkham VR might prove to be an amusing evolutionary dead-end, a one-time theme park attraction that used the best tech available to let us pretend, however awkwardly, to stand around as Batman. It may also represent a step toward a more deeply interactive virtual reality Batman game, one that will allow us to more literally step into the impressive Batman universe that Rocksteady has built. Either way, it’s a start at best. It’s not a destination.
Note: All of the visuals in this review were captured from the “spectator” mode of PSVR. That’s a lower-resolution output of the graphics that a PSVR player sees in the headset. But even at a higher resolution, 2D graphics barely convey how impressive it is to see any virtual reality scene wrapped around you. Some aspects of Arkham VR’s controls and overall gameplay may be awkward, but the spectacle of having Batman’s world all around you is consistently awesome and well worth seeing with your own eyes if not on a VR-enabled PS4 of your own than on a friends’ or however Sony makes demo stations of PSVR available.