MY PARENTS ARE DEEEEEAD!

Well, after over one hundred hours of playtime, I’ve made my way through the Arkham series of Batman games. So here’s some thoughts about them. (If you want to read about my experience with Telltale’s foray into Gotham, go here.)

Undoubtedly, there’ll be spoilers aplenty, so if you haven’t played – and really, you should – proceed with caution.

First, though:

(Longer version. Originally from PVP.)

Batman is a character I’ve always liked, even though I’ve never known all that much about him. I’m not a regular reader of the comics, and am not a superfan like some, but I liked the dude well enough. I’d grown up watching the ’60s TV show (PURE WEST) and the Burton films, and one of my first physical graphic novel purchases was a collected edition that gathered both Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, which ensured I was primed for the grittiness that Christopher Nolan would mine in his adaptations. In my mind, there’s equal parts camp and grit.

What I like about him is that he’s not been born with powers (unless you count the power of RIDICULOUS WEALTH) and is damaged. At least, when I was younger, that was what I dug: as I grow older I still think he’s kind of cool, while realising that a) Frank Miller is a massive cock and b) Batman’s a rich guy who pounds fuck out of petty crims instead of going to therapy like a regular person.

This last remains, niggling as I try to consume Batman properties As An Adult, because let’s face it, it’s hard to whack a “oh, but he doesn’t kill!” caveat over watching an armoured beefcake headslam some junkie pickpocket into the ground – or, in the final game, “safely” run over them in his armoured hellmachine.

So, I approached these games with that in mind, and found that while it surfaced occasionally, it was happily suspended for the most part. I was sucked in from the get-go – unsurprising given the number of awards the series has gathered – and away I went.

I’d always meant to get around to playing this series, and I’m glad I’ve finally done it, as it’s pretty much everything I’d hoped. I played the games in (more or less) order: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City, Batman: Arkham Origins and finally Batman: Arkham Knight. I finished the main story in each, though I completed all optional sidemissions in the last game, so as to reach the “full” ending. All up, there was about 170-ish hours dumped across the four games, and I was surprised to note that none of it really felt like grinding, until the last game.

A tech note: I played on a PC I built a couple of years ago, with a graphic card updated late last year. The games looked wonderful though there were some weird glitches and the occasional crash – though I ascribe these to PC gaming’s inability to play nicely with OSes beyond those they were made for, rather than the games themselves.

CANNONBAAAAAAAAAAAAALL!

(TLDR: Arkham Asylum is great, Arkham City is less so, Arkham Origins is much better than I’d heard and Arkham Knight, while flawed, is a bloody good game.)

The game series, developed by Rocksteady (except Origins, which was WB Montreal’s gig) ran between 2009 and 2015. Other than Telltale’s Walking Dead games, I think the series is probably the adaptation of a property that gets its tone mostly right. It does this by making the relationship between Batman and the Joker the focal point of the first and final game. He’s there in the others – Origins shows us how the two met, for example – but the pull between the two protagonists is the fuel that fired my interest. It’s the classic each-needs-the-other story of Batman, at least according to a non-diehard like me, and it’s an easy way in.

What the series manages is to balance grim shit with silliness. The darkness that we’ve come to associate with the Caped Crusader is in full effect here – Paul Dini wrote the story, and there’s a muscular Nolan sensibility coupled with Anton Furst’s gothic extremity from the Burton flicks. (Well, Jim Lee, really.) But it’s also given some much-needed light by roping in some of the talent and spark from the DC Animated Universe take on the detective’s life.

(Seriously, without Mark Hamill, I don’t know that I’d have continued playing this thing. He is amazing, and this is in a series that ends up with most voice actors in the business turning up for some vocal gurning. He sells the Joker so completely that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Kevin Conroy’s Batman is good, too, but Hamill is the scene-stealer.)

Graphically, there’s a certain realism to the game, but it avoids the uncanny valley by adding a sort of painterly feel to the presentation of the characters and the surrounds. There’s not a sense of caricature, of cartoonishness, but something in between. It fits with the world we’re in: it’s gritty and shit, and yet there’s something about it, a patina that helps suspend disbelief. That’s helpful, given that we’re dealing with an armoured billionaire fighting super-steroid giants in a world where a psychologist with a sack on his head can hold a city to ransom.

The first game opens with a bang: you’re escorting a restrained Joker into the bowels of Arkham Asylum when he escapes and all hell breaks loose.

Rocksteady cleverly restricted this game to one place: you’re cut off from most of Gotham and the inmates are running the asylum. This allows the game’s key mechanics – gadgets, including a grapnel gun, that cape and an augmented reality detective vision, and a punch/evade fighting mechanic that’s been successfully copied in other game series – to shine. You spend the duration of the game playing in the third person, watching a beefy, rain-specked Batman, and it’s remarkable how, from the offset, everything feels right.

