It’s a testament to the power of virtual reality, and how well developer Rocksteady already understands the technology, that the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents feels riveting and new. This moment, replayed or referenced an almost absurd number of times in recent movies and video games alike, takes on a whole new importance in virtual reality. Standing in this scene, I’m not Batman, I’m a young Bruce, and Thomas and Martha Wayne practically tower over me. My mother reassures me that others were probably scared by the opera, as well. My father notices furtive movement in the shadows and immediately tenses. As it becomes clear that they’re being robbed at gunpoint, my mother shields me with her body–at 8 years old, I’m barely taller than her hip.
The immersion of this moment sets the stage for the short-but-sweet adventure to come. Batman: Arkham VR puts in you in the shoes, suit, and cowl of Gotham’s protector for a light-adventure trip around the city. Soon after this flashback to Bruce’s past, you awake to the present, post-Arkham City. Butler Alfred informs you that Robin and Nightwing have gone missing. The search for Batman’s allies begins in the Batcave before unraveling into a mystery that sees you visiting a Gotham City alley, the sewers, a city morgue, and other more recognizable locales on your quest for answers.
The gameplay beats along the way are simple. You’re simply asked to do things Batman would do, whether that means using Detective Mode to piece together evidence from a crime scene, light puzzle-solving to escape from a supervillain’s trap, or targeting enemies for the airborne Batwing to strike with rubber bullets.
Sheer joy comes from the power fantasy of being Batman. With a whole mess of sophisticated Batcave controls at your fingertips, you feel like a legendary crimefighter blessed with wealth and technology. Standing on a platform gazing down at criminals, you feel like a feared night-stalker. Reaching out with the PlayStation Move wand to grasp the cowl and pull it over your head is transformative.
Part of what sells the illusion of being Batman are the tools given to you. At all times, a grappling gun, analyzer tool, and Batarangs are strapped to your utility belt. It’s a tactile pleasure to reach down with my left hand and unholster the analyzer before leaning in toward bodies in a morgue, examining my environment however I choose. Rocksteady’s answer for the movement problem (how do you allow natural movement where cables and a PlayStation Camera limit you?) is to use the center button on either PS Move wand to jump to points of interest. It’s a satisfying solution that feels like a Batman movement–a whoosh sound can be heard, as if he’s quickly darting from one shadow to another.
In general, Arkham VR does a fine job of tracking movement in the minutiae of gameplay, but I encountered more frequent errors than with similar first-person-standing games. Occasionally, my in-game hands became very jittery–vibrating in place–as if the camera was hyper-sensitive to tiny movement. As you veer from the game’s suggested center point, the hand tracking gets a bit less accurate–a few times, I found myself grasping unnaturally for an object on a table that should have been an easy fetch. Other times, usually when leaning in toward an object or person, the environment would momentarily warp, growing big or filling my vision for a fleeting second. This is a tame experience that shouldn’t give anyone major dizziness, and it’s rare for these potential distractions to happen all at once, but if they do, the game gets briefly uncomfortable.
The immersion is aided by fantastic visuals and sound–things we generally take for granted where Rocksteady is concerned, but that feel particularly epic in virtual reality. Up close and personal with people and textures, Arkham VR looks good enough to be a true Arkham game, and even in the brief vignettes this game offers, the environment design is top-notch.
The cherry on top is Rocksteady’s attention to detail, which rewards eagle-eyed fans throughout. Character references are subtle but plentiful. I loved finding a postcard written by Selina Kyle, a virtual recreation of Harley Quinn’s bat I could swing around, and a very cleverly hidden Mad Hatter cameo. The story, meanwhile, is thoughtful but harmless: a fun ride that doesn’t meaningfully break from or add to the established Arkham canon.
There’s no denying that Arkham VR is a brief experience. Even taking time to examine extra goodies in the Batcave, like Riddler relics and weapons from past Arkham games, it’s unlikely to take more than 90 minutes to play the whole adventure. But it’s an engrossing, unforgettable 90 minutes that both gently introduces you to the power of VR while giving you enough freedom to feel like you’re actually embodying Batman. This is fully realized escapism that can’t be mimicked by traditional games, making Batman: Arkham VR one of PS VR’s best launch titles.