The Batman Arkham series is one of my favourite franchises in video gaming. With Arkham Asylum kicking things off and reinvigorating the superhero game genre, and restoring hope to fans everywhere. After the likes of Batman Forever and Superman 64 back in the day, it seemed like it was just destiny that superheroes and video games weren’t meant to be. After the Arkham series reached its conclusion with Arkham Knight, the world is now chomping at the bit with fantasies about what could come next. Fans have been waiting forever for a genuine Superman game, and with Injustice: Gods Among Us bringing all of our favourite heroes together, it’s opened the floodgates of potential, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see superhero games aplenty for years to come.
Our focus today is on the one that started it all. I am going to rank the Batman Arkham games, these are all my personal opinions, so I won’t spend too long on each one, and if you want to add your own rankings, feel free to comment below.
So let’s begin…
#4 Batman Arkham Origins (2013)
Arkham Origins served as the prequel to Arkham Asylum and was the third game in the series. Taking us all the way back to Batman and Joker’s very first meeting. That’s not the only first however as the game provides us with many of Batman’s first meetings with these characters. Showing us the development of his budding relationship with jim Gordon, and his battles with a number of well known villains, early on in their “careers”. We’re introduced to and younger, more vibrant Gotham City on Christmas Eve, and a Batman who is still relatively new to the streets, the people of Gotham are still debating his existence and most thugs believe that he is a myth. After intervening during a chaotic breakout at Blackgate Prison, Batman finds himself with a target on his head in the form of $50,000,000 bounty, funded by Blackmask. This leads to the formation of eight deadly assassins, all with the goal of killing Batman and claiming the money. Batman must incapacitate each of them and bring a stop to the chaos that has spilt out into the streets of Gotham.
Of the eight designated assassins, only a few manage to make any real kind of impact, and leave a mark on the stories enjoyment value. Although they are mostly well known characters, it is admirable that the Warner Brothers Montreal team would throw in some lesser known characters to give The Dark Knight a run for his money. Characters like Electrocutioner and Shiva are hardly a threat, with Electrocutioner especially being given a rough time of it. Beaten by Batman in one hit and killed by Joker in his next scene. He only serves to provide Batman with a gadget upgrade when he takes the Electric gloves from his corpse. Bane plays a much more frequent role in the game, and we see a much more calculated and intelligent side to him, whilst characters like Copperhead and Deathstroke provide Batman with exceptional challenges. The cut scenes build them up very well and they do possess that certain aura that makes them likable characters but ultimately the actual fights you have with them suffer from being overly repetitive, while the fight with Deathstroke is a straight shoot brawl, those moments are very fun, but being taken out of the moment by quick time events and button mashing sequences ruins it and by the end you lose a lot of enjoyment, which is replaced by a lethargic sense of wanting the fight to be over. Copperhead’s fight, although visually impressive, feels very familiar, with the surreal, mind bending illusions and multiple copies of the same person fights being previously done with Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow and Mad Hatter. That’s three times before this game was released that we had seen this type of fight. Firefly and Killer Croc feel more like cameos and Deadshot in reduced to an investigation side mission. This was the problem with fitting so many characters into a game whose story only had one priority anyway.
The star of the show is of course Joker (voiced this time by Troy Baker), who pretends to be Blackmask, (another character who got the short end), his spotlight really does outshine the rest. Bane is the only villain who really gets any kind of rub from Joker, with the two going back and forth in order to get to Batman. We also see our first Joker and Harleen Quinzel interactions and we get a long piece of dialogue accompanied by a great bit of gameplay, detailing Joker’s version of his backstory, (inspired by the Killing Joke). There is one more character who deserves a mention here, Anarchy provides Batman with a young rebellious foe, who Batman identifies as somebody with a strong will, but who fights the wrong cause. The Anarchy missions are quite fun and he is a character who you definitely want to see more off.
Warner Bros Montreal take what worked fantastically in the first games and needlessly modify it to try and be a little bit different. Whilst Rocksteady were working on the true sequel to Arkham City, this game made changes that were wholly unnecessary and it saw the gameplay suffer for it. It also didn’t make sense that Batman had gadgets available to him immediately in this prequel, that he didn’t have available to him until much later on in Arkham City. The fighting mechanics didn’t feel as smooth and certain gadgets would feel clunky in their response times and general usage. The game was buggy, with random frame skips and audio jumps and screen freezes during cutscenes. It wasn’t a bad attempt but it certainly wasn’t what it should have been.
The Gotham City that we got to explore was impressive in size, and a different take with snow covered streets and coloured lights for the Christmas season, strung across buildings and fences.
