Batman: Arkham Asylum is a brilliant game. It’s the rare title that’s overflowing not just with action and puzzles but an overwhelming sense of place. Not only did it completely nail the tone of a Batman comic (or the much-loved 90s animated series), but it truly made the setting a character in the narrative. The Arkham estate was just as threatening and foreboding as The Joker or Killer Croc – because we were stuck there, it might have been even more threatening.
I finished the game, riddles and all, in a long weekend. I haven’t done that in years, and I was hungry for more.
I mention this so you know how much I wanted to love the sequel, Batman: Arkham City. But I don’t, and it’s completely because of the setting.
In our Arkham City discussion on the Conference Call, Shawn Andrich called the game the perfect sequel “on paper.” It’s got more of everything: More bat-gadgets, more villains, more of the Riddler’s OCD on display. His theory – and I know I’ll regret trying to quote him – is that more of the same gameplay mechanics isn’t always a good thing. He found the FreeFlow combat system more stale this go-around, something I personally attribute to his machine-like mastery over the brawling in the first game.
I want to agree with him (don’t tell him that), but having three different variations of Batarangs or four different combo options at my disposal while beating down thugs never got on my nerves. More missions? Distracting, but I imagine that’s what it’s like to be the Detective. Don’t worry, political prisoner, I’ll save you from a mugging as soon as I tag this Riddler trophy.
Instead, it all comes back to the city itself. Arkham Asylum in the comics is an ever-present force, but never well defined. Grant Morrison’s landmark graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, comes closest to pinning down the feel of Gotham’s nuthouse, but what it really shows is a clear picture of the insanity contained within. Because Arkham Asylum the game is loosely based on the graphic novel, it gets the best of both worlds. Asylum put the feeling of the comic into tangible dimensions, then dropped you head-first into the space.
What was always a plot point in Detective Comics is now well and truly fleshed out. I wanted to explore its nooks and crannies, finding references to Amadeus Arkham or the horrors those walls have contained over its imaginary history. There’s a lot of mood in that game, and mood is hard to pull off.
Arkham City, in contrast, has you exploring Gotham’s repurposed slums. Again, on paper, that should be amazing – There’s the theater Bruce Wayne left with his parents when Joe Chill shot them down! – but the urban sprawl often feels generic as you’re soaring over it. Apart from the Monarch Theater, there are few recognizable spots in Arkham City, and the game does little to build them up as more than a setting for another 20-on-1 combat encounter.
The problem is that Arkham City, as a setting, has no character of its own. It’s a setting that’s designed to give you a jungle gym to play in, but it’s not integral to the plot. The construction and setup of the open-sky prison in Gotham’s slums is barely set up in the game itself, and aside from making allusions that it’s a “bad thing,” none of the game’s named characters seem all that eager to leave. You’ll often hear petty thugs complaining that they miss their high-def televisions or Facebook statuses on your handy-dandy Bat-Radio as you launch yourself across rooftops, but the game never shows you that it’d be hard to actually leave.
In fact, midway through the game you find that Robin, the boy wonder and ever-present sidekick, can somehow leave and enter as he pleases. That continuity gaff alone makes the “impenetrable prison” seem more like a myth, and certainly doesn’t give it an ever-present character. I’m only in Arkham City because the game needs to put me somewhere.
Unlike exploring the halls of Arkham Asylum, I feel like I’m grappling and soaring over Liberty City. Even with all the new villains included, it feels like Arkham City left out its most important antagonist: the setting in which you’re trapped.
Also, and it’s a small point, but come on. Someone convinced the people of Gotham to turn half their city into an open-air prison? Even for comics, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But I digress.
Having now finished the game, I don’t feel the same draw to find all of Riddler’s secrets, a game mechanic that I loved in the first game. I don’t care enough to track down Deadshot’s clues or wait around for the mysterious stranger – who totally isn’t mysterious if you’ve read Knightfall – to show up while I’m failing AR challenges. I’ve come to the conclusion of the story, watched how Rocksteady tied the threads of plot together, and I feel done. It was fun while it lasted, but I can’t see myself cleaning up the streets all over again.
Unlike Batman at the end, I’m ready to leave Arkham City to its own devices, letting the thugs and criminals and freaks tear themselves apart instead of scouring the streets for a way to save it from itself.
Which makes me a really crummy Caped Crusader.