I could start my review of Vader Immortal: Episode One, the first lengthy Star Wars experience for consumer-grade VR headsets, in a number of ways. Controls? Comfort? Visuals? Story? Droids?
But after I finished my first run of the 45-minute experience, premiering exclusively on Oculus Quest on May 21 for $9.99, I knew where to begin: the moment Darth Vader became my life-sized lightsaber combat ally.
There I was, my eyes locked onto the tall Star Wars icon’s mask as it loomed above me. He ordered me to turn a key. (I wasn’t in a position to argue.) Doing so loosed a mystic energy, along with a slew of mysterious, sword-wielding guards, in response to which Vader shouted, “We must protect the prisoner!”
Wait, who? Me? Aw, that’s so sweet, Lord Va—
Then a single guard rushed my position, forcing me to ignite the lightsaber I’d found 10 minutes earlier. As I began waving my real-life arm to virtually battle for my survival, I noticed in my peripheral vision that Vader was holding up his end of the bargain, force-choking and stabbing a bunch of other guards on the other side of the room.
I don’t want to oversell this first episode of Vader Immortal. It’s not a bona fide video game, and it shouldn’t be mistaken for a true VR “adventure.” But there’s a compelling plot premise here, along with some solid dialogue and a few VR-immersion moments—like the one above—that had me loudly and giddily shouting some not-safe-for-work exultations.
As an official Star Wars side-story, Vader Immortal opens in unsurprising fashion: you’re a petty thief, trying to sneak precious cargo through the galaxy without attracting any Imperial attention. An introductory sequence sees you setting your spaceship into hyperdrive while chatting with your droid ZOE3 (voiced by actor/comedian Maya Rudolph) about various precious cargo scattered around the ship’s interior. Before long, your smooth journey and friendly chatter is interrupted by an abrupt drop out of hyperdrive, at which point the top of your cockpit’s glass canopy is slowly filled up by an advancing Star Destroyer.
Your swift imprisonment is followed by a face-to-face stare down with Vader himself, but before killing you, he orders you to pick up an ancient artifact. The small cube glows in your hands, and then you must poke its shiny spots with your real-life fingers (as tracked by Oculus Touch controllers) until you activate its power. This, among other things, curries just enough of Vader’s favor to spare your life.
You’re still a prisoner, so ZOE3 plots an escape that requires a mix of VR teleportation, grabbing door handles and switches and using your hands to clamber across walls—as if you were a Star Wars version of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake. All the while, Rudolph’s mix of fear, excitement, and snark do a wonderful job of selling Vader Immortal‘s plot and pointing VR users in the right direction. Think of Alan Tudyk’s touching, humorous turn as a droid in Rogue One, then add the demands of serving as both a friend and an interactive VR-experience teacher. Rudolph nails the whole thing, and it’s quite impressive.
As an interactive Star Wars experience, Vader Immortal is absolutely on par with Disneyland rides like Star Tours in terms of quality writing, impeccable pacing, dramatically staged vistas, and heightened moments of drama. Unlike Star Tours, though, Vader Immortal takes a plot turn after the events of Episode III and thus offers legitimate series implications (and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them). I’ll just say that the story taps into a surprisingly hefty vein of Star Wars history. Even if the VR series’ conclusion wraps up with little true impact on the Star Wars timeline, I’m already intrigued to see where this one leads—and what new planet(s) it may unearth for future adventures.
Expectations in check
The bad news, at least as of press time, is that this interactive experience struggles a bit too frequently with the Quest’s mobile-powered hardware (which, as I noted in my Oculus Quest review, is comparable to a Google Pixel 2 smartphone). The result is noticeable judder roughly every 90 seconds. It doesn’t ruin the experience by any stretch, but it’s obvious that some of Vader Immortal‘s most ambitious set pieces—which include lava-soaked outdoor expanses and ominous outer-space cathedrals—push a few too many polygons and effects to maintain a smooth 72-frames-per-second refresh. If you can stand the wait and have the hardware, this first episode will launch “later this spring” for the Oculus Rift PC platform. (FYI, spring ends on June 21, so that’s not too long.)
Also, anybody hoping for compelling interaction needs to look again at my mention of the Star Tours ride. The game is pretty awesome once you’re given a virtual lightsaber to swing around, but the saber doesn’t get used very much, and the combat sequences are simplified and awkward. This isn’t dynamic Kylo Ren-style combat; you’re blocking heavily telegraphed attacks, stabbing in response, and repeating (and enjoying an abundance of “health,” so there’s really no sense of challenge). The rest of the experience hinges on following a single, linear path with zero puzzles. On the positive side, though, using hands to clamber across walls and using buttons to teleport around the world is simple and comfortable enough. (You can go into a settings menu and turn on “smooth motion,” should you detest VR teleportation.)
Thankfully, since the experience already models an easy-to-use VR lightsaber system, Vader Immortal‘s first episode also comes with an “arcade” mode where you must swing your lightsaber at waves of small floating drones, as if you’re Luke Skywalker training in A New Hope. Some of these must be sliced in half as they fly at your face; others must be taken out by deflecting their laser fire. Not bad at all.
Must-buy for Quest
The price is right at $10. The story shines thanks to a solid script (courtesy of David S. Goyer, of The Dark Knight fame), potential series stakes, and impeccable acting. The design team at ILMxLAB has found ways to make a smoldering lava planet look quite good on the low-powered Quest hardware. The developers have also designed a few incredibly staged scenes—and one dramatic flashback in particular—that will keep this episode’s best moments in my mind for some time. And the interactivity is just interesting enough to merit playing this experience all the way through, as opposed to trying to watch it on YouTube.
I went into Vader Immortal expecting a throwaway VR lark, much like the polished-but-cheesy stuff at installation arcades like The Void (or the cheesy Vive experience of Trials on Tatooine). I came out of it a bit annoyed by technical limitations but otherwise so impressed that I relived the lightsaber-jailbreak story a second time. Consider this first episode a must-buy if you pick up a Quest at launch—and if you have any faith in Lucasfilm to tell at least one more interesting Vader story.