Batman: Arkham Asylum was widely critically acclaimed at its release. Not just for being a great game, mind you. Arkham Asylum marked the first time that fans of Batman got the game they had been waiting for. When Batman: Arkham City released, developer Rocksteady had cemented themselves as top tier developers. By taking everything that was good about Asylum, and adding tons of features, Arkham City turned out better than its predecessor. With the release of the new Batman: Return to Arkham, I took a trip down memory lane and replayed these classics. How do they stand up today? Is it worth it to don the Dark Knight’s cape once again? I’ll answer all that in this review.
First up is narrative, and we’ll start with Asylum. In Asylum, the game focuses around the titular prison, Arkham Asylum. Quickly after his delivery to the prison, the Joker causes mass chaos and takes it over. Batman’s job is the same as always; rid Gotham of villainous scum. The story being told here isn’t grandiose in scale, but it’s highly focuses and riddled with fan service. This dark tale has cameos of several popular Batman villains, such as Poison Ivy, Bane, and more. In particular, Scarecrow has some incredibly inventive sections due to his “fear gas”. I won’t spoil anything here, but these fear gas sections are the best parts of the game hands down. The narrative structure reminds me of Bioshock in a way. You explore the prison with a little bit of backtracking, ultimately handling the issues that arise in various locations. Since Arkham Asylum is actually an island, and not a singular building, there’s plenty of room for each villain to get time in the spotlight. The end of the main story is pretty anti-climactic, but that’s my only true gripe with it. Overall, Asylum is a much more focused and linear experience than Arkham City.
In Arkham City, the amount of cameos and appearances from Batman lore is amped way up. This is mainly due to the open world location, as opposed to the smaller Arkham Asylum. In City, Batman has been confined to “Arkham City”, a sort of quarantine zone of Gotham City for notorious criminals. While the Joker makes some appearances, the main villain behind City is Doctor Hugo Strange. However, he takes a back seat in the narrative. Think of Hugo Strange like the puppet master of Arkham City, with all the classic Batman villains being his puppets. Since the game is open world, most villains have separate quest lines associated with them. Whether you’re tracking an insanely precise sniper, or falling into Wonderland with the Mad Hatter, each narrative is well thought out and expertly crafted. Out of the two games, Arkham City has the stronger narrative. The ability to zip around large open spaces goes a long way towards feeling like Batman. In both games, Batman is portrayed with perfection. He’s a rough and violent vigilante, who also happens to be the world’s best detective. If anything remains true about the first two Arkham games after all this time, it’s that the narratives are still great to experience.
Gameplay wise, each game is widely different, but similar at the same time. The series’ biggest component, combat, plays flawlessly in both games. In fact, the combat system is so good, that many modern games have copied it. The recent Mad Max game is the first that comes to mind, but there’s many more. It’s a simple combo system that involves attacking enemies quickly and with focus. Batman is super mobile, so there’s a certain sort of grace to the combat. The animations are fluid, and the actual attacks have weight. Intuitive markers show when enemies are going to attack, so you’re always able to counter when necessary. Generally speaking, you won’t die in either game because of shoddy mechanics. If anything, the combat is the most flawless aspect of the entire franchise, not just the first two games.
Batman has tons of gadgets as well, and these get plenty of showtime too. Exploding gel, batarangs, batclaws, and tons of other weapons make for a wide variety of attacks. This is incredibly helpful during stealth sections. For players that are utter trash at stealth (I’m one of them), the game does a good job teaching you how to be sneaky. Everything feels fun to play and easy to learn. There’s also a great feeling that comes with completely wiping out a group of baddies without taking a single hit. It’s in these moments you truly feel like you’re wearing the cape yourself. Performing well in combat also gives you experience points, and once you have acquired enough, you can unlock a new gadget or upgrade. It’s a simple but rewarding process that eases you into the more complex mechanics of combat.
Besides the main story arch, there’s plenty to do in both games. Arkham City has a huge amount of side content, including collectibles, side quests, and hidden easter eggs. Arkham Asylum’s linear nature limits extras to mainly collectibles, but these are also a treat. Collectibles in the Arkham series are allocated to the Riddler. For those unfamiliar, The Riddler is a popular villain who bases all of his sick tricks around riddles. Beyond simply pick ups, there’s environmental puzzles to figure out. These are especially fun, requiring you to read a riddle and find the answer within the environment. For example, an early riddle tasks you with finding “a quick game of Cat and mouse”. Taking a picture of Catwoman’s claws and mask in a display case solves the riddle. While some of these can be annoying and frustrating, the majority are clever and just difficult enough to be satisfying when completed. It’s also a great extension of “detective mode”; a visual filter that Batman can activate to identify enemies, traps, escape routes, and more. It’s a mechanic that isn’t truly fleshed out until Arkham City, but the inclusion of Batman’s detective lore is a definite positive.
Here’s where things take a turn for the worse: visuals and presentation. Batman: Return to Arkham falls into the category of “remasters that are basically just ports”, and this really irks me. Arkham Asylum released in 2009, and seven years later, looks worse for wear. There seems to be some visual touch ups here and there, but they are awkwardly done and actually make the games look worse. Both games were great looking at their time, and still look good today. However, the games are noticeably brighter in the remastered version. This literal brightness shows the muddy textures and sharp edges that the original versions’ dark nature covered up. However, this a minor gripe in comparison to the way these games perform. Both games are locked at 30 FPS (frames per second), and still have noticeable frame drops. For a seven and five year old game on a console with double the power of the originals, this is hugely disappointing. The locked 30 FPS isn’t a huge deal, but when the game hiccups and chunks out during a fight, it begs the question of optimization. I’m no master on the technical side of game development, but as a general consumer, I’m unhappy. No game that is toted as a “remaster” or a “return to” a series should run worse than it’s original. My biggest problem with this entire package is that glaring issue. I want to re-live the Arkham experience, not question why it plays worse than it did seven years ago. It’s completely inexcusable for a modern re-release.
Overall, Batman: Return to Arkham is a mixed bag. For people who have never played the games, it’s a decently priced package that will be a great time. For series veterans however, there’s just no reason to return. Sure, the games have all the DLC included in them, but there’s nothing else beyond that. Combined with the fact that the games run worse than they did originally, there’s nothing new here for franchise vets. For newcomers, it’s a great deal. At $20 USD for each title, I can’t really complain all that much. However, for fans looking for a reason to experience Arkham again, it’s just a repeat. The lack of visual flare or improved performance has left me with an odd impression. You have two great games that deserve a better upgrade. Instead, I’m left with what feels like a cash-grab. I’m disappointed for sure, but at least the games are still inherently enjoyable. If you’re new to the series and you’re interested, I recommend picking it up on a sale price. For those who’ve already played the Batman Arkham games before, you can pass on this one.