Games That Changed Our Lives #24: The Batman “Arkham” Series

High above Arkham Asylum, a blackened sky looms behind a shawl of thick, grey clouds; each one lousy with smoke and dirt from Gotham’s factories. Licks of lightening tear apart the sullen sky and the ensuing booms of thunder send an unsettling feeling through the very bones of those caught in the storm. Atop the tallest building sits a buttress and atop that, a shadowy figure stands alone in the darkness. It couldn’t be him. He’s a myth. Or is he? Could it really be… the Batman?

This article contains spoilers for Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman is a versatile fellow. His origins lie within (as we all know by now) an issue of Detective Comics from May 1939. Since then, he has become many things for many people; a caped crusader, a dark knight, a gay icon, a multi-billion dollar movie franchise and one of the world’s most popular comic-book characters.

Over the years there have been dozens of Batman games, all of which had varying degrees of quality but were generally well-received. Aside from plain old Batman in ’86 and a smattering of other original ideas, the majority of Bat’s outings were (inevitable) movie, TV or comic-book tie-ins, right up until to the absolutely average Batman Begins game in 2005. Two years after this, Eidos (now Square Enix Europe), creators of some of gaming’s best-loved franchises like TimeSplitters, Deus Ex, Hitman and Tomb Raider, acquired the rights to make a Batman game. They then spoke to the (relatively) tiny British development team at Rocksteady Studios and asked for a concept, which later became Batman: Arkham Asylum.

“The combination of impressive graphics, atmosphere, story and characters created a intricately crafted, believable world…”

Arkham Asylum released to critical acclaim and shot, almost immediately, to over 2 million units sold. The combination of impressive graphics, atmosphere, story and characters created a intricately crafted, believable world where the asylum had been over-run by its inmates, lead by Bat-nemesis the Joker. The Asylum was portrayed as a large complex of buildings based on an island off the shore of Gotham City. Each area of the asylum would house a different threat, with most of Batman’s rogues taking up residence somewhere or other.

Speaking of rogues, the majority of the opposition you meet on the island is in the form of thugs who were once imprisoned there. They are mostly unarmed, forcing Batman to use close-quarter combat or stealth to defeat them, especially early on as his arsenal of gadgets is yet to unlock. This is possibly the biggest influence the series has had on games since its inception. The combat is smooth, visceral, stylish and enjoyable. Before the Arkham series, most combat sequences in games were simply fine or acceptable. Now, each encounter felt like a sublime action set-piece. Thugs would surround our hero, forcing him to counter, parry, dodge and attack with speed. The system allowed Batman to move elegantly from one broken jaw to the next, from one fractured leg to the next dislocated shoulder, with ease. Even if an enemy was out of reach, a roll forward would solve that issue. Incoming punches would be met by a steel clasp before being returned with a vengeance. It made formerly dull encounters enjoyable as you really felt like the Batman. Due to its quality, this system has now been adopted by dozens of games from Amazing Spider-Man 2 to Mad Max and makes what could have been dull, repetitive encounters into enjoyable brawls.

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Gadgets, too, offered a legacy. Games before this had provided dozens of guns (or in Borderlands‘ case, hundreds), weapons and gadgets to use in specific ways, but Arkham Asylum handed us toys like the Explosive Gel, Line-Launcher and Batarangs to both solve puzzles and kick ass. You could use the Gel to destroy walls or to place traps to catch your enemies off-guard, or during fights, a quick spray of it would provide the upper-hand. The same with Batarangs; used to not only activate switches, but also to distract, scare or injure enemies, or during a brawl to stun your enemies or knock them out. This kind of versatility was unheard of before Asylum, until now, items served only one or two purposes but now, you could use them how you wanted to.

Villains aside, the island was covered in other references to people, places and objects from the Bat-verse for fans to enjoy; Wayne Tower shone like a beacon in the city and the body of the immortal Ra’s al Ghul can be seen in the morgue, identified by a toe-tag; return later on, however, and the body is gone… This level of knowledge and passion for a franchise was rare. Games had touched upon it before by listing bios for popular characters etc., but the clever touch of including physical items in the world that characters could interact with was inspired. Whether a poster or painting or an umbrella in a cabinet, each “Easter egg” had an accompanying riddle left by Mr. E. Nigma and each answer needed to be scanned to be solved. Instead of lazily or thoughtlessly placing the items around, real care was taken to include them as an extra layer of challenge, for those who were interested, to make them feel as though they were playing the part of the “world’s greatest detective”.

“The mysteries ran so deep that the last secret the asylum had to offer was only found over a year after the game was released”

Arkham Asylum was a stellar introduction to Batman lore for newcomers as well as being faithful enough to the source material that long-time fans would be equally pleased. The stories were genuinely well-written with an incredible understanding of both Batman and his history. This meant you could enjoy an involving plot with plenty of surprise and intrigue. The mysteries ran so deep that the last secret the asylum had to offer was only found over a year after the game was released. Hunt around long enough and you’ll discover that within the Wardens is a wall that doesn’t appear destructible by Batman’s explosive gel, but trying it anyway will reveal the plans for the next instalment: Arkham City.

Arkham City launched to a tremendous reception from both fans and critics. Five years on, it still holds a rating of 96 on MetaCritic compared to Arkham Asylum‘s low-90s scores. This was where Rocksteady really hit their stride; they’d showed us a love and understanding of the character and the source material and now they’d established a story and the gameplay style, they could go to town. Literally.

