‘Batman Arkham City’ It’s the Final Countdown

Photo courtesy of Game Informer

Photo courtesy of Game Informer

“Batman Arkham City” is the best superhero game ever made.

In my review of “Batman Arkham Asylum,” I said how important this game was to me as a child, but in truth, I somewhat understated how important this game was to little me. “Arkham City” is the game that made me fall in love with Batman and superheroes as a whole. If you know anything about me, you know I’m an enormous Batman fan, to the point that it’s become a core part of my personality.

For better or for worse, it’s the game that pushed me into buying every game, seeing every movie, and purchasing hundreds (if not thousands) of his comics. That is to say, this game is very near and dear to my heart, but that’s not without a reason because this game is incredible. Even with its unique concept and opening pitch, this game is the definitive representation of Batman’s mythos. Now, I don’t think this game is the best Batman story ever (far from it) but it does nail the feel of a Batman story that hasn’t really been replicated by any adaptation since.

“Arkham City” had a lofty legacy to live up to after its predecessor, “Arkham Asylum,” revolutionized superhero games and third-person action games. Thankfully, it lived up to that legacy and even exceeded the first game. It improved on nearly every aspect from the first game to such a degree that I often find it hard to go back to it because “Arkham City” is just that good.

Yes, I am very biased and nostalgic for this game, but “Arkham City” is a near-perfect game with only a few issues holding it back from being a complete masterpiece.

The concept around this game is that in between the events of the first game and this one, Gotham sectioned off an entire part of Gotham and retrofitted it into a giant prison called Arkham City which is essentially a no man’s land where the criminals of both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Prison must fend for their own and fight for survival. If that sounds messed up, it’s because it is. Arkham City is also run with near impunity and very little accountability.

While pretty unrealistic, the concept of Arkham City is just so cool and unique, and it lends itself perfectly to a game like this. 

The art design in this game is spectacular. Gotham, or at least the sectioned-off part that we see looks fantastic. It looks grounded enough to feel realistic but also stylized enough to actually feel like Gotham, unlike the Christopher Nolan movies. If I were to make a perfect Gotham, it would look almost exactly like it does here because it’s the perfect mix of reality and fantasy that makes this city such an interesting locale. A lot of versions focus way too much on one side or the other but this game strikes that perfect balance.

This city feels borderline post-apocalyptic. There is garbage all over the place, dilapidated infrastructure, and armed thugs throughout. This makes Batman’s mission feels like a much more daunting task because he is no longer operating within the normal confines of Gotham, now he is in a place where the criminal’s social shackles are removed. Anything and everything is fair game.

The levels are also simply beautiful. They all have unique environments and aesthetics that help them stand out while also feeling like they fit into this larger whole. Wonder City, for example, is a hidden city beneath Gotham that evokes some steampunk influence. At the beginning of the game, you also enter an abandoned courthouse with Two-Face in it, and to reflect his design and state of mind; half of the courthouse is burned and dilapidated while the other half looked nice and pristine. It’s little pieces of environmental storytelling like this that make every new level feel special and worthwhile.

Just like the first game, the character designs here are amazing and are (mostly) the definitive designs for these characters in a photorealistic setting. All the villains look fantastic, especially some of the new ones like Mr. Freeze, who has quite possibly the coolest design he has ever had. Batman and Catwoman have my absolute favorite designs I have ever seen for them outside of the comics. They both stick relatively close to their comic counterparts while adapting them for a more realistic art style, and they pulled these designs off flawlessly.

The soundtrack is also great. The orchestral themes help highlight the grandness and importance of what is happening on screen. The main theme might just be my favorite Batman theme ever. It not only feels grand and heroic but also takes a more somber tone making the song feel bittersweet; highlighting the ultimate tragedy of Batman as a character.

Gameplay-wise, this game is as close to perfect as you can get. There are two styles of gameplay here, combat and stealth. Throughout the game, there will be numerous sections where you are forced to stick to the shadows and pick enemies off one by one. This is because enemies are armed so you can’t just take them head first and bulldoze your way through. Compared to “Arkham Asylum,” these segments, called predator sections, are much better designed with a lot more room for mobility and creative play.

