When it was announced at Sony’s keynote earlier this week, I was more excited Batman: Arkham VR than probably any other PlayStation VR game. The Arkham series contains a perfect combination of third-person flying, fighting, and puzzle-solving, all of which seem eminently adaptable to virtual reality — especially since the game is being made by Rocksteady, who developed all but one of its installments. But while it's too early to judge Arkham VR, the demo experience at E3 is a radical departure from the games’ core formula, and one that might have more novelty than substance.
There were two options at Sony's demo session, one of which I only got to watch. Both are first-person, and the first — a scene where you simply inhabit Batman and don his mask — seems designed to acclimate people to the fact that yes, picking up objects and putting them on a virtual body can be weird. The one I tried, though, includes a taste of the gameplay we can expect (barring a huge redesign) in Arkham VR. It’s an adaptation of your standard Arkham "detective" sequence: a crime occurs, and Batman must solve it by using his special scanning tools to reconstruct the scene. Instead of just turning on a screen overlay, you’ll use the PlayStation Move controller to unclip a virtual object from your belt, and control it by rotating your hand.
The scene isn’t bad, although without spoiling too much, it's extremely dark even for the Arkham universe. But it doesn’t include any of the elements that make the Arkham games unique, like their freedom of movement. At the very end of the demo, you can pull out a grappling hook and attach it to the Penguin's zeppelin, but it seems more like a way to switch scenes than a game mechanic. Overall, it’s set to be more of an "experience" than a full game; I was told the whole thing might take about an hour, with another hour of finding Easter eggs.
Game spinoffs on other platforms don’t have to copy their source material — in most cases, it’s probably best if they don’t. Similarly, it’s nice to see any major game series announced for PSVR ahead of its October 13th launch. But it would be nice to see something that seemed as well-developed and satisfying as a core Arkham game, not a minor promotional add-on that bears the name.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear that this is possible. PlayStation VR is the last great hope for making tethered virtual reality mainstream within the next few years, and even it will take time to build a user base. Developing a big-budget game (even one far smaller than the expansive Arkham games) would be a huge risk with little hope of reward in the near future.
The result could be a lackluster launch for the platform’s big franchises. Its Final Fantasy game is similarly underdeveloped, and while Resident Evil 7 is playable in VR, it doesn’t feel designed for it. That doesn’t mean PSVR will have a bad catalog overall, and there are still titles we don’t know much about, like Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission. But it makes all the announcements in Sony’s keynote seem a lot less exciting — unless we get some big changes in the next four months.