I don’t really like to echo a company’s marketing slogans, especially not in reviews, but in the case of Star Wars: Vader Immortal, you kind of have to.
Note: This review is for the entire Vader Immortal trilogy. You can see our individual reviews for each episode below.
Developer ILMxLAB bills this recently completed trilogy of VR experiences as ‘story-living’. The term might not have been coined by the team itself, but it rolls off the tongue with a slightly corporate taste. Still, I can’t think of a better way to describe Vader Immortal. It is not a videogame, but neither is it a VR movie. There’s little in the way of mechanical complexity, but there is interactivity. There’s no promise of a branching story with multiple sidequests or skills to upgrade, but you are very much playing it. You can die, sort of, but only in certain moments and not without great difficulty. Even then, you can turn that off.
So, what is Vader Immortal, then?
The answer is what makes this one of the most noteworthy and ironically divisive adventures of 2019, and something others should pay attention to. It’s an experience that can be played by pretty much anyone, not just gamers hoping for their version of Jedi: Fallen Order inside a VR headset. It is an exercise in VR accessibility, an exploration of interactions that are as satisfying to execute as they are quick to grasp and, most importantly, a showcase of what can be done with character-driven narratives in VR. It is, above all else, one giant experiment and quite a successful one at that.
As with most Star Wars side-projects, Vader Immortal attempts to show a deeper side to a beloved character without cutting so deep as to mess with the continuity that most people have absorbed. You embody an unnamed smuggler accompanied by your droid, ZOE3, voiced by Maya Rudolph. Captured by the Empire and summoned to Darth Vader’s suitably menacing lava castle on the planet of Mustafar, you’re sent down a path that promises intrigue even if you know it can’t possibly deliver on the first episode’s surprising premise. Still, prequel problems (as in, knowing how things will end, not making bad movies) are no stranger to the Star Wars franchise (although the bad movie thing is true too).
Besides, it’s really how Vader Immortal’s story is delivered, not its consistency, that’s of note. ILMxLAB understands the power of presence in VR; not just your own but other character’s too. Standing face-to-face with Vader himself never ceases to chill your spine, catching you awkwardly unaware of where to stare or how to stand as if, somehow, you might actually offend him. It’s equal parts jaw-dropping and truly quite frightening, while ZOE3 adopts some lovable qualities that mostly make her a joy to be around. Some flat and repeated lines aside, Rudolph brings a welcome touch of comedy to the experience.
While perhaps never quite hitting any sort of revelatory stride for too long, Vader Immortal does provide a significant piece of the VR narrative puzzle. The next step will be to have those characters react to your own behaviors, though that’s a trial for another day (or decade, even).
Interaction, meanwhile, stems more from memories of childhoods spent imitating Luke, Han and Leia on the playground rather than the book of game design. There’s a lot of beeping and booping; the pressing of buttons that feels cool even if you suspect it’s all somewhat inconsequential. Push the lever to go into hyperspace, use the force to toss rocks at enemies, hold your lightsaber firm, ready to block blade or blaster. Heck, if someone didn’t know they’d probably be able to tell you were playing a game of Star Wars just by looking at you.
You could perceive it all to be a little shallow, but that would arguably be missing the point. Vader Immortal is not about the struggle nor the mastery, it’s about the immersion, the complete and total commitment to channeling nearly 50 years worth of movie-loving wish fulfillment into a 90-minute ride of a lifetime. It’s not just for gamers, it’s for their parents whose first date included a trip to see The Empire Strikes Back, or the babysitter that you got hooked during midnight marathons, the friends that never got around to buying a PS4 and the older brother or sister that’s drifted from your childhood playdates.
And yet, at times, the series can’t always escape its gaming roots. The climactic boss encounters, including a showdown with Vader himself, are surprisingly rigid in design, aping the multi-stage slogs you’d expect in a normal game. They’re reflective of an experience that does sport the occasional road bump. It’s quite set on repeating its exposition, for example (likely as an inelegant way to recap after long stretches between episodes) and there are times it roots you to the spot when you wish you were getting your hands muddy with the events unfolding in front of you. Vader Immortal doesn’t have all the answers, not that you’d expect it to.
Pacing might be its biggest problem, though. Even after replaying the entire thing, the series’ second episode remains its dullest point, with a little too much walking and talking.
Having said all that, the series does have something quite excellent for those seeking a challenge worthy of a Jedi. Every episode of Vader Immortal comes with its own 40-wave Lightsaber Dojo that offers some of the most thrilling, empowering combat you’ll find in VR today. It’s here where you’ll really learn that lightsaber dueling, though simple, is actually impressively refined, doing likely all that current VR tech can to make you feel like you’re really wielding the saber. It’s true that, as you progress onto the second episode and ILMxLAB starts to introduce new features, some of the original’s finesse erodes. But it makes a successful transition into a chaotic sandbox of force-fueled joy.
Star Wars: Vader Immortal Trilogy Review Final Verdict
I submit to the Disney marketing machine, then. Star Wars: Vader Immortal is story-living; one of the most deliberate attempts yet to put you in the shoes of a living, breathing character in a living, breathing universe. It gets closer to fulfilling that mission than you might first think, and it might come at the cost of the depth some will miss, but this is an adventure any fan can pick up and play. Vader Immortal might not age well as the years move on, but as an early example of how VR is truly different from what’s come before, it will surely be immortalized.
Final Score: 4/5 Stars | Really Good
This review was conducted primarily on a Rift S playing the Oculus Home PC version of the game. You can read more about the new five-star scoring policy here.