The final installment in a trilogy is a good time for reflection. How did we get here? What choices did we make along the way? And could we have maybe punched just a few more thugs, like, right in the face? The release of Arkham Knight brings Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham [Noun] trilogy to an alleged conclusion and an opportunity to re-examine the two games that preceded it with an eye toward what made the series so successful—and where it fell short. These works set a new standard for super-hero gaming, but by clinging to the idea that expansion is the most important goal of any sequel, City lost much of Asylum’s efficiency and power. The result is a collection of thrilling diversions that fail to form a coherent whole.
When Batman: Arkham Asylum came out in 2009, it was a revelation. The story, written by longtime Batman scribe Paul Dini, was well constructed and reasonably clever, and the action was rich and satisfying. Most importantly, the game felt like a legitimate effort to create a consistent, engaging platform for an icon who’d never entirely received his due in video games. Not every Batman game before Arkham Asylum had been bad, but none of them achieved the sort of completeness that Rocksteady Studios reached. This wasn’t a typical licensed game. It referenced familiar material but in thoughtful, contextually appropriate ways.
Then Batman: Arkham City hit shelves in 2011, and it looked like more of the same in the best possible way. The voice cast from Asylum was back (including Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and The Joker, respectively, from Batman: The Animated Series), as was the same combat system, refined here with additional gadgets and twists. The release also included the attention to detail and Batman lore that had made the original such a joy. But instead of the claustrophobic confines of the asylum, Arkham City expanded its scope to Gotham itself, carving off a chunk of the city to serve as a nightmarish playground for Batman and his bad guys. Everything was bigger, from the story to the cast to Batman’s vigilante to-do list. And more is better. No doubt about it.
Yet something about Arkham City falls short. In its eagerness to give players as much to do as possible, it loses some of what made its predecessor so effective. Sandbox games, which provide players with an open world to roam and a multitude of missions to choose from, are frequently at war with pacing, as player freedom runs up against the need to instill urgency. In Arkham City, the tension between these two poles is especially sharp. Every new story mission is presented as an immediate threat, often with an implicit (though never actual) deadline for completion. At the same time, Batman is hounded by half-a-dozen chores at once, and there’s no way to juggle them all satisfactorily.
This is arguably intentional. The one-damn-thing-after-another approach makes a certain amount of sense for Batman’s character, as his obsessive need to fix everything and save everyone keeps running afoul of a world full of overpowered and overactive bad guys. But intentional or not, it makes for a game that never gets out of its own way. The story jerks from one baddie to the next, and there’s no real chance to build interest or relationships between any characters beyond Batman and the Joker. Everyone else feels like a cameo—visually impressive and occasionally inventive in their deployment, but never adding up to much more than “Oh, that guy. Neat.” It’s a game full of build-up that never delivers on its promise.
Arkham Asylum managed this balance far more elegantly. The plot, which featured the Joker trying to exploit a wonder drug that turned people into muscle-bound monsters, was more functional than inspired. But the story didn’t need to be inspired; it just needed to provide clear objectives and structure. To that end, it works brilliantly, maintaining focus on the central story (twists and all), while still providing plenty of background content to keep the game from becoming too guided. For all its geographical limitations, the asylum feels like a real place, with defined sections and a moody, gothic-hospital vibe throughout. Arkham City has its moments, but the size never results in a greater feeling of freedom or discovery. It’s just more darkened windows and locked doors to glide past on your way to the closest thing on your checklist.
Arkham City’s stuffed-crust approach to objectives and narratives routinely tweaks what was effective in the original in ways that aren’t necessarily improvements. One small example: In City, the Riddler kidnaps a group of paramedics and demands that you solve enough of his puzzles to earn the right to free the hostages one by one. In Asylum, the Riddler offers the same basic challenge—environmental puzzles and hidden question-mark trophies—without the pressure of victims to make the quest feel like a burden. Asylum’s approach results in a sub-plot that adds flavor without serving as a distraction from the main story. It’s a small change (and you can finish either game without completing the Riddler quests) but it’s a difference in philosophy. City’s Riddler quest and other extracurricular activities drag down momentum. What was texture becomes a distraction, making it difficult to enjoy any single section without having the nagging feeling that there’s something else you should be doing.
At a certain point, this sort of judgement comes down to a matter of taste: Do you want a more refined experience like Asylum, which balanced depth and direction and allowed for subtly guided exploration, or the pell-mell flurry of cool stuff that is City? Both are fine games, but the latter’s design suggests a path that is ultimately self-defeating, sacrificing coherence and emotional investment for the sake of distraction. As a protagonist, Batman offers developers an ideal mixture of history, vulnerability, mystery, and empowerment, but that mixture requires careful balance. Throw in too much, and one lone bat signal is doomed to be lost in a sky full of white noise.