This review was originally created in August 2018 for HTC, targeted to their Vive/Vive Pro (VIVEPORT). It is reproduced here without alteration.
The Chinese name Zijin Cheng, first appeared in 1576. With a literal interpretation of “Purple Forbidden City,” it’s known by its common English names of “Forbidden Palace,” or, more precisely, “Forbidden City.” With a history dating back to 1406 when Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty started construction on an imperial palace in Beijing, it was finished 14 years later. The epic palace complex functioned as China’s political center for over 500 years until the Qing Dynasty’s ousting in 1911. In 1925, the Forbidden City was opened to the public, transformed into the Palace Museum to display traditional Chinese architecture, treasures, and other curiosities. Today, there are more than 16 million visitors a year to the Forbidden City, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.
Of course, not everyone is able to visit the Forbidden City in person. And even if you are able to make the journey to China, you may want to do a practice run of sorts for a tourist attraction that can take a day or more to explore all that it has to offer. Forbidden City VR offers both of those opportunities virtually.
Forbidden City VR is a room-scale experience that can be enjoyed seated or standing. You only need one Vive controller to move about through warping, selecting people or objects to gain additional information, and for accessing the menu. Besides allowing for adjustments of the volume of the background music and sound effects, and changing the text language between English and Simplified Chinese, the menu also contains quite a bit of extended historical and tourist information on the Forbidden City and the surrounding area in Beijing.
Visually, the presentation is middling. The architecture is well-rendered, but many of the textures are low resolution when viewed up close. The character models are not the highest quality you’ll see either, but they move well and have distinct faces, which help give the impression of individual personalities. Audio-wise, the background music suits the setting and is pleasing enough, while the sparse amounts of spoken Chinese dialog, either triggered by the user or overheard in passing, works well to add additional flavor to the proceedings.
This is not a guided experience. You’re on your own to explore most of the Forbidden City. I say most because not every area is accessible within the Forbidden City VR, but you do get access to many of the highlights, including the Imperial Garden, which features lovely trees and interesting sculptures, and provides a nice contrast to the relatively sterile courtyards and interiors of the rest of the experience.
As you walk around, you can interact with and observe the various ministers, concubines, public servants, guards, and more, as well as the emperor himself, in a kind of rudimentary living historical re-enactment. If you’re sufficiently motivated, between the various people, hotspots, and pop-up menu text, you can become fairly well immersed in the fascinating history of the Forbidden City and its surroundings. As with many other types of learning, when it comes to history, being there, even if it’s virtually, does provide some much-needed context.
Although Forbidden City VR lacks some of the locations the Forbidden City would offer if you visited in person, on the plus side there are no crowds to deal with, no obstructed views, and no time or weather constraints. And despite some quirks with how you warp about the environment, where you sort of float down until your viewpoint settles down into an approximate standing position, moving throughout the vast complex is quick and painless.
With a few additional locations, some extra polish, and a little more to do than just look around and observe, Forbidden City VR could be a real stand-out among virtual reality historical and tourist attraction apps. In its current state, however, there’s just not enough there that truly elevates its experience.
Score: 3 out of 5 stars.
Forbidden City VR is available on Viveport or with a Viveport Subscription.