The Batman Arkham Series: A look back and forward
by Nathaniel Hohl, shacknews.com, Aug 8, 2014 1:00PM PDT
When Batman: Arkham Knight releases sometime early next year, the Arkham series, which began with Rocksteady’s smash hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, will be a little under six years old. During that six-year period, Batman: Arkham fans have been treated to three major console and PC games, two mobile games, a handheld title, a series of comic books, and even an animated film which is set to launch later this month. Arkham Knight’s release will mark the end of Rocksteady’s involvement with the series and there’s no question the studio is saving the best for last in terms of story and gameplay. But what exactly should Rocksteady make sure to include in Arkham Knight’s narrative? To answer that question, we need to look back at how the series has evolved over time.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back when Arkham Asylum was first announced in 2008, one of the most resounding reactions it got from fans was skepticism. Up until that point, the Batman series had a less-than-pristine reputation amongst gamers thanks to the large multitude of mediocre Batman games that had come before Asylum. Rocksteady aimed to change all that with a self-contained Batman adventure that highlighted the core pillars of Batman’s appeal (combat, stealth, and detective work) and presented them in a dynamic new format. As the game’s August, 2009 release date crept closer and closer, fans couldn’t help but get excited and, fortunately for all involved, that excitement ended up paying off.
Not only did Arkham Asylum serve as an excellent primer course for those who weren’t familiar with the series’ iconic heroes and villains, it was also just a downright fun game to play. The game’s unique “freeflow” combat system and stealth-focused predator encounters combined with its well-implemented use of Batman’s “Detective Vision” and other gadgets melded perfectly with its well-told story and use of environmental puzzles. While the main narrative pitted Batman against his archnemesis The Joker, several other villains, including Bane, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy, were woven into the story as well. Even better, unlockable character profiles allowed players to discover interesting lore elements about Batman, the villains he faced, and also several other characters, whose influence could be felt in Arkham Asylum’s creepy, claustrophobic halls.
Considering how universally well-received Arkham Asylum ended up being, it was hard to imagine the team at Rocksteady could outdo themselves with a sequel. But two years later, they did exactly that with the release of Arkham City.
Arkham City, which was released in 2011, took virtually everything about its predecessor and made it better. The freeflow combat got some nice additions, including the ability to counter-attack multiple enemies at once, and the all-new ability to catch thrown objects out of the air and hurl them back at thugs. The game’s urban city setting, while still ominous, allowed players to explore and glide around at their leisure. Arkham City also featured an expanded cast of both new and returning villains such as Two-Face, Penguin, Deadshot, Mr. Freeze, Hush, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Doctor Strange... along with a few allies including Catwoman and Robin.
Much like with Asylum, the game’s story was masterfully crafted to seamlessly incorporate all of these additional enemies and allies into a narrative that both challenged players and gave devoted Batman fans plenty of lore-based surprises along the way. As an added treat, DLC add-ons allowed players to step into the crime-fighting boots of Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing in both story-based and standalone challenge encounters. These additional heroes came with their own combat movesets and gadgets, drastically expanding Arkham City’s replay value and giving longtime fans more to love.
Interestingly enough, Rocksteady also left some minor story threads in Arkham City unresolved and even inserted a few cleverly-hidden easter eggs, all of which pointed to the existence of an eventual sequel. When players finally discovered it was Thomas Elliot, a.k.a. Hush, who had been murdering innocents and stealing parts of their faces to create a macabre copy of Bruce Wayne’s mug, he managed to escape Batman’s justice. When the enigmatic “Watcher in the Wings” sidequest was finally complete, Azreal showed up briefly to offer a cryptic warning to the Dark Knight about the “end of days.” What did it all mean? Unfortunately, the next game in the series wouldn’t resolve any of those mysteries and instead journeyed back into the Caped Crusader’s early years.
For Batman’s third Arkham outing, Rocksteady handed the reins over to WB Montreal for a prequel tale taking place during a fateful Christmas Eve soon after Bruce Wayne first donned the cape and cowl. WB Montreal showed no hesitation in hyping Arkham Origins up before its release, promising another thrilling narrative that pitted Batman against eight deadly assassins, the likes of whom included both familiar faces (Bane, Killer Croc, Deadshot) and Arkham series newcomers (Deathstroke, Lady Shiva, Copperhead, Firefly, Electrocutioner). Considering how genuinely excited WB Montreal appeared to be about Arkham Origins, fans naturally followed suit. However, once the game was released, that excitement quickly cooled off.
What WB Montreal had hyped up as a thrilling narrative centered around Gotham crime lord Black Mask and the eight assassins hunting Batman ended up being a haphazard jumble of story threads that once again focused on The Joker. Most of the assassins were relegated to one-time boss encounters, and two of them (Lady Shiva and Deadshot) didn’t even show up in the main story. Instead, they were used for two of the game’s optional side missions. While the meta-narrative of Batman having to survive his first encounter with The Joker and prove himself to Captain James Gordon and the Gotham PD gave the game some important context, virtually everything else about Arkham Origins’ story just fell flat.
