Anyone else remember playing the original Batman Arkham series on last-gen consoles? Remember its awful, blocky 8-bit graphics? And didn’t you have to squint to work out that purple and green blob was supposed to be The Joker? What a mess of a game.
At least, we assume that’s what it must’ve been like – what other reason could there be for remastering one of the best gaming experiences out there? We’ll be upfront here, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were both 10/10 games. We struggle, even now, having just replayed them, deciding on which is better (Definitely Asylum… No, wait, City… Hang on, it’s… Well, it ain’t Arkham Knight, that much we’re sure of).
But we’re not reviewing the games as they were; we’re looking at the remastered Return to Arkham games here, and that is a whole other ball-game. We were looking forward to checking out how Arkham had changed since the 2009 release, and finally getting the chance to disprove the wildly impossible theory that Batman is really playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne – and in both cases, we were massively let down.
These were the first games we played where we actually felt like we were a superhero – although we demand a special shout out for Ocean’s Batman, based on the 1989 movie. The first time we played, simply walking alongside the Arkham guards as they transported Joker into the madhouse, with our Bat-cape Bat-fluttering in the Bat-breeze, it felt real, and we had the same feeling seven years on. Likewise, seeing the beautifully gothic Arkham City sprawled before us had our hearts pounding through our rib-cages, and its emphasis on gliding from building to building feels just as liberating second time around. Throw in all those ‘wonderful toys’ the Bats has tucked inside his utility belt and you’re ready to RPG the hell out of the superhero genre.
The games are essentially what you get when Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy makes dark and brooding love to the magisterial Batman: The Animated Series, right down to being written by the series’ writer Paul Dini, and the inclusion of the cartoon’s voice cast – with a special shout-out to Mark Hamill’s Joker, who steals every scene he’s in. It’s a comic book romp in a world that looks and feels very dangerous. The settings, particularly Arkham Asylum, are festering hell-holes that are literally crumbling with decay before your very own eyes. One of the finest aspects of both games is the way it educates even non-Bat-fans – we’re not going to lie, we haven’t read every Batman comic (although we’ve seen pretty much all the cartoons), but the way in which you unlock character cards detailing who they are and when they first appeared in the Batman universe, made us feel like Bat-experts.
Both games take a different approach to gameplay – Asylum is focused on a fairly linear narrative, while City is Rocksteady’s take on a more open-world sandbox; one is tight and the other loose, and in the main, both work just as well as the other, with the strengths of one being the weaknesses of the other. In short, then, the two games together are a well-rounded complement to each other.
Ask anyone what they love most about the Arkham games and combat will always come out tops. Sure, everything feels smooth, but the fast, frantic free-flowing combat is the true highlight. Push the stick in the direction of your opponent, hit X (or Y to counter) and that’s about it, until you unlock new combat moves. On paper, it sounds like shameless button-bashing at its worse. In game, it’s one of the most beautiful moments you’ll every experience, perfectly balancing the feeling of being all-powerful – ’cause you’re Batman, son – while still requiring serious skill to get the highest combo possible. True, the boss fights can get repetitive, and the less said about Arkham‘s finale the better, but overall, it’s a solid system that works perfectly.
It’s not all about crushing the skulls of unsympathetic goons, mind. There are plenty of locked rooms which can only be escaped once you’ve downed a set number of henchman using stealth – in another masterstroke, as their numbers diminish, your opponents will begin lose their marbles, and react unpredictably as terror takes hold (Pro-tip: Unlock ‘Inverted Takedown’ as soon as you can, because nothing beats the satisfaction of lying in wait for one of your enemies to pass below you, so you can swoop in from above and disable them). Elsewhere, there are Riddler challenges and collectibles to find, and slower-paced moments where you use detective vision to stealth to hunt clues and solve crimes. You are, after all, taking on the Bat-mantle of World’s Greatest Detective (After Sherlock Holmes, of course). One of the biggest complaints, when originally released, was that gamers spent much of their time reliant on the X-ray-like Detective Mode, missing out on some of the great scenery the developers had crafted, so this was tweaked slightly in Arkham City, making the experience that much more immersive.
Where it all falls down is the remastering. We have a slight issue with remastered games in general – either they’re soulless cash-grabs, like Sleeping Dogs, or they’re lovingly restored like the now ancient Skyrim. And for all the brilliance of the game itself, this falls firmly in the former camp. Yes, it’s great that gamers who never had the chance to play it first time around can now experience what it’s like to become the Caped Crusader, but after the hype surrounding the originals, new players are going to wonder what the big deal is, because, frankly, it looks…not that much different. It doesn’t have the sheen of current-gen games, the animation – particularly the faces, and notably the waxy eyes of any character not wearing a Bat-cowl – has a very ‘last-gen’ appearance. And don’t even get us started on the atrocious lip syncing, which was just about acceptable when Arkham Asylum first released, but is unforgiveable here. Isn’t that the sort of schtick a remaster should address?
It’s a testament to the generally awesome job Rocksteady did back in 2009, but entirely defeats the purpose of the games remastering here. We’re not graphic-whores – we don’t need every game to sparkle with triple-A brilliance, but the shoddy job here left us wondering why the games even got this treatment. It’s darker, and there are, minimally, more details, but it’s all an exercise in futility. The inclusion of all the DLC is nice, while those who enjoy climbing global leaderboards will revel in the challenge maps, but it’s still not enough to justify bringing it back from the dead (Thomas and Martha Wayne have more life in them than this so-called remaster).
In a nutshell, then, expect perfect gameplay that’s as wonderful as you remember, let down by lazy and unnecessary remastering. And part of us thinks that the Clown Prince of Crime is behind it all, because the last laugh is on you. You may don the cowl and cape, but don’t expect to see Arkham in a different light.
Batman: Return to Arkham is available now in the Store, priced £39.99.
The Dynamic Duo of superhero games still play perfectly, but the remaster is far from Bat-tastic.
Pros: Gameplay-wise, literally everything is perfect, from the combat to the cast, the setting to the script. Who’s Batman? I’m Batman – and so are you.
Cons: A tragic example of a pointless remaster, with graphics that don’t shine the way they should, even in the gritty world of the Dark knight.