The ending of game does its job of setting us up for the future of the series and the game does respect it’s bigger name characters, showing us the young, cocky, and charismatic Joker and how he responds to seeing Batman for the first time, he seems to develop an obsession, seeing himself in Batman’s shoes, and vice versa, with Batman dedicating more thought to his new foe than most other things throughout the game.
Overall rating – 7/10 – While doing a commendable job with the license, and not having the Rocksteady team involved, it does make it a little harder to critique the games efforts. It is still very much a Batman game and it gives us our entire set up to the creation of Arkham Asylum and the birth of Batman’s feuds with many of his greatest foes, but it can’t quite stand up to the impossibly high bar set by Rocksteady with its previous two games, and with all of the hype surrounding their final instalment, it was a lot of pressure on this game to pull of something special, unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
#3. Batman Arkham Knight (2015)
The aforementioned final instalment was named Arkham Knight, and it brought a close to the franchise in an explosive way. (Quite literally). It provided us with our biggest story yet and a host of characters that had been with us from the start of the series, and a couple of new ones too. One in particular making a big impression.
The game opens with the cremation of The Joker, putting an end once and for all to the rumours that he might still be alive somehow after the events of Arkham City. The plot this time sees The Scarecrow return as the games central threat, he has Gotham City evacuated with the promise of terrorising the city with his signature fear gas, he proves this by using it on a police officer who ends up shooting a number of innocent people in a diner after seeing them as horrifying monsters. With the city evacuated Batman enters the fray and sets about to get to the bottom of Gotham’s newest situation. Alongside Scarecrow is the Arkham Knight, who has struck a deal to kill Batman once he gets his hands on him. With an empty Gotham City however, the cavalry join the fun and Penguin, Two Face and Scarcrow take up sections of Gotham, with their own team of thugs running things in that area. It is revealed that Scarecrow has taken up offers with all of the villains in an attempt to finally break Batman.
In amongst those characters are Batman’s comrades, Robin and Nightwing who both get their opportunities to show off in the game, with Nightwing going up against Penguin and his forces and Robin providing Batman assistance throughout the game, Catwoman returns, this time finding trouble with The Riddler, and needing Batman’s help to find freedom. Azrael returns in a disappointing follow up to his premonition in Arkham City. Harley Quinn has taken on Joker’s army and developed into a leader by her own right, Two Face is breaking into all of Gotham’s banks, and The Joker does in fact return, but as a figment of Batman’s imagination, a lingering side effect from Scarecrows toxin, a suppressed layer of guilt, dragged to the surface, Joker provides commentary on the events going on during the game, and plays devils advocate to Batman with each choice he has to make. The Arkham Knight is somebody very significant from Batman’s past and we see this play out in disturbing detail with small hallucination scenes, once it is revealed that the Knight is Jason Todd, a former Robin thought to be killed by Joker, but only tortured extensively and groomed into believing that Batman has replaced him without even searching for him.
So the game has plenty of bulk to it and an emotional rollercoaster for a story, all building to a finale that had plenty of us guessing as to what was coming next, it does a phenomenal job of fleshing out each character and making their motives for their actions feel like they have weight to them, that they actually matter and it gives us our grittiest game in the series, with more violence, more chilling content and a greater emphasise on death, with innocent people being gunned down and side missions that require you to explore bodies that have been mutilated and strung up like decorations. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that it is in a dark world.
The gameplay does well to recover some of the expectation that Asylum set, and City built upon, it returned us to what we know best and felt as smooth as ever, the only issue is the introduction of the Bat mobile as drivable for the first time in the series. What should have been an incredible and fun experience, is actually relied upon too much for it to retain any of its appeal or charm in the long run. It seems that every situation is set up perfectly to be resolved by the Batmobile and although it does feel extremely satisfying to drive and destroy things with, it is unfortunately just too true to avoid, the gameplay simply demands you to use the Batmobile, when you want to believe you can use your other skills to find a solution. It feels like lazy and convenient problem solving and it does have a detrimental effect on the gameplay. When every other mission requires you to jump into the Batmobile and blow up drones, it gets a little tedious. Even the Riddler challenges, which in previous games were rich with variety and actually asked you to make the most of your other gadgets, now most of those want you to race around a track in the Batmobile avoiding obstacles or timing jumps right, and although fun the first few times, takes away from an otherwise fantastic character.
Graphically, the game fully utilises the next generation of consoles and brings Gotham to life in a truly beautiful way, everything feels like it all forms one constantly flowing city, and although the streets are mostly empty, the lights, the characters, the way the rain falls onto Batman’s cape and runs in the wind as you glide across the city is genuinely a wonderful thing to witness. Each characters facial expressions and body movements feel unique and you get an extended sense of enjoyment in watching your favourite characters in action. Giving us an entire Gotham City to explore was the icing on the cake, it was huge, and one time that the Batmobile did feel particularly necessary.
The story draws towards its conclusion in grand fashion, towards the mid point of the story, we are led to believe the Barbara Gordon has been driven to kill herself by the fear toxin and it’s cleverly revealed later on that it was a fabrication in Batman’s mind, another side effect of his exposure to the gases. That moment, although delivered with so much more impact, seems like a fake out similar to that of Jim Gordon’s alleged death in Arkham Asylum when we first see Batman under the influence of the toxin. Another powerful moment is when a bomb in set off and Gotham is absolutely engulfed in hellacious looking red clouds, and Poison Ivy filters the air with her powers of nature, but as a result dies from the exertion of her energy. It’s a telling moment for a character that isn’t as bad as she seems, protecting the nature around her one last time. The game finally comes to an end, by first having the confrontation between Batman and Jason, and then with Scarecrow capturing Batman and revealing to the world, that he is in fact Bruce Wayne. He tries to break Bruce’s mind in front of the camera set up, and we see a set piece that explores his internal struggle with Joker, it truly is a weird and wonderful journey that needs to be seen to be believed, with Jason’s help, Batman escapes, defeats Scarecrow and having had his identity revealed to the world, he takes the measure of blowing up his mansion in an attempt to make it seem like he was killed.
For me, this story ranks second only to City. If we were ranking these games based on their story along, this would be number two, but I do feel like some characters were disregarded in a way, Harley is made to look stupid and weak again, having been stopped with relative ease by Batman and Robin, Azrael seemingly had a big role to play but was used only as a means of being a potential replacement for Bruce Wayne, and some of the missions seemed far too long winded and repetitive, the airship as an example. The overreliance on the Batman was also a telling factor in my reasoning for placing this at number three, it came off as uninspired after a lengthy amount of time.
Overall Rating – 8/10 – It’s a fantastic game and a very worthy ending to the series, it leaves the door open for a potential Superman series and it ends an incredible journey, solidifying the series as one of my favourites ever. Rocksteady deserves all the credit in the world for the sheer effort they put into this one, with the amount of content and collectables on offer very impressive, and the story telling that they possess, on a level that could give Naughty Dog a run for their money.
#2. Batman Arkham Asylum (2009)
Batman Arkham Asylum is arguably one of the most important games of the last 15 years, with the influence it created and fandom that grew from this very gaming experience, Rocksteady brought about a huge shift in the opinion of critics and fans alike, that video games and superheroes could never be. The story here is that Joker has been captured and brought in to Arkham Asylum, having thought it was too easy this time Batman sticks around, and his suspicions prove to be justified when Joker reveals that he has taken over the Asylum, and with Harley on the controls he begins a cat and mouse game with Batman, releasing all of the prisoners to run riot within the Asylum and take a shot at Batman, all while he picks and chooses where Batman goes next. With Joker running the Asylum and concocting a formula that mutates the genetics of people so that they become ungodly looking monsters of destruction, Batman must figure out how to navigate the Asylum and get to Joker before he releases his new Titan Formula into the unknowing public of Gotham City.
It isn’t just Joker giving Batman a headache though as Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Bane, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Penguin and more are out to stop Batman dead in his tracks. We do have to remember that as this was the first in the series, it was trying these things for the first time and going big on everything they were attempting, so to see this variety of characters and each getting an impressive amount of screen time, it’s an impressive and very pleasing outcome. Each character provides Batman with a different challenge and requires a unique approach to stop them. Killer Croc runs the show in the sewers, meaning Batman has to quietly operate from A to B on wooden panels floating atop the water, before making use of his electric collar, Bane is pumped with the Titan Formula and takes on a much more aggressive form, making you have to dodge each attack and strike at the right moment, Scarecrow is awesome, he attacks with his toxin and Batman goes on an insane trip, reliving the night his parents were murdered, and seeing their corpses rise from body bags, before finally having the chance to defeat Scarecrow in a dreamlike sequence, Poison Ivy goes to war on the Asylum with her plants before Batman has to rip them open to defeat her, so it’s all just one constant revolving door of an experience, one threat leaves, and another takes its place, each as challenging as the last, but requiring a new method of retaliation. There are the odd boss fights that are the same, like the Titan Thug fights, but that’s padded out nicely with the other pieces on offer.
