Recently, I got an itch to return to old games that I hadn’t played in a while, and among them a couple stood out in particular, looming over my mind like the shadow broad caped figure looming over a couple of thugs in a back alley. They were the first two Batman Arkham games – Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. After repurchasing the games as part of the Return to Arkham collection, I was amazed at how well they still hold up today. Now, I am not going to be talking about Arkham Knight because it just doesn’t hit those same notes, with a predictable story (which is just the Death In The Family storyline), and an iteration of the Batmobile that was too reliant on tank-style battles.
The first two Arkham games were great because they were focused. The seclusion of Arkham Asylum was really special, bringing us into a space that, outside of a couple of movies, we hadn’t really experienced. The video game version really showed its scale, and just how terrifying a place it can be. It makes you feel for the asylum guards, who are in a place where one of its inhabitants can control plants, and another has the DC equivalent of super-soldier serum running through its veins.
The combat system in the Arkham games remains among the best around. Chaining attacks together is as satisfying now as it was over 10 years ago, and few games have topped that unique highly stylised flow that Bats can get into when surrounded by goons. Rocksteady really nailed it, and understood how to make each encounter unique. Sure, you can run up on any unarmed henchman and make them one with the island, but you better adjust your approach when in a room where they have guns, and collars that alert others after they have been knocked unconscious.
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I will admit, that I am not usually that subtle in my approach to combat in games, but this is Batman we’re talking about: he is about the shadows and viewing conflicts as games of chess, and I love the buildup of standing high over a room, assessing the enemies, my angle of attack, then swooping down into the fray.
The boss fights are a marvel, from Scarecrow’s hide-and-seek-style areas to shocking Killer Croc in his lair, each boss fight feels unique, designed to really reflect the larger-than-life characters you face. Nothing in terms of combat feels monotonous or cut-and-paste. Each area is unique and offers something new. Fighting a Joker all jacked up on Titan formula at the end really shows that the Batman universe can be just as wild as anything Marvel can conceive, and why Batman’s rogue’s gallery is among the all-time bests. The execution of these villains in the first game makes seeing some of them in Arkham City even cooler.
Immediately booting up Arkham City after beating Arkham Asylum, I noticed the fine-tuning Rocksteady did in the sequel. Detective Mode still exists, but unlike Asylum you are not constantly viewing the game through it. The combat was a bit smoother and still great, offering new double takedowns. Plus, gliding around Arkham City feels just as good now as it did in 2011, it is just more polished looking due to improved graphics. It’s always nice to pick up a game after many years and feel like you never put it down for as long as you did (which never happens when you go back to old RPGs).
Replaying these games was like spending time with an old friend. There were some clues and some navigational issues on my part due to it being so long since I last played them, but sitting through the cutscenes again just made me appreciate all of the work that went into them. The controls are amazingly smooth by today’s standards, movements do not look aged or stiff, and overall they’re timeless. Sure, as graphics become more advanced older games look more dated, but somehow this series has managed to age gracefully on the visual front, largely thanks to its low-key great art direction.
The voice acting by Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, and others is fantastic. It’s like playing a three-dimensional and darker version of the animated series. No matter my age, my health, or wherever I am in life, I will always find time to take a trip back to Arkham, back to the timeless city of clowns, walking talking freezers, and those who deserve a fistful of vengeance.
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