Gadget noises. The swoop as you leap off a roof. The ability to beat down gangs of villains with acrobatic precision. The sense of satisfaction from knowing that Bruce is Batman when most others don’t. It all just works. The combination of stealth and face-smashing action is finely tuned.

The story ropes in Poison Ivy, Bane and other criminals – notably Eddie Nigma (The Riddler) who insists on putting trophies everywhere for you to find if you’re slightly OCD about those things (I am) – but the focus is the Joker, and ending his games. There’s infections and set-ups for future games aplenty, but really, the story is secondary to the experience of being the man in the cowl. It’s a hell of a start, and I was all in on the series pretty much straight away.

The follow-up, Arkham City, took the Arkham Asylum formula and applied it to a city. Well, not a whole city – Arkham City, a jail located inside the slums of Gotham.

I don’t know why, but I couldn’t click with this game too well. It was more of what I loved, but it seemed to have been sprinkled with collectible dandruff: there were more side-missions, more puzzles… more! The art style was ramped up a little – I note it became a little more reined-in in following instalments – and something about it put me off. There’s the ability to play as Catwoman, which seems underpowered when you’ve played as Batman,

But I did like the story – Bruce Wayne is banged up inside (for the crime of reasons) and evil neckbeard Hugo Strange reveals he’s going to enact Protocol 10 and that he knows Bruce’s penchant for pointy-eared moonlighting. Then there’s some doppelgängers, some AIDS-like brinksmanship (Protocol 10 is a plan to release Joker’s blood, tainted from the adulterant Titan in the previous game – something Bats is injected with at some point) and ultimately, the death of Joker.

Second verse, same as the first. Except one of the singers is dead now.

The third game is usually disregarded – it wasn’t included in the engine upgrade the first two games received last year – but I found it to be supremely enjoyable. A different developer’s at the helm, but it’s business as usual… well, except for gliding being interrupted by architecture, including that bastard bridge.

Set five years before the first game, the story is simple: a crim called Black Mask has put a contract out on Batman. So, one night, a cubic fuckton of Bad Dudes (well, eight) rock up and attempt to put an end to our man. Needless to say, they don’t succeed: between extra equipment (electric gloves!) and an enhanced emphasis on breaking down crime scenes and reconstructing its events, Bats lives to fight another day.

If Origins has a failing, it’s that it feels kind of like DLC. It’s an in-between game – not as expansive as the first two (though I did spend a good ten hours more playing it than I did Arkham City) – though it is a lot bigger that some of the series’ disappointing add-on content. The voice leads are different for this one, and it does feel a little rudderless. But for all that, it’s a pretty good attempt at telling a different story to the first two games – here’s we’re dealing with a Batman who’s treated with suspicion by the police, and by people who would later become his friends.

What makes the game a good one is the way Joker is introduced. We all know it’s coming, but the game metes out information slowly, using misdirection where necessary. The unhinged nature of the character’s actions is a counterpoint to the seemingly straight motivation – shoot bat, get money – of the game’s other mercenaries. It’s a lesser instalment, true, but I really liked it.

The final entry in the series was the darkest, and also had the most troubled birth. Arkham Knight was a technical shitfight when it launched, to the extent that the PC version was pulled from sale until it could be made presentable. It’s mostly fixed now – there’s still occasional glitches and animation weirdness – but damn, the thing looks good.

Occurring after the events of Arkham City, this is the most grim game in the series. It opens with an incinerated Joker, and with Jim Gordon intoning that this is how the Batman died. It doesn’t really do upbeat, this one. And it delivers on that lines, if you complete everything the game has to offer.

The story is simple: Scarecrow, the terror-toxin-totin’ shrink with a bag on his head has teamed up with the Arkham Knight, (an armoured military guy who’s weirdly reminiscent of Batman) and a raft of other baddies (Riddler, Penguin, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, amongst others) to a) fuck up Gotham and b) fuck up Batman.

They don’t succeed, but Batman certainly does his best to tackle b).

Gameplay remains the same as the others, just more polished. There’s the addition of the Batmobile as something you can drive yourself, and while that means the inevitable inclusion of time trials – bullshit when gliding across the city is still invariably faster than driving somewhere – I didn’t find the experience as heinous as others did. The city is enormous and well presented – I spent a lot of time just zooming overhead, checking it out. There’s sections where you have to play as Catwoman (who’s trying to escape a deadly collar placed on her by the Riddler) which seem to work better than previous versions. Fighting remains flowing, with twin-character takedowns Now A Thing .

