Reviewed by John Hussey
If you’ve read my review for Batman: Arkham Asylum then you’ll know how much I love the game and how it felt ground-breaking in its storytelling and expansion of the infamous franchise, and its respective characters. So naturally when Rocksteady announced that they would be following up with a sequel, Batman: Arkham City, I nearly lost my mind. The highly anticipated follow-up finally arrived in 2011 and though I thought it was fantastic at the time (fulfilling its role as the best possible sequel to the highly successful Arkham Asylum) it has slowly earned its place in my unfavourable pile.
It’s fair to say that Arkham City pushed me to my limits, and near enough the brink of my sanity. What was a decent sequel upon originally playing the game back in 2011, has slowly become a torturous endeavour that has taken its toll on me. It’s sort of like The Dark Knight Rises treatment: might seem like the best possible sequel at the time, but when you give yourself time to think about it you quickly realise you’ve been handed a convoluted mess that frustrates you more than entertains you.
The game isn’t all bad, however, and has some really strong moments that surpass the original game. This is mostly in the way Arkham City explores this version of Batman’s universe. There’s a lot of development and intriguing additions to the characters that is fun to explore. Plus we have a lot more great character interactions.
The narrative starts off rather interestingly (if you have the Catwoman Downloadable Content) in which Miss Selina Kyle attempts to rob Two-Face, only to end up captured by the crazed District Attorney. Then the story slams you in the face when you witness Bruce Wayne, voiced by Batman veteran Kevin Convoy, being taken prisoner and brought before the game’s villain, Hugo Strange. As hinted within Arkham Asylum‘ Easter-Egg (i.e. the hidden room within the Warden’s office) Warden Sharp has built Arkham City, a massive prison in the heart of Gotham’s slums.
Bruce deliberately gets himself caught so that he can investigate Strange’s activities, particularly Protocol Ten. Though you don’t play as Bruce for very long, it is a nice little addition to get you back into the feel of the Arkham series as you pit yourself against The Penguin and his goons, before climbing to the rooftops to receive the Bat-Suit. The first agenda is rescuing Catwoman from the clutches of Two-Face as he attempts to perform the role of judge, jury and executioner with his trusted coin of chance.
We’re quickly re-introduced to Mark Hamill‘s wonderful Joker and things start to fall into place as the narrative picks up. You then go and confront the Clown Prince of Crime after he attempts to assassinate Catwoman and blow Batman up in a church tower, but things aren’t what they seem. It takes a while before Joker is seen properly, with Harley Quinn taking centre stage in running his operations within the Steel Mill.
After fighting your way through Joker’s territory you discover that he is sick, due to his exposure to Titan within the previous game. Now he looks decayed, with his skin deformed, his hair falling out, his eyes blood-shot, whilst his overall health deteriorates. But this doesn’t stop him from playing a sick, twisted game with Batman. He captures the Dark Knight, after luring him into a false sense of security and then trapping him, and injects him with his poisonous blood, giving him the simple proposal of “find a cure or we both die.”
It’s an ingenious set-up which almost reflects the idea of Batman and The Joker being one of the same, and that they require each other to continue their existence. Now they are literally linked and need one to save the other. Things quickly escalate as Batman needs to locate Mr. Freeze, who was on the verge of making Joker a cure, but upon arriving at his base of operations within the abandoned GCPD building it is discovered that Penguin has captured him. You can see where this is going.
The game becomes a game of going to one place to the other in order to create a cure, which takes up a huge portion of the narrative. I will admit that The Penguin’s part of the game is one of the best sections. His character is a fascinating addition to the Batman mythology and Rocksteady utilise him perfectly, aided by Nolan North‘s fantastic voice acting. I also really like his design, which only makes him more grotesque. Instead of wearing his usual monocle he has a broken bottle rammed into his face.