The gameplay didn’t fare much better. Aside from the addition of a new “crime scene reconstruction” element and a small handful of new gadgets, combat and puzzle-solving remained virtually unchanged from Arkham City. In fact, many players argued that WB had made the combat in Arkham Origins worse by shortening the time players had to counter enemy attacks and making it so that players couldn’t transition out of a ground takedown after it had been initiated. The game’s multiplayer (which pitted two teams of thugs and a third team playing as Batman and Robin against each other) was pretty much dead on arrival thanks to ongoing network issues, repetitive gameplay, and microtransaction-driven progression (you can read more about Arkham Origins’ disastrous multiplayer here).
Additional issues such as game-breaking bugs and glitches, a lack of feedback from WB’s technical support, and the dishonest way in which the game’s post-release DLC was handled - the costumes players bought through the game’s season pass could also be earned for free in-game, but WB didn't reveal it - quickly eroded whatever good faith WB Montreal had built up. While the later-released Initiation and Cold, Cold Heart story DLC add-ons closed Arkham Origins’ legacy out on a somewhat good note, many fans were understandably hoping Rocksteady would return to the director’s chair should a fourth game be announced. This past March, those fans got their wish.
In addition to Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Origins, several pieces of other Batman: Arkham media were created to serve as tie-ins to events depicted in the games. Three different comic book series’, Arkham City, Arkham Unhinged, and Arkham City End Game featured events and characters leading up to, during, and after the events of Arkham City the game. A fourth comic, Arkham Origins, served as a prequel to the game with which it shared a title. Both Arkham City and Arkham Origins received mobile tie-in games and Arkham Origins also received a side-scrolling sequel; Arkham Origins: Blackgate which was released for the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, and recently upgraded and ported to the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.
These extra media additions weren’t necessarily required in order to appreciate the games off which they were based but they proved just how committed WB and Rocksteady are to the franchise. The upcoming animated film Assault on Arkham, which is set to be released on August 12, will continue in that same vein by telling an original tale featuring Batman and the Suicide Squad (following up on a post-credits easter egg in Arkham Origins). The film will feature several iconic Batman Arkham villains including Joker, Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and The Riddler; many of whom will be voiced by the same actors who voiced the characters in the Arkham games.
Closing out a legacy
Now that we have thoroughly explored the Batman: Arkham IP’s past, it’s time to speculate on the IP’s future in Arkham Knight. Rocksteady has naturally been working very hard to keep major story details close to the vest, but the developer has also revealed plenty of other info from which we can glean many exciting possibilities. It is already known that villains such as Scarecrow, Penguin, Two-Face, and Harley Quinn will all be returning, but what else could Rocksteady have in store for devoted fans, and just who the heck is this new Arkham Knight fellow?
In regards to the first question, I hope both Azreal and Hush make a return. It just wouldn’t seem right if Rocksteady took the time to tease both characters, leave their stories unresolved, and then just forget to include them in Arkham Knight’s narrative. If Hush does return, he could make things very complicated for Batman’s millionaire alter-ego and as anyone who has read the Hush graphic novel knows, he isn’t above putting together elaborate plans to confound, demoralize, and ultimately bring down the Dark Knight.
Azreal meanwhile could serve as an unlikely ally for the Caped Crusader, though given his fragmented psyche and his enigmatic motivations, he could just as easily return as yet another villain for Batman to deal with. But Azreal and Hush are just the tip of the iceberg. What other challenges and potential adversaries could Rocksteady have up its sleeve? An appearance from the Court of Owls? The rise of a new Clown Prince (or Princess) of Crime? Maybe even a showdown with Bruce Wayne’s own son Damien? For this epic finale, I wouldn’t rule anything out.
As for this mysterious Arkham Knight, there are already plenty of theories speculating who this titular masked adversary could be (including one written by Shacknews’ Ozzie Mejia and another by yours truly). Rocksteady has assured fans that he is a brand new, completely original character but I have a strong hunch that such claims are just smoke and mirrors meant to distract fans from whatever grand scheme Rocksteady is cooking up. As I mentioned in my own speculation piece, my money is still on Jason Todd being the man behind Arkham Knight’s mask and the recent announcement of an exclusive pre-order DLC add-on featuring a playable version of the Red Hood (another of Jason Todd’s aliases) only helps to support my theory.
Whoever the Arkham Knight ends up being, I’m sure Rocksteady will make unmasking and ultimately defeating him into yet another exciting adventure for Batman: Arkham fans. Naturally it is a bit sad to see the Arkham franchise coming to an end, but if anyone is up to the task of sending the Dark Knight off with a bang, it’s the incredibly talented team at Rocksteady. They’ve already struck lighting twice before and if what I’ve already seen of Arkham Knight is any indication, they’re well on their way to going three for three.
Nate Hohl has been working as a freelance writer and game journalist ever since he graduated college in 2011. He has written for a large number of different websites including freelancewriting.com and Newegg's gaming site gamecrate.com. While he enjoys writing news and reviews, he feels his skills are best applied when exploring relevant topics and engaging readers through opinion and editorial pieces.