 A lot of times in the first game it felt like you were effectively pigeon held into constantly waiting for enemies to get in the right positions. Here, however, you can and have to be a bit more crafty because being seen will be a deadly risk. They also have more and better gadgets to use in these sections such as a shock Batarang, a disruptor to disable firearms and mines, and more. Enemies also have tools up their sleeve however as some now have heat vision goggles that can detect you when you’re on a gargoyle and they generally are just more intelligent, which forces you to think on your feet a bit more

The other side of the gameplay is the melee hand-to-hand combat, and it might just be my favorite in any game. This free-flow system debuted in “Arkham Asylum,” and while it was good for the time, “Arkham City” just blows it out of the water. Combat is so much more fluid, responsive, and varied. A lot of games with melee combat struggle to make it look both fluid and feel fun, but this game somehow did it, and it’s just immaculate. The combat has such as satisfying rhythm to it. In the first game, combat could often be fairly janky, which could make you lose a long combo you had going and mess up your flow, but here, every mistake you make feels fair and balanced.

I do recommend playing on the hard difficulties, however, because the game on normal isn’t all too challenging. It just feels more rewarding when a single blow could deal massive damage. Playing on hard mode also gets you better at the game quicker because enemies have shorter hit times, so you have to react faster in order to counter and dodge out of the way. It also makes you think and play more carefully because you can’t just spam the attack button willy-nilly. It also improves the stealth sections because getting caught is basically a death sentence where you will very rarely get the opportunity to escape on time, so you will be required to use all the tools at your disposal.

This game also has an open world, unlike its predecessor, and it might just be one of the best open worlds in gaming. As I said before the atmosphere of “Arkham City” is fantastic and each location feels unique and varied. A good way to tell if an open world is good is if you can tell exactly where you are without consulting a map. This is only a small part of Gotham but the developers employ an excellent sense of geography that makes it easy to know exactly where you are and where you have to go. There is also a litany of excellent side missions that help flesh out and build out the world

To boot, they even let you play as Catwoman, who has her own interesting combat and stealth sections with a more limited roster of gadgets at her disposal.

The story is where I feel the game suffers the most. While good, the story never really reaches for any truly deep themes that would make it great. The story has an excellent and interesting backbone, but it just needs a little push to achieve greatness. 

The story centers around three different plot threads. First, you find out that the Joker is sick with a deadly illness due to the events of “Arkham Asylum,” and he infects batman with it too via blood transfusion so in order to save both himself and the Joker, Batman must fight his way through Arkham to find a cure. This is by far the most interesting aspect of the story because it adds more stakes to the story than just a physical threat. Now, Batman is in a race against time for his own life and throughout the story, you see him get increasingly more agitated and desperate as the illness progresses. It even gets to the point where you see him on the verge of death and seeing a light from heaven with his parents waiting. This also inherently ties the Joker to Batman because he must also save him rather than defeat him like in most other stories. 

This thread delves the most into Bruce’s mind and psychology, and it genuinely feels like a test, unlike anything Bruce has faced before. It also just makes the story all the more inspiring because he is on the verge of death while enduring this entire gauntlet of villains in one night which just highlights Batman’s unstoppable will and courage. The stakes are a lot more personal for him yet despite all that, he still decides to do the right thing. As the final cherry on top, this all concludes in one of the absolute best and most shocking twists in any superhero story.

Where the story struggles is the other two. One revolves around the mystery of how “Arkham City” even came to be, who is behind all this, and what is this Protocol 10 that people have been talking about. The other is Catwoman’s portion of the story where she seeks to rob the vault of the head of Arkham City, Dr. Hugo Strange (I know, you can’t get a more comically villainous name than that). The Joker and cure plotline takes front and center for most of the story and these two don’t really get the time to breathe which makes them both feel undercooked. Both of these plots are only really prevalent at the beginning and end of the game, so it doesn’t feel like they have any rising action to build toward a climax.

The Hugo Strange stuff is really cool and interesting at first until the game kind of forgets about it for half the game. When all these ultimate revelations come, they feel cool and interesting but also unearned because you never really investigate this at all throughout the game, so it just feels like all these mysteries are handed to you on a silver platter when the game reaches its climax.

Catwoman’s story just kind of feels like a whatever plotline. There’s one really solid mission in there that highlights her character and moral compass beyond the surface level but that’s about it. She suffers from the same problem as Strange, where she has 2 missions at the beginning of the game and then just doesn’t appear until the climax, where she is faced with a difficult moral decision. Both of these plots just needed to be interwoven throughout the story more in order to really and truly shine. 

The Strange stuff is extra disappointing considering that the basic pitch for this game leaves a ton of room to criticize how we treat criminals and the prison industrial complex as a whole but instead we just kinda get a mustache-twirling supervillain plot instead.

“Batman Arkham City” is, without a doubt, my favorite superhero game of all time, and if it weren’t for the messy story, it would be a perfect game. The combat and level design are fantastic, the art design perfectly embodies Batman and Gotham, and the story, while flawed, has a lot of heart to it, and it truly understands what makes Batman such an incredible character and heroic figure.

Score: 9/10