As for the gameplay outside of boss fights, the fighting system blew people away with its fluidity and simplicity, an easy system that felt brutal when delivering each command and never got tiresome as there was a refreshing level on finishing manoeuvres and the option to integrate your gadgets into the combat to increase each combo. The gliding system worked as well as could be expected and didn’t feel difficult to control. It worked incredibly well and set the tone going forward. It is the shortest game of the series but it was also the first, still finding it’s way and it did offer us Riddler challenges. These came in the form if trophies that needed to be recovered by using your different gadgets, or solving actual riddles with the games detective mode. Both of these elements became stables of the series. It also came with the added perk of playing as The Joker, (although a PS3 exclusive) with unique combat and gadgets in a number of challenge maps. Also an addition that became a permanent part of the games.
Graphically it was an impressive feat, highlighting the capabilities of the PS3 and Xbox 360 and making full use of the tools they had at hand, the Asylum although sometimes cramped was full of detail and once we stepped outside, we were introduced to the island itself, and sections to explore.
It does have its faults though, number one being an over reliance on the games Detective mode, similar to the Batmobile in Arkham Knight, Asylum introduced Detective mode, which let Batman take on a xray type vision that would allow him to scan the room for thugs and collectables, it sometimes took away the challenge of solving a puzzle or clearing a room of enemies by making it far too easy to just use detective mode. It wasn’t a necessity and that is good, but it encouraged you to do so and to me that does defeat the purpose of creating a room that should require stealth and a degree of trial and error to concur. Another problem was the linear aspect. Now whilst it’s not a fault by any means, after all it enforces the idea that Joker is in control and not us, it does make for slower gameplay and less of an emphasis on the fact that we are on an Island and there’s more going on than what’s in front of us, but it’s totally forgivable in the grand scheme, the biggest issue I have is with the way the game concludes.
We get our big, final confrontation with Joker and for a moment, you wonder what kind of insane scheme he has up his sleeve for us, but instead he shoots himself up with a dose of Titan formula and mutates into a silly looking beast. The boss fight is way to simple, and makes Joker seem incredibly stupid, contradicting the entire game up until then. It was a disappointing climax to a game that deserved to finish strong and with an impact, but it mostly fell flat. Once Joker is defeated (with a mighty explosive gel punch) he is taken back into confinement and order is restored once more to the Asylum.
Overall Rating – 9/10 – Arkham Asylum does very little wrong and it provided me with one of my most enjoyable experiences in gaming, it brought so many beloved characters to the forefront and they all got their moment in the spotlight, to great effect, there was hardly any mismanagement, with the only real example being Joker’s transformation at the end. The bar was set pretty high and debates began about whether or not the sequel could match it, let alone exceed it.
#1. Batman Arkham City (2013)
This game. This game right here is one of my favourites of all time. It does so much right and it’s a gem in storytelling, it has twists, turns, happiness, sadness and one constant feeling of needing to know what happens next. It has fake outs, it has bombshells, and all starts with Bruce Wayne in the clutches of Doctor Hugo Strange, a man who is hell bent on revealing to the world who Batman is. With “Protocol 10” in place, he wants to blow the newly formed Arkham City and it’s inmates out of existence. Arkham City cuts of a section of Gotham City, and places inmates from Blackgate and the Asylum all into one place, Strange wants to obliterate them in one huge explosion. As if that wasn’t enough for Batman to deal with, Joker is back in the thick of things, and we are under the impression that he is slowly dying from the Titan formula poisoning his blood. After reeling Batman in with his fake death, Joker reveals that he needs Batman to find a cure, and as an added incentive, tells Batman that he injected his blood into Batman’s, and that he has samples ready to ship out across Gotham. In a race against time, Batman must stop Protocol 10 and manufacture a cure before he and the rest of Gotham go down with Joker.
Another game with a host of characters, Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia join the party by giving Batman the option of joining the League of Assassins and gaining immortality from within the Lazarus pits. Talia wants this for Batman’s own will being and Ra’s because he sees Batman as a worthy successor to his cause, all he needs Batman to do is kill him and take his rightful place. Batman tries to gain the services of Mr Freeze, and Harley is back by Jokers side, looking after him and overseeing developments with Batman and his search for a cure. Catwoman makes her Arkham debut as a playable character and goes toe to toe with Poison Ivy, and Penguin is running his own little museum, featuring signature accessories from Gotham’s great villains. Two Face is playing judge, jury and executioner when he tries to make an example out of Catwoman and a few other characters make appearances. Most notably Azrael who comes with a very intriguing message that leaves Batman’s future sounding very bleak indeed. Bane requires your help locating any remaining traces of the Titan formula, saying that he will destroy them all, but secretly having an addiction to their effects. It’s a lot going on, and it all serves up a unique blend of activity.
