Games: Rocksteady Studios & “The Batman” Arkham series

I’m Batman? With the release of yet another Batman movie (Named, creatively, The Batman) released, I decided that now would be a great time to jump back into Arkham and revisit one of my favourite game series of all time. Not only this but it has been rumoured recently that the game might soon see a release on the Nintendo Switch.

In 2009, Rocksteady Studios gave gamers not only one of the best games of the year but arguably the best superhero game ever. (Spiderman from Insomniac runs it close, but borrows too much to take the title of best ever itself). The game would be followed with two sequels and also a prequel and this will be the 3rd gaming system I’ve played them on.

Although there had been a few other good superhero games up until now, Rocksteady Studios raised the bar in terms of story, gameplay and production values and I’d say it’s fair to say that no one really saw it coming. With only one game under their belt in the extremely average Urban Chaos: Riot Response, the developers had no right to achieve what they did with the Batman Arkham Asylum.

As an action-adventure 3rd person game set in a mostly open world, but with Metroidvania elements, players make use of Batman’s fighting skills and gadgets to progress through the story and battle both goons and boss characters. There are environmental puzzles to solve while you progress that are interesting but never too challenging.

Most enemy areas can be completed using either stealth or all-out combat, and as much fun as it is to remain unseen and complete an area, it’s in direct combat the game really starts to sing.

Featuring a system called “Freeflow Combat”, it sees Batman build an XP bonus for as long as he can remain untouched and not static. At the same time as this, Batman also gets quicker and stronger the longer it goes on and higher combo levels let players use special attacks and takedowns to defeat an enemy immediately.

The story of the game was great and my only disappointment would be aimed at the ending of the game (for spoiler’s sake I won’t explain that here, but it’s a common complaint about the game).

I mentioned earlier that the production values for the game were really high considering Rocksteady Studios’ previous work, case in point, Mark Hamill’s take on the Joker. This is one of the best examples of voiceover work in a game ever… Normally I would say “in my opinion” or “it could be argued”, but here I’m taking a stand to say that he totally knocks it out of the park and should be lauded more for what he achieved.

The entire voice cast is great and there is also the great Kevin Conroy back as Batman which is never a bad thing.

The game scored 9s or 90s almost right across the board with reviewers which almost guaranteed a sequel, however, what came next would take everything Rocksteady Studios had learned and turn the volume to 11. Step up Arkham City.

Releasing in 2011, Arkham City took the relatively small island of Arkham and its prison from the original game and turned it into a large chunk of Gotham city sectioned off from the rest and used to house the criminals and crazies. This gave players a major increase in both elevation and scope while exploring the open world.

In the first game, there were collectable Riddler trophies that might have needed certain abilities or skills to unlock although it wasn’t something that grabbed me, some players loved the grind and puzzles behind unlocking the little green collectable questions marks. In Arkham City, the Riddler trophies became a mammoth task to collect, but stand as great examples of the puzzles on offer in the game.

Pretty much everything had more, more stories, more characters featured and quite a few more gadgets to progress through the game. It’s everything that a sequel should be, taking all of the best bits of an original and adding more and improving on its faults.

Arkham City made Asylum look almost like a demo for what the team wanted to make. Its review scores were even higher than the original and it’s very near the top in my personal best games of all-time list.

As well as better combat and story the game even had a Catwoman campaign, who had her own style of fighting and traversal. Likewise, both Nightwing and Robin would feature as well and expand the scope of the game, but they were only available in the games challenge maps and had their own bespoke style and weren’t just reskins as many other games of the time featured.

After the highs off City, the next game in the series Arkham Origins would take a bit of a knock in terms of both fan and critical reception. Although years later opinion on this seems to have changed, at the time of release fans weren’t happy that the development was handed off to WB GamesMontréal. 

As much as the game followed a very similar ideology as the first two, it failed to perform as well as the other games in the series. It’s hard to pinpoint why this is as the combat is still tight and enjoyable and the story is good too, outside of an obvious turn that would see the Joker return as the big bad.

It even took the series staple of “detective mode” and was able to expand it and improve on it. As it felt a lot more impressive and was used to recreate crime scenes and search for clues on what to do next. It might not have been for everyone, but on my recent revisit, I’d consider this a huge improvement on the first two games

Another massive improvement was the game’s boss battles which received high praise, with the battle against Deathstroke standing the test of time and being a joy to experience once again. However, some less notable characters from Batman’s history might not have received the same level of storytelling and execution.

Next up would be Rocksteady’s return to development with Arkham Knight and although there are issues, even more so if you were unlucky enough to buy the game on PC, the core game is still a fantastic experience.

As the series made the jump to next-generation consoles (PS4 and Xbox One), a massive jump in visual quality would come with it, this is a game that still looks fantastic even 7 years after release. Combat feels more brutal and even smoother than the near-perfection that had been experienced before.

Although I’ve enjoyed playing the game years later on PC with an uncapped framerate and higher resolution than on console, the PC release remains to this day a bit of a mess. At the time of release, it was so badly plagued with issues that it was removed from sale. Although a large number of the issues have now been addressed with patches, the game’s performance can vary massively depending on what’s happening on screen.

Alongside the performance issues, fans were also disappointed with both the batmobile section of the game and another easy to spot story reveal. I for one didn’t mind either of these issues that much, but the batmobile is overused at times. To sum it up:

Arkham Origins Deathstroke battle > Arkham Knight Deathstroke battle

In terms of the story of the game, although its surprise reveal was easy to predict, I still enjoyed it. It’s just disappointing that so much was made pre-release that this would be unpredictable, and that fans wouldn’t see it coming.

Overall, if you like 3rd person games or comics the Batman Arkham series is easy to recommend. The first two games are some of my most memorable experiences in gaming and I’ve no dought that I’ll play them again every few years.

“Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” I have, and I can’t wait for what Rocksteady can have in store for us next.

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