Arkham Knightmares as the Best Batman Story Non-Gamers Missed
There’s a huge heaping ton of spoilers for the story here so if you’re ever going to play the game back off man, we’re scientists.
It’s getting hard to be a Batfan.
The final film in the Nolan trilogy left some of us in position to become Bat-apologists, the next cinematic installment features Ben Affleck (who was the bomb in Phantoms, yo), and the currently running TV show about the hero’s origins should be called “Wink-Nudge” instead of “Gotham.” What was once my favorite comic universe is stuck in a bit of a drought.
That’s why I depend so heavily on the Arkham world, not only for my Batman kick, but as the only video game franchise that I still attend midnight releases for as an adult-ass man. For those unaware or without access, Batman trumped two decades of terrible property tie-in games back in 2009 with Arkham Asylum. A brooding, dark interpretation of the universe that borrowed heavily from Grant Morrison’s comic, Asylum was that head-slapping, light-bulb above your head level “duh” moment wherein a small studio realized that focusing on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective was far more interesting than watching him punch various henchmen with various Batarangs. Batman would become more John McClaine; a vulnerable hero taking on baddies using his cunning and piecing together mysteries to stay one step ahead of his enemies while locked inside fiction’s most famous madhouse. It was the perfect marriage of form and function that I often push as a prime example of a story that, while it couldn’t only be told in video games, could be told best in video games.
Rocksteady Studios did a sequel in 2011 called Arkham City which built on what was great about the original while expanding into a much larger environment. Gone were the claustrophobic ventilation shafts of a haunted hospital, and in their place a militarized chunk of Gotham invited Batman to linger in the shadows but still pick fights on a different scale while pitting his rogues gallery against each other. Occasionally they also handed the narrative lead off to a burglar of the cat variety, who was just as powerful as the Bat while bringing a clearly defined feminine twist, making Catwoman’s inclusion one of the most powerful female characters in modern gaming. While Arkham Asylum took its time to fully invest Batman in the psychological twists and turns of each of his nemeses, Arkham City trimmed some lore in favor of an ultimate showdown with the Joker, and that’s where the Arkham series decided it was going to craft a new path forward. In the finale, Batman allows Joker to die, and then carries his body through an army of henchmen to throw on the hood of Jim Gordon’s car. It’s an immensely complicated moment, because The Joker has ostensibly won, but also the entire city recognizes that implications of this new Batman. If he’s prepared to kill, what do we use to define him moving forward? So many heroes get away with murder, but The Bat has always been defined by this choice, and in its absence there is so much to fear.
Arkham City marked the end of a lot of things. Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series wrote both of these original entries in his traditional expert form. More importantly, Bats and Joker were voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively, and Hamill was very outspoken on how it was his final outing as the mad clown, because he’d finally met an appropriate yet eternal end. Rocksteady announced that its third game in the series would bring about the death of Bruce Wayne, and obviously there was no cheating to bring back Joker, so who could usher Batman into his final dark night?
So now we have Arkham Knight, a final entry in a series that I’ve depended on with near-impossible expectations, not only for storytelling but proof to outsiders of why video games matter. I wound up getting a lot of what I wanted, but so much more that I didn’t.
Knight opens with classic baddie Scarecrow unleashing a fear toxin on Gotham while the city is simultaneously overrun by a privatized military force led by a newcomer threat who goes by The Arkham Knight. Batman suddenly has an entire city in crisis to patrol, and to that end he’s finally brought along the Batmobile. Here’s our first big break, as the notoriously small-scaled series suddenly has long sequences that depend on your love of using a tank to blow up lots of other tanks. It’s like that horror movie sequel where they go from keeping the movement in the shadows to suddenly giving everyone lots of big guns. The first hour or so is excellent, because you’ll forget every narrative prompt in favor of plowing through Gotham within an afterburner fueled deathmaker that non-violently (and somewhat giggle-pleasingly) electrocutes every rioter it touches.
From here, Batman embarks on resolving one of a dozen different stories, which almost immediately highlights the problems of Knight. Within the confined spaces of Arkham Asylum, bending the narrative to focus on subplots was as simple as confining The Bat to a wing of the hospital. Now, with an entire city to explore, storytelling is somewhat disappointingly regulated to a menu wheel which allows you to decide what story to pursue next, and stunningly also gives feedback as to what percentage of that story you’ve completed. Many of these side-quests have surprise endings that are pre-spoiled by knowing the “final mission” only takes you to 75 percent of that narrative thread.