You constantly feel like he’s a challenge and a threat to your survival as he repeatedly creates obstacles to interfere with your mission, including sending out hordes of his henchmen, making you battle a one-armed Russian brute, and tackling a guard-dog in the form of a shark. His character is despicable and enjoys torturing his victims, which can be overheard through Batman’s communicator as he viciously breaks the hand of an undercover police office with Freeze’s ice-gun. It’s fair to say that this interpretation of The Penguin certainly holds up his reputation as a powerful and sadistic crime boss, as he rules the Iceberg Lounge through fear and money.
Batman becomes rather desperate during this ordeal as he threatens Mr. Freeze’s life in order to get him to cooperate, ultimately allowing Batman to overcome the ice-gun in Penguin’s possession. Despite this, the crafty cockney sets up another trial for Batman to face in the form of Solomon Grundy. This boss fight is mostly fun but it does suffer from tight decision making in which you are left with hardly any time to react to Grundy’s attacks, along with the fact that you’re also trying to concentrate on using your gadgets to destroy the machinery which is giving him his strength.
Needless to say it does feel good when you have finally defeated Penguin and put him in his place. It’s even satisfying seeing Mr. Freeze get a moment of revenge after the crime boss humiliated the cryogenic expert and stole his technology. But despite rescuing Victor Fries Batman is still no closer to a cure as the cryogenic expert indicates that his vaccine’s instability renders it useless. This leads to Batman deducing that the blood of Ra’s al Ghul would suitably complete the cure.
This is where I have to put on my negative cap. One of the first major problems I worried about during the build-up to Arkham City was the fact it was going to become a sandbox. Now, I don’t fully hate sandbox games, with Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row being particular favourites of mine, but I prefer more linear based games which stick to the point at hand. With sandbox’s they tend to be filled with a choice system, in which you make your own way through the game at your own leisure and style. This doesn’t particularly sit right with the format created within Arkham Asylum.
Considering at this point in the game you’re supposed to be fighting for your life, as time ticks away the last of your breath, you are given the option to go and explore around Arkham City, whether it be to collect Riddler Trophies or to complete side-missions. This makes the whole point of the main narrative feel redundant and completely laughable. One minute the game is telling you you’re dying and the next minute you can be gliding around the city-sized prison pissing about without any real consequence.
I’m not joking! You can literally spend as long as you want completing the game’s other content and it won’t make a difference to the main plot. Batman won’t die and the seriousness of his illness only becomes important when the game deems it, i.e. during the continuation of the main story. But if you want to take a break from looking for the cure, then you can and the game will let you until you, as the player, deem it the right time to return to the importance of the plot.
Because of the sandbox element all sense of urgency is completely removed. It makes me wonder what Rocksteady was thinking when they incorporated these different elements into the sequel. It’s almost as if they didn’t know what they wanted Arkham City to be in terms of gameplay and tone. As well as this there’s the problem of too much substance. The game feels very convoluted because there is so many things going on within both the main story and the side-stories.
You get to a point where you’re not even sure what the most important plot-point is. Is it Strange’s mysterious Protocol 10? The fact that Joker has poisoned you? The Joker in general? The side-missions which have you battling other threats going on within Arkham City? Or is it defeating The Riddler and rescuing his hostages?
But of course it’s a sandbox game so it’s up to you what takes preference. But then even that misses the point when there is a main plot which takes priority over everything else. I mean, it’s not like in Grand Theft Auto where you’re physically going and selecting a mission to do, the main plot here is the game. The side-missions are just a part of the overall map which you can choose to do at anytime. But by giving you the option means you can, by all means, divert yourself away from the main game. It’s very puzzling.
And the structural problems don’t end there. The narrative does truly become a massive mess as the story progresses. Though we do have an interesting encounter with the League of Assassins, resulting in some insight into the complicated romance between Batman and Talia al Ghul. This is one of the rare moments within the Batman mythology where the Dark Knight has this kind of connection. It’s made even more meaningful when you consider Talia is technically his enemy, being the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul.
It’s complicated but fascinating all at the same time. This section also leads to a moment where Batman nearly succumbs to death. I love how it is handled in which Batman falls to his knees and hallucinates his parents calling him into the Afterlife. This is then intercut with Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle, calling him back into the living world. There’s the interesting question also of “what happens if Batman does die” with Oracle actually asking this question as she watches his life-signs drop from her computer.
Batman is then forced to drink from the Blood of the Demon in order to hold back death, resulting in him enduring a drug trip where he must pass a series of challenges in order to prove his worth. He then confronts Ra’s al Ghul and once again reaffirms his unwavering rules of not killing, refusing Ra’s offer of succeeding him. His boss is interesting but it’s a bit like the Solomon Grundy boss fight. It has its flaws in terms of being a game of dodge and using gadgets all at the same time. And I don’t know if it’s just me but I find the controls don’t support this requirement.
Another thing that ruins this segment of the game is the random, and confusing, inclusion of Wonder City. I just don’t get how there is a city beneath Arkham City that proceeds Gotham but has technology (such as robots) before its time. Have I entered the realm of Bioshock? Is this Rapture? Are we in a corrupt city that was abandoned because of an evil ruler? Whatever, I don’t care because it doesn’t fit in with the overall themes and tones of the game and just adds to the ongoing mess.
One of the last great moments of the game follows when you try and take Ra’s blood back to Mr. Freeze. Upon arrival back at the abandoned GCPD building Batman discovers a distressed Victor Fries as his wife, Nora, has been taken by Joker. This leads to him becoming hostile, whilst an even more hostile Dark Knight confronts him back. It’s fair to say that desperation has hit Batman by this point and the journey has vastly taken its toll. That’s one of the things I love about the Arkham games, they showcase a long, and desperate struggle on Batman’s part and by the end of each adventure you can see he’s been through hell – not only physically but mentally as well.
This boss encounter is without a doubt a masterpiece by Rocksteady and goes down as one of the best boss battles in gaming history. It’s extremely clever how the battle revolves around the idea of Mr. Freeze adapting to your strategies (meaning you can’t attack him the same way twice) which completely embodies his character’s intelligence and relationship with Batman. This encounter also tests you as a player in being able to understand the Dark Knight himself and his different fighting techniques, from combat, to stealth, to detective deduction.
It’s certainly an extreme game of hide and seek and one that keeps you on your toes constantly. You have to use your head or the cryogenic expert will hunt you down and freeze your arse. I guess, like Penguin, you feel rewarded in defeating this Batman foe because you have endured a lot and had to use your head and determination in order to prevail. But, like the rest of the game entails, there is no victory given here, only more misery.
The Joker pulls a fast one and continues his sick (and often questionable) twisted game by toying with Batman further. Harley Quinn nabs the cure during the chaotic battle and rushes back to the Steel Mill to grant The Joker a new lease on life. Once again it’s up to Batman to chance down the cure and free himself from the inevitable clutches of death. It’s even more hilarious when you consider how quickly Mr. Freeze changes his outlook on his relationship with Batman (having just tried to kill him) and asks desperately for the Dark Knight to find his wife – adding to the long list of side-missions.
This is where you realise that the narrative is a complete and utter mess. The game initially states that the main threat, and point of the narrative, is stopping Strange and his diabolical schemes within the city-sized prison. And yet, the game has you distracted for about 90% of the game as you attempt to find a cure for a disease that The Joker injected into you. So, by the time the game attempts to come full-circle you are wondering “why should I give a damn about Strange?”
There is literally no real build-up to Strange’s activities other than him counting down the starting time of Protocol Ten over Arkham City’s communication devices. And then when it comes to the final countdown Oracle starts radioing in to remind you about it and to try some sort of attempt to get us hyped up. But the conclusion (though not totally bad) ends up rather weak because it lacks any real point or depth. If the game didn’t give a shit, and failed to develop the main plot efficiently, then why should I give a shit?
