Darth Vader was never scary to me. That is, I suppose, a product of growing up at a time where the original Star Wars’ special effects were starting to creak, and not long before we were introduced to the crookedly-toothed horned devil that is Darth Maul. I’ve always been jealous, though, of the people that felt the chill down their spine when he first stepped through the smoke of Tantive IV.
That envy instantly subsided not long into Star Wars: Vader Immortal Episode 1.
Facing down the dark lord is one of many incredible moments in Vader Immortal’s 45 minute run time. He emerges in similar fashion to his big screen debut, authoritatively strides over to you and then bathes you in his sinister shadow, a hulking mass of machine and muscle. You can’t see his eyes, but somehow those empty, soulless substitutes on his mask pierce through you all the same. It is, to be frank, utterly terrifying. Vader Immortal is all about bringing these kinds of iconic moments to life, and it does so with aplomb.
Developer ILMxLAB has spoken of this as an immersion-driven experience, one that merges games and narrative in hopes of establishing new language for VR. Yes, it has cinematic lightsaber combat that’s (almost) as good as you’d hoped, but it’s just as concerned with place, interaction and, most importantly, connection.
For starters, it’s a fan’s wildest dream come true. You play as a smuggler that’s taken captive in Vader’s castle, located on the fiery wastes of Mustafar. But you’re not here to be interrogated or frozen in carbonite; Vader needs you for something. One hasty escape attempt later and you’re led on a whirlwind tour of his indulgent domain and, interestingly, the origins of the planet it’s sitting on.
A New Kind Of Star Wars Story
For a universe that’s had every conceivable nook and cranny scrutinized over the past 42 years, Vader Immortal explores some surprisingly intriguing areas for Star Wars fans of varying dedication. Without spoiling anything, it carefully treads the line between the expanded universe the die-hards adore without ever distancing itself too far from the source material. We see a new side to the storied character, one that touches upon the tragedies that have made him who he is and the dangerously misguided emotions and decisions that have flourished from them.
More importantly, though, ILMxLAB weaves a potent mix of character-driven exposition and involved role-playing. This being Star Wars, you’re accompanied by a sassy droid, ZO-E3, voiced by Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph. She’s a great example of what makes Vader Immortal work, treating you as a living, breathing character in this world and never shying away from making eye-contact or getting close to you. Like every character you encounter, she makes you feel like a genuine part of the experience. She’s also incredibly funny. “I wasn’t programmed for this” she screams after watching one particularly harrowing sequence.
Many of the things you do in Vader Immortal aren’t ‘gamey’ things, though. When Vader hands you an ancient artifact and tells you to open it, for example, there isn’t a progress-halting puzzle to figure out; you just open it. Ripping off wall panels to hotwire elevators and cell doors is much the same thing. It feels cool to twist knobs and flick switches, but the experience is mostly unconcerned with fail states and scoreboards. Its interaction is always in service to the experience and not a hurdle in front of it. It wants emotion with none of the barriers to entry.
The same is true of the combat, which is a key highlight of Vader Immortal despite a few hiccups. Saber fights are stripped of complexity to channel the childish joy of walking out with a laser sword and facing down the Empire. Deflecting Stormtrooper blasts back at enemies is somewhat automated, for example, and blade combat is paced to help you keep your bearings. Think more Obi-Wan vs. Vader on the Death Star instead of their climactic battle in Revenge of the Sith. But, what it might lack in depth, it more than makes up for in authenticity. Holding a lightsaber in your hand and whirling it past your ears is one of the most compelling, empowering VR experiences you can have.
Your saber isn’t just a weapon, though. You light up darkened paths and remove obstacles with it. Moments like these are crucial to rooting yourself in your character; I found myself playing along with dramatic poses as I paved the way forward. To put it simply, yes, I allowed myself to become Star Wars Kid, and it felt great. It’s just a shame that a few seams show themselves throughout, like in the last battle where a bug prevented enemies from attacking me for five minutes.
The Start Of Something Strong
This being the first installment, Vader Immortal doesn’t fully capitalize on its powerful concoction of immersion, but the groundwork is compelling enough in itself. ILMxLAB makes perhaps the most compelling case yet for VR experiences that rest at the intersection between gaming and experiential. Within Episode 1 I flinched in the presence of Darth Vader, hushed a gasp as I spied on characters from inside a vent and instinctively threw my hands up when staring down the barrel of a rifle. If anything’s missing it’s agency; you’re hurried along a linear path without ever being given a say in why happens. It somewhat robs you of the theater of it all, reminding you that you’re not really there in some of its most crucial moments. Episode 2 could benefit from slowing down and allowing you to take your time.
But, for those hoping for a more objective-driven Star Wars VR experience, don’t fret; something special awaits you.
Let The Force Flow Through You
Vader Immortal also comes with a wave-based combat mode that pits you against training drones. That may sound tacked on, though it’s anything but. In fact, it exhibits the mechanical intricacy some might feel is missing from the story. There are 40 waves to master that strike a delicate balance between skill and playtime. It’s a full 360 degree experience that encourages patience and rewards quick reactions, with a solid foundation to master. It’s an absolute blast that adds at least an additional 90 minutes worth of content. You’ll get more from chasing high scores too. Better yet, you can use points earned to unlock new blade colors and handles.
Quest’s inside-out tracking sometimes can’t keep up with the pace, though. On multiple occasions the game booted me back to the headset’s lobby because the Guardian system was getting confused and I also found my saber-holding hand would sometimes get stuck in one point in the environment. It’s also easy to spot the boxed foveated rendering in some of the game’s scenes. That’s an acceptable trade-off for the visual fidelity, though. This might be Quest’s best-looking app at launch, with exhaustively detailed environments. That said, there are blemishes. Textures are slightly blurred and some of the game’s vistas don’t favor well on the headset. Overall, though, it does an admirable job of keeping the core presentation intact.
Vader Immortal isn’t perfect. It’s very much the first part of a larger series, one that leaves you wanting more of each of its individual elements. But it’s a significant step forward for VR, bolstering a line-up of experiences that emphasize audience emotions over playable technicalities. The pay-off, it successfully argues, is richer than any immersive Star Wars experience before it. ILMxLAB once labeled this as ‘story-living’ over storytelling. A touch hyperbolic, perhaps, but I’m inclined to agree.
Final Say: Must See
Star Wars: Vader Immortal Episode 1 will launch alongside the Oculus Quest on May 21st for $9.99. An Oculus Rift S version will follow shortly after. For more on why we scored this app as an experience and how it rated, read our review guidelines.