And here’s where the problem of Arkham Knight becomes the problem of modern AAA gaming. Amongst the industry, there’s a phrase called “Ubisoft Game” which refers to the cookie-cutter nature of games produced by the publisher Ubisoft. They are often open-world games which promise dozens of hours of entertainment and spaces full of activities with which to engage, but almost every element of the game boils down to one of six or seven kinds of mission. This means that when you look at the map of the world you’re inhabiting, there’s hundreds of little items to complete, but they are all artificial inflations of the game’s playing time unrelated to the story; busy work and checklists that result in the ability to claim a game has “40 hours of entertainment” even if that number is a false reflection of the amount of fun contained within.
Arkham Knight isn’t an Ubisoft game, but it certainly falls into the category. After the first few hours you’ll find yourself engaged in pursuing a car full of bad guys in the Batmobile, clearing out a space overtaken by mean dudes, fighting a bunch of tanks with your BatTank, or driving aimlessly looking for a starting point to a mission that falls into the purview of one of the previous types. Every small sidequest completed unlocks unlock points to improve your gadgets and car, but since Knight begins with every device you’ve unlocked in previous games, it takes hours before you even find a use for all the things you have. It’s a series of small ding sounds representing the idea of achievement but who can even tell if your car shoots you into the sky twice as fast or if your BatClaw can grab an extra dude. It’s forward momentum on a minute scale designed to encourage players to take on just one more challenge. To this end there are also side-side-side challenges scattered throughout the game which allow players to compete online for high scores, although it’s horribly disjointed to say “I have to save that kidnapped firefighter being held at gunpoint” and have the game ask “But first do you want to practice gliding?”
The bigger problem here is that this isn’t Rocksteady Studios succumbing to checklist game design inflation at the behest of a money-hungry publisher; the problem is that this is what gamers asked for. Way back in Arkham Asylum there’s a memorable moment where a bunch of Joker thugs are taking crowbars to the Batmobile, and you take them out by hand in order to save your car. Ever since, gamers have demanded to have access to a drivable Batmobile and have expressed their disappointment in each entry that doesn’t give them exactly what they want. Arkham Knight moves to a citywide scale to accommodate this universal request, and it’s clear the game was built backwards from this decree. But in giving gamers what they thought they wanted you blow-up the game that was a worthy successor to the series. Even some people whose opinion I respect went from demanding the speedy black car to complaining that Batman has no business ripping off Grand Theft Auto. This is the goddamned black hole of the gaming world: its small enough that some of us can be the problem. Pajibans are notoriously big fans of the Mass Effect trilogy of games, and remember that when the third game ended and the internet did not like the complicated ending, the makers of Mass Effect went back and changed it. For non-gamers, imagine if the internet yelled at George Lucas about all the problems with the prequels, and in response George Lucas gave in to all of their demands. That specific moment might be great, but it sets a phantasmagoric precedent for everyone else working within the medium. All of this speaks to that central flaw of Arkham Knight, which is that a group of smart people knew what the mob wanted, and knew what it would cost them in terms of quality, and gave in because it was easier than saying “No. You don’t understand what makes the thing you like into the thing you like.” It feels like cowardice, and that’s goddamned disappointing.
Despite this heart-nuke, it is important to note that Arkham Knight still accomplishes a lot of great, memorable things. For readers that haven’t been gaming in the past half-decade, one reason Pajiba doesn’t regularly dip into this medium is an extension of that industry-wide dependency on impressive numerical playtime I mentioned. Most modern non-indie titles easily require more hours of direct active involvement that an entire season of television programming. Additionally, it’s not the kind of thing you can play in the background, and that’s not the kind of time sink many of us can offer. To finish everything in Knight, I’ve sunk a little under forty hours, and across the entire franchise (including cash-in spin-offs and replays) I’ve probably given Arkham’s version of Batman over 250 hours, which is like watching all of Gilmore Girls, twice. There’s an inclination to rationalize a lot of bad stuff in the finale, which is why I’ve sat on this review to make sure I don’t unfairly credit lackluster elements, just because I can’t get ten entire days of my life back. So here’s my best finale for a great series with an appropriate distance:
Arkham Knight opens strong with the gleeful reveal that you are finally worthy of inhabiting a limitless Batman; much like Ultron, there are no strings on you. The freedom of choice and overwhelming availability of wonderful toys feels like a misstep, but that’s only because it scares the player, and I completely missed the genius of that. Too many games these days literally tell you exactly what your next move should be, whereas Arkham ignores the handholding in favor of throwing Batman into a city in flames and saying “Why haven’t you fixed this yet?” It’s off-putting because it’s been too long since a game believed in you, and that’s great. Unfortunately, the initial writing doesn’t follow suit. Despite being the finale of a very popular series, most of the lesser, and even iconic, characters re-introduce themselves seemingly for the benefit of the non-existent customer who bought Arkham Knight but knows nothing about Batman’s Universe. You don’t expect Batman’s final adventure to include Two-Face reminding him that they used to be friends.
