I recently bought an Oculus Quest to see me through lockdown. I’ve had a PSVR for around a year now, and when I got it one of the first things I played was the one off, sorely under-utilised VR X-Wing Mission for SW Battlefront. As a huge Star Wars fan, I was blown away. It felt like I was IN a Star Wars film, like I was part of the action, and it felt like Star Wars in a way I didn’t get from the Sequel trilogy. I even got my Dad to play it at Christmas (although as the man had never held a controller before it was painful to watch) and he loved it. It left me sorely wanting more SW VR though. Enter Vader Immortal.
Vader Immortal is a ‘Star Wars experience’ developed by ILMxLAB, a studio of Lucasfilm with a focus on VR having previously developed ‘experiences’ for various Disney owned exhibitions and amusement parks. It is an exclusive to Oculus systems I believe, being specifically developed for the Quest (although I wouldn’t say it took full advantage of the freedom the Quest gives). The series is split across 3 Episodes, all of which follow the same sequential narrative (this is a full story with a beginning, middle, and end) and are largely the same in terms of gameplay, although each episode does add additional features.
Set sometime between the main series Episodes III and IV, you take on the role of an unnamed smuggler who is captured by the Empire while in orbit of Mustafar, the big Lava planet from the end of III. It turns out Vader has made his home here (although if you’ve seen Rogue One you already know this) and is very interested in you, for reasons that become clear as the story progresses.
This brings me to my first observation (‘criticism’ is too harsh at this point): in keeping with ILMxLABs heritage, this is less of a game, and more of an experience. It is very narrative focused, and it does take some time to build up to the fun stuff, which can be frustrating if you just want to get stuck in to pissing around with the Force and lightsabers (although if that’s what you’re after, play the dojo – more on that later). It is also not as fleshed out as a full game would be, with you being unable to fully explore the world and finding yourself very much ‘on the rails’ and going through the motions, as it were. That said, it is explicitly described as ‘a Star Wars experience’, so criticising this is a little unfair maybe, but I did think there were points where it could have flowed a little better.
However, the world itself is very immersive. It feels like Star Wars right off the bat when you get to explore your ship. You can walk around, press buttons, pick up various treasures you’ve smuggled in your time (often triggering a little background info drop from your obligatory wise cracking droid companion). When you meet Vader for the first time, it is ‘an experience’. VR is much more immersive than other mediums, and the game designers have done a good job of showing you just how intimidating Vader actually is. He towers over you in a way you cannot possibly experience in a movie. Really very good indeed.
After a little bit of setup, the standard VR puzzles and mechanics explanation you are launched into battle (side note: the lightsaber you get is seriously cool) and this is where it gets good. The combat is nice and fluid, although it does take a bit of practice. Obviously when you block your opponent’s blade or blaster bolt, there is nothing actually physically stopping your blade moving forward. This is clearly an inherent limitation with sword fighting in VR, and while the lack of feedback can be a little disconcerting initially, you quickly get used to it. I’ve overused the phrase already, but the combat ‘feels like Star Wars’. Indeed, your first big battle has you desperately flailing at the droids attacking you, while Vader is in the background absolutely tearing up, occasionally throwing a burnt out shell your way like the badass he is.
Following on from this, I absolutely love how well the developers built up the mechanics for the player. When you first start fighting at the end of the first episode, that lack of feedback and inexperience makes it feel like a struggle, and this is only focusing on the lightsaber. By the time Force powers come into play you’re a bit more confident, and then by the time you get to the big battle with Vader himself, you feel like a Jedi, but you also feel like you’ve earned it.
Once you’ve completed the story in each episode (or before if you’re that way inclined) you can play the Lightsaber Dojo. This is a wave based training arena, which opens up the gameplay a lot. In the story, there isn’t really much of a challenge in that it was designed as an experience rather than a game. This changes very rapidly in the Dojo. Each episode has a different Dojo, and each episode adds the powers and abilities learned in that episode (so Episode 1 Dojo only has Lightsaber, while Episode 3 has everything). There are also variations on the enemies, but the general gameplay is the same: enemies spawn, kill them as quickly as possible without getting hurt.
