The following post contains spoilers for the Batman: Arkham series
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: 23rd June 2015
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Writers: Martin Lancaster, Sefton Hill and Ian Ball
Biography: The fourth instalment in the Arkham series began development in 2011 and took four years to finish. In the interim came a prequel to Arkham Asylum named Arkham Origins developed by WB Games Montréal. At the time Arkham Knight was the first in the series to feature on the latest generation of consoles and added greater detail, a higher number of enemies and real-time cut-scenes to the latest entry.
Batman: Arkham Knight is the third Batman game developed by Rocksteady Studios and like previous entries in the series takes place over one (fairly long) night as the Dark Knight faces off once more against a host of his most famous villains. In many ways the game is familiar territory for the Arkham series but with Arkham Knight Rocksteady managed to craft a highly cinematic and thrilling conclusion to Batman and Bruce Wayne’s story while still leaving plenty of room for lingering questions.
The basic premise is that Scarecrow, a very well-liked villain in the first game, returns to Gotham and threatens the population with his fear gas prompting a wide-scale evacuation. It quickly becomes apparent that Scarecrow isn’t alone in his efforts, an entire militia of well-equipped mercenaries have invaded the city and its locales led by an unknown soldier named the Arkham Knight. The entire series is built on society breaking down and Batman needing to step in and fix things but there’s an added eeriness in Arkham Knight emphasised by the new scale and size of Gotham and the emptiness of the streets – aside for gang members and police of course.
The first noticeable thing about Arkham Knight is the much more cinematic approach that always keeps the player in the moment and the story. Whether it’s the sweeping camera panning from the streets to Batman perched on a tower at the beginning of the game or all cut-scenes taking place in-engine, Rocksteady was keen to add atmosphere to its big set-piece moments on a scale that we’ve not previously seen before. This cinematic presentation is aided by the best looking Arkham game to date which is still one of the more impressive looking games on modern consoles. The neon lights of Gotham reflected in the pools of rain as the Batmobile races down streets looks pretty cool and brings a vibrancy to Gotham that we’ve not seen reflected before – it’s still Gothic looking of course but the city now feels more lived in than earlier entries.
The plot of Arkham Knight focuses a lot on change and evolution, something that Gotham city reflects well. There was the sense in the comics that Gotham had distinct parts to it with layers of history and Arkham Knight is the first time a studio has really tried to apply this to the game. For example, Miagani Island contains retail stores and entertainment but also contains a lot of older more Gothic architecture whereas the contrasting Founders Island represents the city’s financial prowess with towering modern, skyscrapers and bright colours. Noticeably, this island contains lots of construction representing how Gotham is changing and always trying to improve its image. The city is often portrayed as almost a character itself in the comics and that personality shines through in Arkham Knight.
There’s an added seriousness to Arkham Knight that befits a conclusion to a series. There are frequent reminders throughout the game that this could be Batman’s last outing and it’s not just Scarecrow or the Arkham Knight’s taunts via audio communication or Gotham’s giant screens but the way Batman talks to others. There’s a frank discussion with Catwoman later in the game which is wonderfully acted by Kevin Conroy, about Gotham needing a new myth, a new legend to protect the city – there’s a distinct sense that the crime keeps escalating within Gotham and Batman might not be strong enough to save the day this time. There’s even a question of who takes up the mantle if Bruce Wayne no longer does via side missions with Azrael – a brainwashed warrior who feels he’s up to the task.
As always there are fantastic performances which help bring the story and characters to life from minor villains like Two-Face or Penguin to the ever-annoying presence of the Riddler. There are some new faces too which give the general feeling of the game something fresh. Kirk Langstrom is a scientist who accidentally transforms into a giant bat when trying to cure himself of a disease and ends up murdering his own wife. Meanwhile Deacon Blackfire is a bloodthirsty cultist who kidnaps reporter Jack Ryder to sacrifice him at the Lady of Gotham statue. Special mention should go to Scarecrow and his very creepy appearance – the psychological villain looks less human in the game and more like something from a horror movie. But as usual, it’s Mark Hamill’s turn as the clown prince of crime that steals the show and he manages to put in his best performance yet in Arkham Knight, grasping the opportunity to show off the character’s weaknesses as well as his sadistic side.
Even the Joker’s demise at the end of Arkham City couldn’t keep him out of Rocksteady’s sequel. Before passing, Batman’s greatest villain sent his Titan-infected blood to several hospitals infecting four patients there – the modified compound has gradually turned these civilians into different aspects of Joker’s personality – it’s quite a ludicrous, comic-book story turn but it provides an opportunity to explore the different elements that make up the Joker while keeping the action moving. For example, Christina Bell adopted Joker’s sadistic nature and obsession with Batman, boxer Albert King his violence and Johnny Charisma his showmanship. But it’s Henry Adams that makes an unexpected turn showing how he’s manipulated events allowing Harley Quinn to infiltrate Panessa Studios and free the hostages. This cleverly highlights one of Joker’s more underestimated traits – his intelligence. In each Arkham game, Joker has been one step ahead of Batman and even this twisted version of him still manages to slip under his radar.
Joker’s presence is felt throughout Arkham Knight despite his death and rather than taunting Batman over the tannoy system at Arkham Asylum or via a TV screen we’re able to see the character pop up at different moments in sometimes amusing, sometimes psychological ways. