Welcome back to Why It’s the Best, ComicBook.com’s ongoing column explaining why a given TV show, Movie, Comic, Game, and more, is the best of its kind. In today's column, I am arguing definitively why the Batman: Arkham series is the best set of superhero games ever. In future columns, I will argue definitively why another is (in the past, I made arguments for various TV shows and films – find our full archive here). Think of this as debate class, and today, I’m pro-Batman: Arkham.
But that’s an easy task, since the Batman: Arkham series are the best superhero games ever.
What You’re Playing
The seminal series of Rocksteady Studios and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City, and the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight are a trilogy of video games that tell the story of Gotham City going to the criminally insane… literally. First the inmates are running the asylum. Then a portion of the city was given to these villains, cordoned off to try to keep them somehow contained. Now, after the Batman defeated his rogues – and especially the Joker – seemingly once and for all, the final chapter sees a new threat rise, one that operates with a similar modus operandi as the Bat himself – except for all the murder, the giant army, and all that…
What Makes the Arkham Series Unique
When broaching the idea of a series of video games designed to truly put you into the boots of a superhero, Rocksteady actually pulled it off: their campaign declares “Be The Bat,” and when you’re playing these games, you are. A reinvention of hand-to-hand combat was just the start, with gameplay devices meant to make you feel like Batman the detective, Batman the fighter, and through many of the boss fights, Batman the tactical genius. Short of tossing on a cape and cowl and growling like Christian Bale, this is the closest thing you can get to experiencing Batman’s, or any superhero’s day-to-day heroics.
Why It’s the Best
Well, aside from what we just said, let’s expand upon all that a bit. First, we look to the past. It’s not that every Batman game up until Arkham Asylum was awful, it’s just that, no wait, they were pretty much all awful, weren’t they? In fact, Batman as a video game franchise character may have seemed all but done when Batman Begins the game came out in 2005. It’s ironic that the property of the same name famously restored Batman to glory on the big screen, as the game was a mess with an overly linear story and earned an average of 63 on Metacritic (which, if I am remembering it well enough, was fairly generous). Then, in back to back years, we got LEGO Batman in 2008 and Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009, and the Bat was back.
While LEGO Batman has its own merits, and will likely be the subject of one of these columns itself someday, let’s keep the focus on Arkham. The last title that attempted to recreate Batman in any adult fashion was over four years prior, and people didn’t know what to expect. Rocksteady Studios was a fairly untested studio, with only one game, Urban Chaos: Riot Response to their credit. The end result was nothing short of shocking.
I still remember playing the first demo of the game. It started with walking down a hallway as Batman (as the game itself starts). That’s it. All you’re doing is walking, having a conversation. Already, from the way his cape flowed and the pall of uncertainty cast over the situation in Arkham as you’re escorting the Joker back in, you feel it. It was like reading the first few pages of a good issue of Detective Comics; there wasn’t anything extremely obvious about the setup, there wasn’t anything blatantly being said, but you just knew something was about to go down.
By the time you actually fight a group of thugs, you already know that you’re experiencing something special. Each aspect of the game, as it’s introduced to you, brings you another part of Batman. His supporting cast and the way they help, his unique fighting style that lets him take on 10, 20 people at once, his way of looking at a situation, using fear tactics and the element of surprise, and of course, his ability to overcome the odds and defeat enemies who by all rights should be able to swat him like a fly; it’s all there, and it was built up in a way that made you learn and believe each aspect individually.
After the stellar first showing, a second game came, a direct sequel that was meant to raise the stakes, and once again, it did! Rocksteady didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they did tweak every other aspect of the car. Controls were tighter, navigation was a bit easier, and there were more big, bad villains to test your skills. The second chapter tested Batman (and thus the player) in a more significant way. It also ended with a moment that would truly test Batman’s resolve. In his desire to save everyone, he had to understand that it just plain wasn’t possible. It’s a tough lesson, and when a game can make you actually feel what the character is feeling in this significant manner, it’s a moment to be cherished.
The third and final chapter is out next week, Batman: Arkham Knight. I’ve had the privilege of playing a little bit of the game, and from what I’ve seen so far, it will absolutely be the best of the bunch. With his age, his loss, and his newest challenge, Batman will be more tested than ever. Sitting and playing an hour of that game sucks you in – you feel empowered, and tense, you feel a release and a pressure; I imagine it’s a bit like what Batman feels when he dives off a building ready to engage some wrongdoers. The rush of adrenaline and endorphins come from multiple sources, but they’re all there to help you get the job done.
It’s telling that what many believe the worst thing to bear the Batman: Arkham name, the WB Montreal-developed prequel spin-off Arkham Origins, still maintains a very high quality with a couple of the series’ best moments. A younger, more brutal Batman gives us a deeper insight into his psyche and why he does what he does. An extended level playing as The Joker makes any glitches (and there were quite a few at shipping, sadly) worth suffering through. It’s a disturbing, deeply affecting moment, which most of the best times in these games have been. Anyone who has turned off the lights, pumped up the volume, and played a Scarecrow mission in the dead of night can attest to that, right?
Something must be said on the presentation side of things for the writing and voice acting in these games, as well. Bringing in veterans of Batman: The Animated Series, many people’s definitive Batman, like writer Paul Dini, and voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, was a stroke of genius and in hindsight seems downright necessary. It’s so much easier to get immersed into a universe when you’re already familiar with aspects of it, and hearing Conroy’s voice come out of the cowl took away an entire series of steps in believing this was the Batman you were dealing with. Performances from stellar talent throughout continued that trend, with voice acting stars like Tara Strong and Steve Blum lending their skills along the way to cement the cast as one for the ages. Performances from these professionals are often overlooked, but they really can’t be here. It’s a part of the experience that changes the way you feel about the characters, and an absolutely essential reason why these games are the best.
The Final Word
From Batman: Arkham Asylum, we learned what it was to view the world, and a seemingly insurmountable task, as the Batman. In Arkham City we saw that limits were meant to be pushed to the breaking point, and learned how different types of tragedy could affect us, plust the importance of relying on others. From Arkham Knight we’ll see what it is to face our inner demons come to life, and explore whether or not we truly know who we are and what we’re doing in our lives. Even Arkham Origins taught us what a singular passion looked like, and the dangers of such a thing consuming you. Games that teach you anything about yourself are a rarity. When they do that while also nailing what it is we’ve loved about a character who has evolved for 75 years through every known medium of artistic expression, and delivering an endlessly fun experience along the way, well, that’s when you get the best. And that’s why the Batman: Arkham series of games are the best superhero video games ever.
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