The Arkham Games are regarded by many as some of the very best video games based on a popular license. When Arkham Asylum launched in 2009, most of us were shocked. An original Batman game with no association to concurrently released films, a focus on methodical stealth and fluid, empowering combat mechanics? Who’d have thought? Of course after the years of success the series has seen and a new console generation, a re-release was inevitable. Return To Arkham packages the original Arkham Asylum, and it’s sequel Arkham City together, leaving the ill-fated Arkham Origins trapped back on last gen.
I’ll discuss each game separately below. For either game, scroll down to the appropriate heading. Thoughts on Return To Arkham as a whole and its release in 2016 are presented under a heading towards the end of the review.
Batman, predictably, finds himself escorting The Joker to Arkham Asylum, a home for the criminally insane. During his visit, the prisoners revolt and execute an apparently elaborate plan to attain control of the asylum. Batman is left with an asylum full of past enemies plotting his downfall, police and security guards to rescue, and an establishment to secure. As poorly executed as aspects of the set-up are, the premise of Arkham Asylum is fantastic for a Batman video game.
What results is a distinctive third-person action game. Batman feels suitably rigid out of combat, but swiftly devastating during encounters. Leaping back and forth between enemies with each punch and countering incoming attacks is simple but satisfying. What it lacks in depth is mostly made up for in spectacle, and fights are imposed sparingly enough that they never quite feel monotonous.
The other significant gameplay component is stealth. Enemies search rooms as Batman swings from conveniently reoccurring gargoyles above. Dwindling the villains’ numbers by sneaking up from behind or gliding down from above is appropriately emboldening, and clearing a room of foes having never being seen is always satisfying. While some of these situations take a degree of problem solving, though, a lot of them don’t. As with combat, things never quite escalate to a point to the point of more than one complication at once, leaving me with no real memory of particular instances – they’re all largely the same.
Housing these mechanics is the explorable, lightly-Metroidvania map of Arkham Asylum. Areas open up as Batman gains access to more gadgets, meaning certain areas offer totally different paths to take depending on your progress while visiting them. Digging into corners of the asylum for Riddler Trophies or inmate interviews is fun to do, even if the rewards are, if anything, discouraging.
Where Arkham Asylum falls considerably short, is in its writing. The broad strokes of the narrative are totally fine – even good at points. A lot of the dialogue and the characterization of certain inmates, though, is irredeemably poor. The opening hour or two in particular feel unavoidably low-budget, feeling much more akin to a lesser tier game of the PS2 generation than a triple-A PS3 game. When the Joker manages to strangle an armed guard to death while another is too flustered to interrupt and Batman stands by, shocked, it’s hard to become invested in anything that’s going on.
Arkham Asylum was a great, entertaining game that did much to stand out from its contemporaries. In retrospect, though, it comes off as disappointingly unpolished and never quite achieves the potential it clearly displays. It’s easy to romanticise the structure and encapsulated nature of AA, but its low points stand out just as much.
Arkham City follows the story of Asylum, with then-warden Quincy Sharp now elected Mayor, opening Arkham City; a sanctioned off portion of Gotham to house criminals. Bruce Wayne is kidnapped and thrown into Arkham City to fend for himself. There’s room for plenty of baddies in this place; Two-Face, The Penguin, Mr Freeze, Catwoman. Much more is going on than in the Asylum, too, with a sickened Joker searching for a cure, The Riddler taking hostages and Hugo Strange in control of security. AC trumps AA’s scale in narrative, scope and structure, and nearly always in a positive way.
The major point-of-difference here is the open nature of AC. Grappling and gliding around the city feels great and reflects an aspect of Batman Arkham Asylum never delivered. Travelling to points of interest and encountering random thugs in the street does much to portray an ever-present, never-seen character. Much of the benefits of AA’s more confined environment are lost in this evolution, and travelling through certain sections of the city repeatedly began to wear at me. The emergent side quests and wider atmosphere provided by the open city, however, are more than enough to justify its shortcomings.
Combat and stealth are both improved here, digging deeper into AA’s solid foundation. Different enemy types require different techniques to best, turning combat into a complicated, deadly dance of conflict. Handling multiple types of enemies at once becomes an intricate balancing act, especially when facing dozens at a time. Baddies force you to play smart during stealth as well, countering abilities on which you might otherwise rely. Arkham City achieves much of the potential Asylum clearly had.
It’s nice too, that Catwoman, Robin and Nightwing are also playable characters. While Nightwing is only available for combat arena modes, Robin features in the Harley Quinn’s Revenge story DLC and Catwoman takes the leading role sporadically through the main campaign. Though things are largely similar regardless, the differing animations and sounds make each character feel noticeably distinct, especially Catwoman who has unique traversal mechanics with which to explore Arkham City.
As well as improving on Asylum’s strengths, AC alleviates some of my biggest problems with the previous game. With the exception of one particularly terrible moment, City is a well-written game, delivering an interesting, epic series of events. Characters are believable and story moments are presented with such a greater degree of quality and care than those of AA while piecing together a much more ambitious narrative. It’s fun to be a part of this story, and while it sets aside subtlety frivolously, characters and events feel grounded and believable within the context provided.
This remaster has been met with more scrutiny than most. If technical performance is a considerable selling point to you, Return To Arkham won’t have you sold. Asylum looks outdated in many regards, with plenty of gross character models and sloppy animations. City looks great, though not noticeably improved over its original release. The frame-rate never dropped low enough for me to notice a fault, but there are definite spikes in smoothness at points where less is happening on-screen.
As far as a package, it’s neither here nor there. The lack of Arkham Origins is a bummer for me and holds this back from any attempt at being ‘complete’, but all of Rocksteady’s Batman content from the previous generation is here and uncompromised – though not improved either. There’s no reason to play Return To Arkham beyond wanting to revisit two highly regarded games, and while that isn’t necessarily a shortcoming, it lacks the incentive many of its kin offer.
Batman: Return To Arkham is a functional re-release of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City – and that’s it. Much of Asylum is shockingly dated and below modern standards, but it isn’t without its strengths. City, on the other hand, holds up greatly and offers a fantastic Batman experience. If you’re after anything new, though, there’s no reason to look here.