There’s plenty on offer here, with the Riddler challenges returning, and to put it into perspective, 240 collectables in all to collect in that regard, there are even more gadgets to unlock, and a city to explore. The combat returns in all its glory, offering up a few new ways to start an attack and allowing you to upgrade the efficiency of your attacks and body armour, combos are free flowing and easy to jump in and out off, and new enemy types add a refreshing conundrum to overcome, there is plenty to get to grips with and ample opportunity to do so, with gadgets being easy enough to use, and detective mode taking more of a backseat this time, (a big improvement) it’s a gameplay system that doesn’t lose its charm. The addition of Catwoman was a fun choice and she is very much her own character, important to the plot and showing great chemistry with Poison Ivy. The Mr Freeze boss fight is a fantastic piece of gameplay, with each trick you pull off, Mr Freeze erases it as an option, meaning that every time you want to get a hit on him you have to adapt and find a new approach.
As far as graphics go, this game manages to step it up, surprisingly so given how good they already were. Here they are sharp, and detail exactly what they want you to see with each character, the city itself is designed perfectly and removes the linear approach of Arkham Asylum, letting you go out and do what you want to do, picking up on missions only when you want to progress the story. There’s more to it than meets the eye, with an underground area also, “Wonder City” the location of the League of Assassins, is a fascinating location and encourages you to explore by making you find different sections of video footage, embedded within the mysterious robots littered throughout.
Every area, every character, every event has a story, everything has a reason, and this story flows so perfectly well, it builds to a surprising revelation that catches the player of guard completely. First things first, Protocol 10 is brought to a stop and Ra’s kills Hugo Strange. This along is a lot to take in, but throughout the story, Joker looks completely healthy, a far cry to the state he was in during his fake death at the start of the game, right up until the end, clues are scattered throughout the game that go right over your head, it’s revealed that there were two Jokers the whole time. The second being in the form of Clayface. The reveal is such an awesome moment, and leads to the death of Talia, shot by the real Joker amongst the chaos after she believes she had killed him. (Having only stabbed the Clayface Joker through with her sword.) The final fight requires you to take her sword and freeze Clayface, shattering him piece by piece. Once that’s done, Joker attempts to dive into the Lazarus pits only for Batman to send Clayface in, destroying it entirely in an explosion. In a last ditch effort, Joker attacks Batman and forces him to drop the cure, smashing it on the floor. Accepting fate, Joker falls back, laughing as he dies, his face resting into a permanent smile. The perfect ending, a character as huge as Joker seeing his end puts this game in a league of its own. The implications going forward were boundless, it led to an outpour of fan theories and admiration for Rocksteady’s commitment to do this. It set up an entirely new character arc for Batman, it led to the personal growth and development of Harley, it broke my heart as a fan to watch it unfold, and that’s the whole point. A story is supposed to take you on a journey, it’s supposed to make you feel, and this game did exactly that.
Overall Rating – 10/10 – One of few games I’d rate a perfect ten, but it’s an incredible game and it deserves that type of hype, it deserves to be labelled as such, it was such an influential game for me and I still remember my heart racing as I questioned whether or not my favourite villain of all time was about to die or if he’d find a way to escape the clutches of death. But it wasn’t just that, it was the introduction of Ra’s and his desires for Batman to break his rule, Batman’s struggle with the poison in his blood and growing desperation, it made you wonder if he was genuinely going to snap, was he going to die too? Was Hugo Strange going to reveal Batman’s identity to the world? Was Harley Quinn pregnant? The game made a point of making it seem so, with a well hidden pregnancy test hidden in a room, and a chilling lullaby in the games credits if you could find the test, Jokers heart-breaking song to Batman, left behind in the wake of his death as a message, it was just such a powerful story with so much on the line, to play as a slowly dying Batman and see how the poison was breaking down his body was gut-wrenching, and it made for a once in a lifetime experience as a gamer.
That’s my ranking of the Batman Arkham series, it was a tad longer than I expected but it’s a series that means so much to me, and these are games that all have their own value, they all bring something different, they are all such wonderful pieces of art that I absolutely recommend to anybody who has yet to play them. I hope that one day we see a return to video games for Batman, and even if it’s years from now, or not at all at least I’ll always have the Arkham games.
Image credit – Rocksteady