It took a while before I realised that Arkham Knight‘s co-op sections were less about challenge and more about deepening the story. At varying points you have to team up with Nightwing, Catwoman and Robin, and use each to solve puzzles or overcome adversaries. The battling and the puzzling isn’t that difficult, but each gives a chance to show how much these people mean to Batman – and how keeping them out of risk is important. The titular baddie, after all, is a reminder – though we don’t know it at the beginning – of how Batman has failed, before. The guy, despite all his brooding pretensions, can’t do it alone.

And he’s not alone. Because – in something that was under embargo from reviews when the game came out – Joker’s there too. As in, right there. In his head. The Clown Prince of Crime is along for the ride because the Titan-and-Joker-blood cocktail of Arkham City is reaching its final stages, and Bats’ personality is starting to be taken over by the greasepaint gangster. This is why Batman can use car torture to get information. This is why he’s OK with running over people in the pursuit of the bad guys. Because throughout the game, there’s a voice on his shoulder. Wherever you go through night skies, you’ll see the purple-suited buffoon, offering counsel and laughing at you.

It’s something that gives a real sense of urgency: can you finish all of this before Batman becomes his opposite number? What’s more important: liberating the city or liberating your friends?  You’ve got to do both, and you’ve got to do it before you crack. Rocksteady’s addition of Joker as an internal voice is gleeful and brutal and feels so very, very right.

JESUS MAN CAN’T I HAVE A MINUTE ALONE?

(There’s an excellent re-review of the game over at Kotaku that’s worth a read, as it touches a bit more on some of the stuff in the story. This article also covers the ending ending I keep mentioning.)

The ballsiest part of the game, though, is where the writers do something the comic hasn’t: publicly reveal Batman’s identity. And it’s all done so that Wayne can save Jim Gordon and Robin from Scarecrow’s machinations. He gives up his long-cultivated mystery for his friends. It’s an example of how trusted the devs must have been in order to have such an idea green-lit. Even more impressive is the extended set-piece after this revelation that sees Bats and Joker face-off as a result of Scarecrow’s fear toxin: it’s weird cinema, and ultimately plays on the fear of the Joker – the fear of being left behind, of being ignored, of not being needed by Batman.

The game ends when you complete all the story missions, which is fine enough, but there’s an ending beyond that. I have reached the point where – with a few exceptions – I don’t drive myself to complete all optional game events the way I used to. I didn’t, for example, complete all the Riddler quests in the other games in the series. But I did here, because I knew without doing so, I wouldn’t see the complete ending of the game – the ending in which Rocksteady and Bruce Wayne put an end to Batman as we know him.

It’s shocking and great, and seems a fitting way to tie up the series.

And now, for the titular concern of this post. Whenever you die in the series, you’ll be treated to a gloating villain chiding you as you expire. Naturally, Joker has the best zinger. It’s fitting, because without the dead parents, Bruce wouldn’t be Bats. The series is pretty respectful of the origin and doesn’t belittle the death of the parents, except in smack-talking from criminals. Batman himself experiences some flashback/hallucination scenes touching on their murder, and Crime Alley, the location of their deaths, features in a few of the games (albeit in a terrible press X to pay respects thing), But seriously, the crims get the best lines about Thomas and Martha’s demise, including this one, after Arkham Knight‘s reveal of Batman’s true identity.

“How many billionaires does it take to make a superhero?”
“I dunno, how many?”
“Three. Two to die, and one to never get over it”

Heh.

(The dialogue between criminals that you pick up as you soar above the streets is a delight. You’ll hear discussions of hashtags, queries on how best to spend your thug bonus money, and explanations of how one guy’s husband thinks he’s off on a legitimate job rather than earning money as a head-kicking beefcake. I specifically didn’t give some guy spinal damage because of the way he enthused about being able to go steal some costumes.)

I’m not going to lie, I’m a convert to these games. I was predisposed towards liking them, but I’m impressed at how much they sucked me in. Playing with the same characters in sandboxes created by (largely) the same developer means that I was able to feel a sense of familiarity, and to see the refinements made over the series’ run. Yes, there’s some missteps, but in terms of feeling like the goddamn Batman, this thing is pretty much unbeatable. It’s dark and funny, and you fight iconic baddies in a very teenaged way, and the combat just works. You feel like you’re an investigator and an arse-kicker, and all the while there’s a sense that the series is aware of exactly how silly it is. It’s a rare thing for one game, let enough to be something upheld over a series of this length.

But setpieces and tech and graphical wizardry aside, and I can’t accurately convey how much fun it is to glide over the top of a town of shitbags, listening to criminals down below conspire and grouse when they think nobody’s listening.

You should try it some time.

Oh, and one last time.

Never gets old.

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