I have had a lot of fun in the Dojo, and I’m slowly working my way through all 50 levels in Episode 3 (sadly due to the fact the previous episodes are missing abilities, there’s not a lot of point going back to previous Dojos, but bear in mind there were 3 months or so between each episode). I will say that I think the difficulty for the top marks is set a little too high, as it is very dependent on enemies spawns which is completely random. Many times I have found myself with several seconds left on the clock, desperately searching for enemies to kill, only to have them run onscreen as the timer runs out. Very annoying, especially on the higher levels which require several minutes of essentially perfect gameplay, but still ultimately depends on enemy spawns for you to be successful. Still, a heck of a lot of fun though.
Episode 1 is very much an introduction and sets the plot and later gameplay up nicely. The story is great and keeps you hooked, although I think the actual progression is a little slow, and the only enemies are droids. Next!
Episode 2 continues the great story, and adds Force powers. Still only mainly droids you fight but there is an on-rails battle with a big ol’ Rancor type fella. This is a little shorter than the others I thought, which might have been disappointing at the time of release (there’s also a pretty cool cliffhanger), but for me it was great because I could just crack on with…
Episode 3 finally adds Stormtroopers, and also Blaster Rifles and Thermal Detonators (I only found out you could use the blaster rifle during a chase scene where I was just throwing Stormtroopers around, and suddenly was holding a rifle!). I also enjoyed this part of the story the most, it really pulls together a lot of the threads set up in the previous instalments, as well as giving you some really cool moments. I did feel slightly underwhelmed by the ending if I’m being honest, but I can’t tell how much of that is due to sub par writing, how much is because of how epic the build up was, and how much is due to just being sad it was over.
I do have a few minor criticisms of course: if you’re experienced in VR, you could easily do the whole play through in a couple of hours in one sitting. I took a break after episode 1, but played 2 and 3 back to back (see above cliffhanger). Although the Dojo does add a significant amount of playtime, I did come away wishing there was more story. This is a high end experience though, and you can tell a lot of work has gone into this to get the right tone, feel, mood etc. I would definitely prefer 2-3 hours of excellent Star Wars material than several hours of sub-par rubbish, so it’s a trade off I’m not too cut up about, but the thrifty among you may wish to wait for a sale.
As mentioned above as well, this is very much an experience rather than a traditional game. It’s almost a ride, and feels a bit like a top notch, individual version of those simulators you’d get in kids play areas that rocked about while you watched a video of a rollercoaster. You are the silent protagonist, standing quietly while people talk around you, which means you lose a little involvement in the plot. When you’re unable to move from a particular area for ages while everyone’s having a chinwag and you just want to throw Stormtroopers at the wall, it can be a little frustrating. I will add however, that VR is still an emerging medium (although to be clear this game still isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch), and these drawbacks only make me think of how much potential there is for a full blown Star Wars game, possibly even an open world RPG style like KOTOR (honestly Lucasfilm, if you’re reading this, please).
Overall though, this is a damn fun experience. If you’re not a huge Star Wars fan you probably won’t get much out of this, as a lot of the gameplay and mechanics can be found elsewhere.
If you’re like me though, and you find yourself craving some new Star Wars lore, this is a fun and interesting story that uses one of Star Wars most iconic baddies brilliantly, fleshing him out and showing you a side that I don’t think we’ve really seen before. Add to that that the developer has nailed the satisfaction component of juggling lightsabers, force powers, and blasters, and by using VR to put you inside the world, it does give you the chance to finally wield an actual lightsaber. And you can’t put a price on that.
- You get to use a lightsaber. Nuff said.
- Writing, voice acting, and general story is top notch
- Star Wars IP used to great effect
- Some squandered potential at points
- Quite short for what it is
- Very limiting, considering it was developed for the Quest
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