Star Wars VR Experience Makes Darth Vader's Mustafar Castle Important Again
Should we be paying more attention to Vader's castle?
A new pop-up installation for the Oculus at Westfield World Trade Center has made Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, the award-winning immersive VR experience first released early last year, more accessible than ever before. This comes at just the right time to make us all wonder if the important role that Mustafar plays in this game could carry over into Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker as well — especially considering that Kylo Ren is a total Darth Vader fanboy.
Mostly covered in volcanic lava, the planet Mustafar was mined by the Empire during and beyond the Clone Wars for its valuable resources, but it’s famously where Anakin Skywalker lost a duel (and a few limbs) against Obi-Wan Kenobi during Revenge of the Sith — essentially making it the birthplace of Darth Vader. The Sith Lord built a castle there, shown during Rogue One, that sits atop an ancient Sith temple that was itself built atop a Sith Cave. Vader even successfully opened a portal to the Dark Side years prior in the hopes of resurrecting Padme Amidala, but the experiment failed.
Plenty of fans hope that Rise of Skywalker will revisit Mustafar, especially after a piece of alleged Episode IX concept art leaked in July seemingly depicted the volcanic planet and a castle structure. While those rumors remain speculative — and Secrets of the Empire takes place long before Rogue One — fans now have a chance to get an up close and personal look at Mustafar at new VOID locations around the country.
Created by the VOID and ILMxLAB, Secrets of the Empire is a canonical immersive VR video game experience that takes place shortly before the original trilogy. Diego Luna reprises his role as Rebel spy Cassian Andor in a story that set about a year before Rogue One. Darth Vader just got a shipment of some very precious cargo, and it’s your job to infiltrate an Imperial base to discern its contents. What you find could have a lasting influence on the new Star Wars trilogy, particularly in how it might relate to Vader’s grandson Kylo Ren.
Previously, Secrets of the Empire had only limited availability as an amusement park attraction at Disney Land and Disney World, along with several more in California and perhaps another dozen more globally. This new opening in Westfield World Trade Center — where hundreds and perhaps thousands of people walk through every day — is one of more than 25 new VOID installations over the next three years that’ll make experiences like this more accessible than ever before.
One part virtual reality, one part laser tag, one part escape the room, but all parts Star Wars, Secrets of the Empire truly feels like an immersive experience in a way that the vast majority of VR experiences aren’t quite capable of just yet.
It helps that at the start of the experience, you have to step into a large vest. Some kind of heavy pack straps into the back of the harness, increasing the weight dramatically enough to simulate like you’re wearing stormtrooper armor. Even the actual VR headset looks and feels like something out of Star Wars.
Once you’re suited up, you enter a room where you receive a secret mission from Cassian Andor. Unlike some other aspects of the experience, this looks like live-action Diego Luna. He’s dashing. He’s handsome. He wanted to do this incredibly risky mission himself but because he’s under attack from Imperial troops, the player then becomes the only hope.
You embark upon this mission to infiltrate the Imperial base alongside 1 to 3 other Rebels dressed as stormtroopers. K-2SO, also from Rogue One, also joins in on the mission, but you spend most of it separate from the lovably sarcastic droid.
Once you’re inside the base, you grab a weapon and begin to solve a series of puzzles that help you get to an inner cargo hold. You can stay undercover as long as possible, nodding politely to your fellow stormtroopers and sneaking your way through. Or you can open fire immediately and start blasting.
Anyone who loves escape rooms and Star Wars separately should rush to particpate in Secrets of the Empire ASAP. Are you confident enough in your “Simon Says” skills that you could repeat a code to open a locked door? Could you do it in increasing difficulty while enemy stormtroopers fire blasters at you from the left and everybody is screaming at you to open the door!?
This spoils one of the more exciting moments, but it also highlights the necessity of doing Secrets of the Empire with a group of people. There are several moments where separate participants have to engage in different activities. Sometimes that’s just fending off a small horde of enemies in open gunfights in the classic Star Wars style. Do you hide undercover to avoid taking damage? Do you stand boldly out in the open? Do you shout to your friends that you’ll cover the upper left platform while they focus on bottom right?
Remember that heavy vest? When you get hit by a blaster shot, you’ll feel a jolting buzz. I hadn’t even realized you could get shot, and I let out an awkward shriek of surprise that made my squad mates laugh at me. There’s no real pain involved, but like many video game experiences, the fleeting tactile sensation helps immensely with the immersion. After taking a few hits, only then did I realize that hiding under cover was an option.
In several sections, you fly on a few mobile platforms above the pools of lava. The whoosh of air fabricated the feeling of the platforms moving in a great way that I almost lost my balance. You can even feel heat radiating from the lava. I almost wish the sensations were more extreme, but it could border on uncomfortable if taken to much more of an extreme.
Ultimately, the mission is fraught with even more danger when Darth Vader shows up and you learn about the cargo you’re investigating.
Full spoilers follow for the Secrets of the Empire, so stop reading here if you want the big reveal preserved.
The cargo, as it turns out, is something called a proto-saber that’s an ancient prototype for the more modern lightsaber. It has a crossguard that resembles a knightly broadsword more than Kylo Ren’s red lightsaber, which has a crossguard made of energy. And the white beam is only maintained by two prongs sticking out from the hilt. This design isn’t capable of creating a self-sustaining beam.
What value does an artifact like this have to Darth Vader? Is it possible that the Force ghost of Anakin Skywalker explained the real value of this to his son Luke Skywalker at one point years later? While it’s far more likely that Rise of Skywalker won’t address these events in any way, it would sure be exciting if it was all tied together for the close of the Skywalker Saga.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire will be available at the Westfield World Trade Center VOID pop-up until September 6.