Of its many ports over the last six years, Skyrim for PSVR marks the first time the game feels fundamentally different from the original release back in 2011. It’s one thing to see the fantasy realm of Tamriel on a fresh 4K display. It’s another to physically look up and see the red moon in a starry sky; to instinctively nod back to greet passing NPCs; to stare down bloodthirsty dragons while charging into battle. Seeing the same old world from a new perspective dissolves the lingering feeling that you’ve seen it all before.
The big appeal of Skyrim has always been its sense of scale. Tamriel is a world full of life, detail, and people who don’t just exist for your benefit, but have lives of their own. Despite the relatively low-res representation of the world as seen through a PSVR headset, within a few minutes the pixel count fades in your mind as the illusion of presence takes hold. In VR, Tamriel feels like home, a place to embody your custom-made adventurer. It’s a feeling no other version can match, and it grounds you in a land capable of instilling wonderment and dread in equal measure.
Given Skyrim’s scope and diverse terrain, movement in VR can be tricky at times. You do still have the option of using a DualShock 4, but there’s a nauseating physiological disconnect when using analog sticks to control movement and perspective in VR. Instead, the best way to play is with two PlayStation Move controllers. By default, you hold the left PS Move button, point at a location, and release to instantly teleport to it. Alternately, you can switch to “Direct Movement,” where you tilt the controller in any direction and simply hold the left PS Move button to walk.
Your weapons are controlled naturally (swing your controller to swing your weapon), and while there’s no reasonable way to account for the heft of a sword, it’s hard not to get into character when the pressure is on. Magic fares best in this regard, and dual-wielding spells is a power trip unlike any other.
It’s the more incidental side of Skyrim where the motion controls fare a bit worse. The gesture-based inventory management is largely unintuitive, and it’s all too easy to stumble into a comedy of errors when attempting simple tasks. At best, a mistake might put you into a menu by accident. At worst, you might drop an item down a mountain. And while enveloping yourself in the upgrade menu’s starry sky offers one of the more impressive moments the game, actually getting to the upgrades you want via gestures is sometimes easier said than done. And disappointingly, despite PSVR’s built-in microphone, the game’s iconic Shouts can’t be voice controlled.
The issues with the Move being ill-optimized for the menus stand out all the more because each second spent fooling around with items is another second away from being entranced by Tamriel’s sights and sounds. The second Skyrim VR drops you into that fateful carriage ride to the gallows, surrounded by frightened scoundrels, the change in perspective seems to make every little moment fresh and personal like never before. When the game goes off the rails, and you’re running for your life to escape the threat of Alduin’s dragon fire, the instant shift in urgency from “my character is in danger” to “I am in danger” grants even this classic moment a newfound level of tension.
Even with the mild learning curve of the Move controllers, wandering the countryside isn’t just a never ending hike, but an excuse to fall in love once again with the world Bethesda’s built. It’s all too easy to lose track of whatever objective you had in mind, and instead aimlessly traipse through forests, follow random paths to get perfect views of the night sky, or deliberately tread into deep bodies of water to simply float face up downstream. The freezing cold of the Greybeards’ mountain feels more convincing than ever and the momentary stare-down against the wolves that hunt the paths feels personal. There is no doubt that Tamriel is the same place it’s always been, but it’s fair to say you’ve never seen it like this before.
Likewise, Skyrim is still Skyrim, with the same host of bugs and structural shortcomings that highlight just how dated the game has become. Yet, for the PSVR, there is no game as ambitious, and there’s certainly no other port of Skyrim that offers what this one does. VR isn’t currently the ideal way to tackle a 50-hour RPG, but this new port proves that it’s a challenge worth pursuing, and shows how breathtaking the results can be.