As a life-long Batman fan who has appreciated the Caped Crusader from the moment I saw Michael Keaton bearing the cowl, the Arkham series of games has always had a special place in my heart. They brought a Batman experience that actually made you feel like you were the Dark Knight himself, whilst also managing to break the rule-of-thumb that Batman games are simply not meant to be good – I’m looking at you, ‘Batman: Vengeance’. With their action-packed gameplay, story that wasn’t afraid to take the characters into an even darker direction, and countless nods to the history of Batman, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are two of the finest Batman experiences you’ll encounter across all mediums.
Of course, they were released back in 2009 and 2011 respectively; many modern gamers might’ve missed out on these classics the first time around. Following on with the popular trend of remastering games though, gamers are now able to play through both titles in a new revamped form in Batman: Return To Arkham.
It feels almost meaningless going into too much detail about the Arkham games – if you haven’t played them, I’m sure you’d have heard of them. They’re two of the finest action-adventure experiences ever, bringing together a combination of enjoyable platforming, intricate puzzling, and a tight and responsive combat system that offers superb hand-to-hand combat. It’s actually the origin of the combat mechanics that we see across so many action games these days, so you’ll almost certainly feel at home as soon as you start pummelling foes.
Combat plays out across plenty of set pieces that offer multiple approaches, each taking advantage of Batman’s strengths. Do you go all-out and simply beat thugs down with brute force, or do you sneak above and below your foe and strike fear into them as you pick them off one by one? There’s so much depth to each combat scenario that it completely caters to all kinds of play styles, in turn offering an experience that never feels stale. Then there’s the boss encounters that are simply unbelievable, each one offering something completely different that fits in perfectly with the villain you’re up against. It won’t just be a case of beating your opponent down, but thinking of their weaknesses and exploiting them It’s something you’ll appreciate more as an actual Batman fan, but gamers themselves won’t be able to help but be impressed.
You’ve also got plenty of cool gadgets to play with both in and out of combat, whilst the ‘Detective Mode’ will see you carefully analysing and putting together crime scenes. Admittedly the ‘Detective Mode’ implementation isn’t up to much in Arkham Asylum, but sees greater use in Arkham City. It’s the case with a lot of facets of the gameplay though; sequels bring improvements and somehow Arkham City manages to improve upon the almost flawless experience that the original provides.
Arkham Asylum offers a more intimate approach to gameplay with its tighter environments and smaller locales, whilst Arkham City ups the scale by sending you into a far more open environment that sees you grappling and gliding across buildings. No matter which of the two games you’re playing, it’s always easy to appreciate how great the level design is – both aesthetically and from a gameplay perspective. So much detail has been given to everything around you, be it the environments themselves or the characters that inhabit them. Take The Penguin for example; he’s a traditional villain of whom all Batman fans will recognise, but has been given a special Arkham touch with his monocle that’s actually a glass bottle that has been jammed into his eye socket. It’s brutal, but an ingenious design choice that gives the game its own unique identity whilst still making it recognisable too.
Whilst I won’t go into too many story details for spoilers sake (you newcomers need to enjoy it with fresh eyes), both Arkham games have an amazing story with an incredibly well written script. No detail has been spared and there are even a plethora of items to discover that expand upon the story in more detail, providing extra story arcs that enhance the overall experience despite not really tying into the main plotline.
Whilst the experience as a whole is still great, there are a few issues that crop up in this remastered release. Most noticeable is the frame rate that sees minor drops throughout both games, but more predominantly in Arkham Asylum. From the very first battle I noticed something seemed unusual about the frame rate, which is actually pretty baffling because the game in its original format managed to stick to a consistent 30fps. Whilst it’s frustrating that the frame rate drops, it was actually more disappointing seeing that I expected the game to run at a consistent 60fps – it’s something the game should’ve aimed for regardless of the improvements made to the visuals, yet the game never went higher than 30fps. It won’t ruin your overall experience, but it is a shame.
The visual improvements bring better lighting, improved textures, and even prettier character models. A lot of effort has been made into making the world around you look great, though in fairness the games have always looked pretty good anyway. Still, the improvements are definitely appreciated, especially with the character’s faces that look even better than before – The Joker has never been more menacing.
The upgrade to the Unreal 4 engine brought a more vibrant look to the game, which is quite a change given the original’s dependence on darkness. It’s like going from Christoper Nolan’s trilogy of masterpieces to the neon lights of Batman Forever. Ok, so that comparison is a little extreme, but it’s certainly a much brighter game. Whilst some might see it is a bad thing, I actually quite liked it. There’s a surprising amount of colour in the world of Batman anyway, with the flamboyant look of villains and the city itself full of lights and vibrant colours. It seemed fitting in many ways, and besides, those who want a more brooding experience can always turn the brightness down on their TV…
Batman: Return To Arkham doesn’t just offer two of the best Batman games ever made, but two of the best action-adventure games ever too. I’m not saying that because I’m a Batman fanboy either; it’s simply the truth. Playing them on current gen consoles was great, whilst the visual improvements took two already fantastic looking games and made them look even better. Whilst the drop in frame rates do hinder the experience a little, it doesn’t make it worth missing out on.
Whilst I’ll admit the frame rate issues prevent Batman: Return To Arkham being the most definitive edition of the games you’ll play (the PC Master Race wins again!), it’s still a fantastic experience that deserves another playthrough. If you skipped them on last-gen platforms, now’s your chance to try out two ridiculously good titles.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: 21/10/2016
Format(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), Playstation 4