It comes down to Strange attempting to rid Gotham of its diseased inhabitants by bombing the hell out of them. I really start to loose all care in the plot by this point because it’s filled with plot-holes. You have to wonder why Gotham’s authorities ever green-lit this scheme, let alone why Strange went to all the trouble of trying to understand and torture his patients if he was always going to create an excuse to kill them via supplying them with weapons and retaliating accordingly?
Strange then quickly looses any sense of being a unique, and interesting, villain when he becomes bland and unmemorable. At first we had in front of us a challenging adversary that had the power to manipulate Gotham to obey his will, even to the point of discovering Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne. But for the sake of upping the stakes (and failing miserably) Rocksteady decided to turn him into an insane scientist with dreams of conquering the world (which made no sense and lacked any seriousness).
His character is completely destroyed when it is revealed that he was (all along) Ra’s al Ghul’s puppet. I’m convinced that the game literally stopped giving a fuck by this point and just shat out the first dumb idea it could think of because that’s what it feels like when you witness this conclusion, which lacks any real pay-off and just feels completely forced in all the wrong ways.
And, low-and-be-hold, we return to The Joker’s subplot which was clearly given more thought and attention by Rocksteady than the actual main plot. This was the running pattern of all the sequel’s to Arkham Asylum as it felt like the games couldn’t survive without Joker being the central adversary. I know that might be true (given Joker’s connection to the Dark Knight throughout his long history) but there’s no need to make it so obvious by building the game up as one thing and then throwing all your eggs into The Joker basket, thereby cancelling out any chance of progression with your non-Joker related ideas.
Though I have to hand Rocksteady this: their conclusion for The Joker in Arkham City is handled with care, and delivers one of the best culminating conclusions within video game history. Batman is lured to the theatre where Talia is held prisoner, after she bargained with the Clown Prince of Crime to spare the Dark Knight’s life.
There was even the interesting moment where Alfred Pennyworth had to prevent Batman from following Talia originally in order to make him realise that stopping Strange was more important (although I like to think it was Rocksteady forcing the player to acknowledge this, despite us both knowing that The Joker segment was clearly the more interesting and important part of the ongoing plot).
Ultimately all the answers are revealed, after The Joker decides to kill Talia without reason, in which the Clown Prince of Crime had been using Clayface to keep up his appearance. This leads to the final boss encounter in which Batman faces Clayface and again we have another battle in which the game expects the player to dodge and attack all at the same time. Although it is a cool fight it does fail to be a fun experience and for me just becomes a game of smashing buttons until the fight is over (and pray that my health bar lasts).
The ultimate pay-off of Arkham City is witnessing the final conclusion of Batman and The Joker’s tormented relationship. Batman concludes that his actions mean nothing because he refuses to put an end to The Joker’s madness, which merely allows him to escape from prison and commit his acts of madness all over again, resulting in the death of the innocent. In a tragic turn of events Joker ultimately causes his own destruction by knocking the cure out of Batman’s hand after attacking him with a knife. Rocksteady actually had the balls of killing off the Clown Prince of Crime, granting Hamill one of the greatest send-offs.
In this moment we got a clear indication of both of these extraordinary characters and their complex relationship. Despite Batman knowing his means of stopping his arch-nemesis fails to work he doesn’t begrudge not killing him. In fact, Batman admits that he was willing to give Joker the rest of the cure, to which the Clown Prince of Crime simply states in his dying breath, “That actually is… pretty funny,” finally going out with a smile on his face.
What makes this dramatic moment even more intense is how Batman silently carries The Joker’s body through Arkham City, passing a traumatised Harley Quinn, and ultimately places the dead villain before Commissioner Gordon who is in absolute shock and desperate for answers. Batman simply remains silent as the toll of his battle takes control and changes his world forever.
And that’s me done talking about the main narrative of Batman: Arkham City (sorry about the long rambling). Come back for Part 2 where I’ll be covering The Riddler, the side-missions and Harley Quinn’s Revenge.