To its credit, each adventure thread about ruining the bank robberies of a rogues gallery prime-staple is off-set by a return to form detective mystery with surprising twists and some elaborately chosen deep cuts. While both of these gameplay styles remain, it’s worth noting that previous games made their mark by presenting them side-by-side instead of separated by hundreds of meters. Which highlights a saving grace of this entry: everything you liked is still here, but none of it feels natural.
In previous games, Scarecrow had been a surprisingly exciting addition, as an inhalation of his fear gas often lead to meta-narrative dream-state levels where Batman would find his weaknesses exploited by a literal monster. From the outset of Knight, the combination of his diatribes about the nature of fear combined with the mercenary military overrunning Gotham’s streets makes for a sad obvious nod toward the entirety of Dark Knight Rises, which is a precarious jumping-off point for the end of a Bat trilogy. And the titular Arkham Knight, a secret new nemesis clad in red who knows all Batman’s secrets, wields an impotent influence since most Batfans know the big reveal long before it arrives.
The first act of the game loses steam quickly as the only focused arc reveals itself to be the end-sum salvation of an evacuated city, now wholly populated by rioting hooligans. There’s a very bleak moment around hour five where, despite your belief in Rocksteady’s conviction, you sigh and admit that a Mark Hamill Joker is desperately needed to pull this haphazard world off. And that’s when you get it. And it’s amazingly well done.
Through a narrative that draws back to the start of the franchise and a proper lean on why your current antagonists have combined, each hit of Scarecrow’s fear toxin winds up giving The Joker more control over Bruce Wayne. The body of the monster remains dead and there’s no bullsh*t cheat, but The Bat’s greatest fear remains alive, fully formed, and slowly taking over his sanity. This allows The Joker to manifest as a Puckish rogue who haunts Bruce wherever he goes and constantly talks over the enemies that cannot see him. It’s perfect. It’s amazing. It’s an unrestrained brutal celebration that not only elevates the character but may also be the most joyful voice acting of this generation. A non-corporeal Joker begging Batman to have some goddamned fun is a true reward for every fan of this world.
The second act story muddles through a series of unmemorable staple progressions like tracking down evil scientists on zeppelins via the cursed crate puzzle and dismantling military watchtowers by beating up strong dudes the same way you beat up military checkpoint dudes or general badish strong dudes. Sometimes they are in cars and you have to chase them.
Luckily, the third act finds a way to give a damn again. Throughout Arkham Knight, Batman never lives up to the promise of the murderer he became in the last game, but he is irreparably changed. He lies to his closest allies, he misrepresents hugely important events, and he seems overly dedicated to fulfilling the prophecy of dying on this night, even if it destroys everyone he knows. There’s a very specific moment where Batman transitions from death-obsessed savior into something I could only compare to Kevin Spacey’s character at the end of season three of House of Cards. It’s a moment you realize you might be aligned but the bad guy, but within a video game you must make peace with the fact you might be controlling the bad guy, which is so much worse.
The game feels as though it has ended, when you suddenly find Scarecrow with the entire upper hand. Batman is given the choice to reveal himself or watch as his friends’ lives are all made forfeit. You must choose an elaborate process of surrendering yourself to Scarecrow, and soon find yourself unmasked on television, back within the halls of Arkham. Bruce Wayne is exposed to the world as Scarecrow gives you a final dose, and suddenly Joker is set free in your body. What follows is one of my favorite sequences in video game history, wherein you play as the Joker with full access to all Batman’s toys and a Batmobile, and use them to brutally murder the entire rogues gallery before burning Gotham to the ground. It’s an unspoken ego nightmare made manifest, on par with the episode of Loony Toons where Wile E. Coyote stops to explain via slideshow exactly what he will cook and in what manner he will eat the Road Runner upon capture.
