At one point in time, there were some good superhero based video games. The beginning of the genre was a little rough, but there were several gems that followed in the 8 and 16-bit eras. It seemed to be when the games attempted to go 3D that these titles suffered their greatest failures. There were movie tie-ins like the disastrous Catwoman (2004 PS2/Xbox) game, attempts to promote other Justice League members such as Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis (2003 GameCube/Xbox), and the notoriously bad Superman 64 (1999 N64) that all fell in a dark time for comic based games. Not even DC’s poster boy for video games, The Dark Knight himself, was safe from several bombs.
When Batman: Arkham Asylum came out in 2009, it was seen as a title that rejuvenated the superhero genre for video games. Batman certainly had come a long way from his first appearance in the gaming world back in 1986; an isometric PC game, simply titled Batman, that was only released in Europe on the ZX Spectrum and several other platforms. The problem was that other than taking place in the Batcave and having the objective be to rescue Robin, there is little else in the game that relates to the comic. Some titles over the years certainly tried to bring the player into the comic book world of Gotham city, even with different versions, whether it was the movie, animated, or comic book adaptations, none of them seemed to capture enough of the Caped Crusader’s aspects until the Arkham series began. The Arkhamverse—as some are calling it—now sees its end, at least for now, with the release of Batman: Arkham Knight. So, this seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the previous three games and analyze why they seem to be the penultimate Batman experience when it comes to being the famed hero, and how the developers brought it all to life.
The problem with trying to approach a subject like this is that not everyone shares the same vision of what epitomizes Batman. Creating a comic-to-game adaptation is hard because there have been so many different versions of Batman. The Caped Crusader has had multiple origin stories, variations on those in the multi-verse, and a number of things retconned. This is a character that has had a long career, and gone from urban myth to city saint and legend. He has been a cowboy, pirate, and a vampire just to name a few. Most people do not know that he can use magic, once wore Green Lantern’s ring, and I still get odd looks when I try to discuss that whole Zur En Arrh story. There are a lot of different depictions, even in the prime universe fans have gone through different eras of the Bat, giving them a plethora of material to pull from.
Developer Rocksteady worked hard to create a world that felt like it really belonged to Batman. No matter how true they might have been to the character itself, if the environment of something as iconic as Gotham or the Asylum didn’t work, then the whole thing would have failed. The creators took the feel of these locations from the comic and made them three dimensional and able to be explored and interacted with in some of the most detailed versions fans had ever seen. They found a combat system that worked well and made it fit the theme. The management brought on the talented Paul Dini (who has too many awesome achievements to list here) to handle the story for the first two games since he worked on Batman: The Animated Series, and even managed to get many of the voice actors from the show. Hearing Kevin Conroy, Arleen Sorkin, and Mark Hamill’s voices reading Dini’s dialogue immediately established a connection to preexisting notions of Batman. This brought many fans into the fold early on with the familiar territory, even though it was all under Rocksteady’s fresh coat of paint. The developers showed that they wanted to fit in with the fans, were even fans themselves, but were going to make the games their own.
Getting the character to feel relevant is easy. Batman himself is a mortal man with a tragic past. It is a concept that is easy to relate to, even though my bank account looks nothing like his. The game does a good job of exploring his grief and motivations, as well as what he believes needs to be done and are acceptable means to an end. The player is allowed to visit Crime Alley during play, not just in a cutscene, and pay their respects to his dead parents. Batman does not kill, and this comes across in the game well without feeling forced upon the player, or like it limits their options. These are all grounded concepts that are easy to follow, and may even hit closer to home for some. The last element is to show that the police are powerless and that our hero (the player) is the only one capable of saving the day.