Arkham City was a massive and detailed area, which some people actually criticised for being “intimidating” as it had so many things to do, with multiple mission markers available from the outset. Mostly, though, this was seen as a good thing. There were Story missions and Riddler missions (as well as the dozens of Riddler trophies to secure), random phone calls leading to the apprehension of Victor Zsasz, a serial killer was running wild which the World’s greatest detective determined to be Hush whose actions were explained in the sequel, Bane’s canisters of TITAN to find and destroy and many, many, many other things to be done; in fact, it seemed as though every one of Batman’s nemeses had a story to tell and missions for Batman to complete.

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Many consider Batman’s roster of villains to be the best of all; I’d tend to disagree, saying that it is topped by the villains of Spider-Man but even then, only just. Either way, it’s damn impressive. Such enduring characters as the Joker, the Riddler, Penguin, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Bane, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn, Deathstroke, Black Mask, Deadshot and many more all appear in the Arkham series and each one is as interesting as the last. Even more obscure folks like the Mad Hatter or Calendar Man make appearances in one way or another; of course, that’s not to say that the Joker isn’t the most prominent, because despite the many other baddies, he certainly is that.

The story of the Joker is a long and complicated one and it’s this is not the place to explore it, but I did want to mention that the Arkham series’ brave approach to the character is another way that Rocksteady pushed the boat out. They took a much-loved character who must be one of the world’s best know villains and they killed him off. Albeit in an ingenious way, but they did it. Such a bold move was unbelievable, sending the internet and fans around the worlds into a frenzy; was he really dead? They wouldn’t do that, would they? Well, yes. They chose story over anything else and by the time Arkham Knight rolled around, it certainly paid off.

“The story of the Joker is a long and complicated one… the Arkham series’ brave approach to the character is another way that Rocksteady pushed the boat out”

First though, Arkham Origins. Developed not by Rocksteady, but instead by publisher Warner Bros.’ Montreal development arm, Origins received the most mixed reaction of the whole series with people’s opinions divided over whether or not more of the same was necessarily a good thing. Instead of driving the series forward, it was happy to rest on the laurels left for it by Arkham City. It had interesting elements, such as expanding on the relationship between Batman and the Joker, as well as the correlation between Batman and crime in Gotham. In short, it was enough to stave people off until the proper sequel arrived.

As one of the most eagerly anticipated sequels of recent memory and as you may suspect or remember, hype and expectation were running high until finally, Batman: Arkham Knight launched to a confused public. Yes, it was undeniably “good” but why wasn’t it great? Something had been lost since the previous iteration. This was supposed to be the swansong for the Arkham series but instead of feeling like a finale, it felt tired, like the series had run its course. At the centre of the furore was one new addition; the Batmobile.

The Dark Knight film trilogy reintroduced the Batmobile as a military-grade, all-terrain tank and it fit nicely into the tone of those films. Rocksteady clearly and understandably took inspiration from this and added their own vehicle, as the enormous new playground of Gotham city was too large to travel across quickly without one. The issue was that they also added combat sections for the Batmobile; lots and lots of combat sections. This could have been a good addition, but unfortunately it was almost beaten to death by the repeated and sometimes frustrating fights. It took the slick, sleek feeling of being Batman and instead created a difficult-to-control, clunky element which really didn’t seem to fit.

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Sometimes the machine worked well; diving in and out of it with ease, calling for it from a great distance or using it to run down (definitely not murder) thugs was a blast; having to stop, activate tank mode and then roll around like a rocket-powered shopping trolley while you blew up hoards of robot-controlled vehicles wasn’t. There was also more of other less entertaining elements like nobody’s favourite hacking mechanism and challenges which became simply beating up different combinations of bad guys, which again made the formula feel tired rather than enjoyable.

These few detractors aside, the story was solid and whether you loved or hated the titular Arkham Knight, you couldn’t deny the intrigue it built. The Joker’s constant haranguing of Batman was an ingenious way to keep the character alive and Batman’s insistence on ignoring him was the best part of the repartee. Also the way the game begins with his cremation, a message to say “Yes – Joker is dead. He’s not coming back.” was shocking, which is rare these days. Then to tweak that brilliant beginning so perfectly for the “New Game Plus”, was inspired. Even the addition of playable allies like Robin and Nightwing showed how even after four games, new features could still be added and fun.

“We owe Rocksteady thanks for reviving the brawling/fighting style found in most third-person games”

In short, we owe Rocksteady thanks for reviving the brawling/fighting style found in most third-person games as well as for showing that sometimes, killing an important character and NOT revealing it to be a “fake-out” where they aren’t dead really, can be enjoyable if you handle it correctly. The Arkham series’ popularity is perhaps surprising given that, upon its release, the Dark Knight trilogy was just hitting its stride and Iron Man had only popularised superheroes with the masses 12 months before. So new fans were being created, which is a big deal. Not only this, but the affection for Batman’s history that was present in every scene and area of the game, from Crime Alley and the scene of Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder to Falcone’s business next to the steel mill in Arkham City and references to future characters such as Black Mask, the Arkham games have shown developers how to craft interesting worlds with little treats for the true fans.

If you didn’t play any of the Arkham series, or you’ve only picked up Arkham Knight, you owe it to yourself to get your hands on the rumoured trilogy re-master, or even to dust off your last-gen console and give these gems a play, because as modern marvels go, these are some of the best and most recent Games That Changed Our Lives.