For various reasons, the video game industry has always had difficulty with licensed properties. Most of these issues stem from them being used as movie tie-ins, the rights given to cheap studios promising to turn out a game to meet the release date of the movie. Nothing good comes from such restraints.
Back in 2009, Batman: Arkham Asylum was a major turning point. Based off a franchise which has not stopped being relevant for several decades now, Rocksteady was given ample time to bring the Batman franchise to life. Perfectly implementing Batman’s gadgets to produce a stealth-heavy brawler and turning his ample rogue gallery into some mesmerizing encounters, Arkham Asylum stood as not only the best licensed game at the time but one of the greatest games period. Arkham City took its formula and simply increased the scale (whether one is better than the other is up to preference – I enjoy the open world but would never argue against anyone who prefers Asylum’s linearity).
That stealth-brawler hybrid is truly something great. Sneaking through the vents to pick off mooks one-by-one really captures the spirit of the Caped Crusader, but failing at that and descending into a brawl is equally appetizing. Rocksteady forces the player to shift gears here and there, key to perfecting a genre which can sometimes descend into tedium.
The boss fights really change things up, including what ends up being one of the all-time greats. The battle against Mr. Freeze leaves you hopeless when attempting direct approaches, but the room is littered with stealth options. Each success lets you get in a few hits, but Freeze will then counter that option for the rest of the battle. You have to use everything the game offers to take him down. This battle serves as a testament to the game’s simple yet complex design, a brawler that absolutely refuses to let you mash your way through.
Key to capturing the spirit of these characters is that the bosses don’t stay confined to their rooms. The Arkham series is a great example of set piece-based design, each area influenced by those classic villains found nearby. The game is also loaded with sidequests, including a slew of minor adversaries. While these characters will almost certainly never earn a film appearance, their presence here shows how deep the Batman gallery goes while still maintaining fantastic diversity. Only the most ardent fans are likely to recognize Zsasz or Hush, but their presentation here is a perfect argument to become one of those ardent fans. With all this game throws at you, Arkham City captures the terror of Gotham City while other adaptations have to limit themselves to a handful of villains at a time.
The narrative is a wonderful descent into madness; being toyed around with by the Joker is always a fun time, further adding to the chaos of this city. Despite all these villains having their own agendas, everything flows together so well due to Joker getting a little bit of his hands into everything. The final act is a surprisingly complex and somehow tragic web.
With open world games becoming more and more common, it’s becoming clearer what does and does not work. Even if there aren’t enemies covering every inch of the city, the player is provided with enough tools to navigate quickly. Swooping through the sky is always fun, a feature which laid the groundwork for Insomniac’s Spider-Man. There is enough side content to encourage exploring everything you see, and the rewards for everything but the Riddler puzzles tend to be grand.
Batman has been with us since the late 1930s, but few works across any medium capture the spirit so well. This is the all-encompassing experience.