The interactions Batman has feel genuine and natural for the most part. He interacts with his allies like Commissioner Gordon, Oracle, and I love what they did with Catwoman in Arkham City. The new game looks to include exchanges with Nightwing and Robin, which will hopefully come across with feelings of competitiveness and a small bit of contempt. The fights with villains go from mediocre to great—like Freeze in AC or Scarecrow in AA—but I love the simple connections that make his rogues gallery feel so alive. How familiar he is with Two-Face, seeing Clayface masquerading in his cell or being able to go have a chat with Calendar Man near the holidays, this all added layers to the smaller characters. It also perfectly represents a world of people that Batman won’t always be using just his fists against. Arkham Origins took accessibility to Batman’s world a step further by allowing the player to go to the Batcave whenever they liked to train, look around at the memorabilia, or just hear Alfred repeat himself a lot.
Outside of his world though there are three basic things that seem to represent Batman in his games. He is known for the Batmobile—which we will get to experience to a greater extent in the upcoming game—and his assortment of gadgets, having a tool for even the trickiest of situations. Each of the games handles these items quite well as the player receives new toys to help them through difficult situations, though they do come a lot faster in Arkham Origins. These are versatile devices that still require some creativity on the player’s part. There is something awesome about that “ah-ha!” moment though, feeling like the great detective when a new tool just needs to be used in a slightly different way to get past an obstacle.
Controlling the world’s greatest detective, the player enters detective mode which highlights important objects and entrances, and helps uncover secrets. Unfortunately, this limited mode comes across as a burden with how much the game relies on it. Many players activate it simply to keep tabs on the bad guys and seeing which ones have guns. Arkham Origins attempted to expand on this more with the crime scene investigation portions. Even though this explores an early version of Batman still learning the required skills like in the comics of Batman: Earth One, I felt it was a bit tacked on. This is where the series is weakest at living up to the character’s legend.
The final part is the combat. Batman is not just a master martial artist who can go toe-to-toe with Bane or large groups of trained soldiers. He is a stealthy ninja and skilled at using his gadgets and the environment to his advantage. This requires a good combat system that would flow like he fights, and make players feel in control of the skirmish as long as their skills are up to the test. Large rooms full of enemies can be taken out by sticking to the shadows and using stealthy takedowns, or jumping in head first. Depending on who is writing, Batman does a lot of both. While the player’s skills determine how much of a badass Batman appears, lapses happen and Batman can get overrun or caught by surprise sometimes. I always feel bad when I let him die, because it rarely meets how he is represented in the comics.
A discussion I have found myself in a lot recently: which of the Arkham games is best? I will admit that I thought most people sided with me on this; that the answer seemed obvious, but the more I speak to people about it, the more I realize each game has something different that appeals to that specific person. The games are a bit different. Where the first two were made by Rocksteady, it was WB Games Montreal that tackled Arkham Origins. This is similar to when different writers take over the character in the comics, after a long stint from someone the audience became accustomed to reading. I will always have a bad taste in my mouth from WB Games Montreal’s contribution due to the large amount of glitches and what seemed like a lack of desire to fix them. Just because it is the weakest in the series does not mean it was bad. The Arkhamverse has not had nearly as much material as the comics of course, but with everything new that is brought into their vision it comes with a hint from the pages of DC’s best books—just add that Arkham twist.
Batman: Arkham Knight is not the first Batman game to have a trailer that pulls on the strings of long term superhero fans saying, “be the Batman,” but as long as Rocksteady has kept the formula tight, this might be the best so far. There is a lot to look forward to, and that Nine Inch Nails music in the background got me hyped to hit the streets of Gotham again. The city needs saving. I’m here! That is a better indicator of what these games mean to the character, keeping the core in place while allowing for versatility. It encourages players to be THEIR version of The Dark Knight, and that is the one that matters. Neal Adams wrote a comic called Batman: Odyssey in 2010 that I was not a fan of. I loved the man’s work, but this version of the vigilante was taken from aspects I felt were nothing like ‘my’ Batman. That is okay though. This is a character rich enough that we as fans can have arguments over the many styles of Batman. While discussing what he would or would not do, most of us would still be right. The Arkham games have collected so many different aspects and melded them all together into a product that will attract almost any fan of the character with something enticing. They made their own unique Batman world, and it looks like one we will be remembering for quite some time.