It’s this beautiful sequence that realizes the opposite of a Batman is finitely, exactly, specifically his nemesis, but that even in death a perfect reflection of our worst self can still thrive inside our subconscious thought. Though the game goes out of its way to recreate pinnacle moments from The Killing Joke or A Death in the Family (amidst a world torn from a mix of Knightfall and Cataclysm), this choice is what Arkham Knight gives back to the lore. What follows is Batsh*t crazy. The burning apocalyptic Gotham fades to black as Joker feels Bruce taking back some small part of his mind. What follows is a gothic dream-scape where an ailing bat-brain attempts to turn its darkness on the clown prince, who the player is still inhabiting. As you navigate a series of catacombs, Batman’s consciousness attempts to devastate Joker with the notion that in his death, he is already entirely forgotten. A mix of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and the “Blink” episode of Doctor Who, it spirals further into darkness until Batman appears and throws Joker into a small cell that he ejects into the depth of his memory. As Joker begs to live and proclaims his love and need for the ying to his yang, the player celebrates in this awe-inspiring moment wherein the primary arch-nemesis relationship from all of comic book land is met by a conclusion that treats both players as equals but on a battlefield that was always metaphorical, now made painstakingly visceral. It’s also a narrative-perfect resolution to a trilogy where the villain physically died in part two. What the Joker did to Batman over the years never cut nearly as deep as the fear of what the world looked like without a balance to a spiritual darkness. In that perspective, it’s very easy to laugh off the problems of Batman vs. the intended antagonists of this game; they were never the focus and that’s why we all felt the need for the Joker’s promised non-presence; not because Scarecrow couldn’t carry a storyline, but because Scarecrow and Arkham Knight and Penguin and Firefly and Killer Croc are all just extensions of one identity, as and that wall of fear falls it becomes clear how an entire universe’s darkness was the extension of just one eclipse.
In previous Arkham games, you would win the game and then return to the grounds in an effort to wrap up the rest of side-plots and collectibles and riddles left unattended; which is a fairly common event among the modern big-checklist games. Arkham Knight is the first to do something a little groundbreaking with the narrative tie to the game-world silly completionist dedication. After Bruce Wayne, who has been revealed to the world as Batman, defeats Scarecrow he returns to Gotham on the promise he’ll finish all his outstanding business tonight, before something revolutionary happens to Batman. Again, the game’s narrative ends, but you have a cool impetus to see every last moment of what the game has to offer. One of the best parts of open world Batman is this each super-villain you defeat is handcuffed and bound in the trunk of the Batmobile, and then you get to hand deliver them to a high security cell in the basement of GCPD. In a general manner, this also applies to hundreds of the henchmen you take out around the city, and soon your police department walk-throughs involve heckles from the imprisoned members of each individual gang. Within the early acts of the story, this is more a physical representation of the degree to which you’ve cleaned up the city. But when Bruce Wayne is unmasked, every villain in the city learns immediately. It’s a surprisingly great reward for continuing to master a game you’ve ostensibly conquered, as you hear everyone from your great nemesis down to the guys who worked door at Penguin’s nightclub hurl insults at the fancy, fancy, rich boy. There’s a moment during your showdown with Scarecrow where the player admits that Bruce Wayne’s reveal isn’t the worst thing that could happen, but if you’ve been paying attention to every small story detail since the beginning, you’ll know exactly what is at stake. So there’s this in-between story act as you finish the fun parts of a video game, but every interaction is a reminder that street thugs don’t fear you any more, every mad-dog in lock-up is waiting to sue rich-boy Bruce Wayne for the time he broke their jaw, and that every ass-hat from Firefly down to the craziest Blackgate inmate is waiting for their release so they can burn Wayne Manor down in the night. It goes from this passive background chatter series of jokes about how Bruce Wayne doesn’t need any more expensive cars to this very real realization that the Mayor has signed a warrant for Bruce Wayne’s arrest and even Jim Gordon has to fall in line.
The series ends, in a final 100 percent completion way, with the afore-promised death of the Dark Knight. Once you’re done saving everyone in Gotham, Batman flies back to a Wayne Manor surrounded by press, and as he enters the front door to meet with Alfred, the entire property explodes in an all-encompassing ball of flame. Obviously Bruce and Alfred secretly find their way out, but Gotham is left with the idea of Batman dying in the ash, and that’s the only thing that ever mattered. Gordon narrates an epilogue that asks what force will keep Gotham in line, and we witness a family exit a movie theater and head down a dark alley, only to be met by a hoodlum with a gun. There’s an implication that the idea of Batman is culturally cyclical; that there will always be a child wronged who dedicates their life to battling the unbeatable. But then, within the final moments, a hyper-exaggerated abomination of a bat descends upon the bad guy before he can pull the trigger. This poses two interesting theories. One is that a retired Batman re-purposed Scarecrow’s fear gas to keep Gotham in line. The other, which is much more rewarding, is the belief that a fear of Batman will keep law and order long after the physical manifestation has past.
It’s a dark, complicated addition to a franchise that needs some help. While weighed down by the machinations of a troubled industry, Arkham Knight delights and delivers more than it promised.
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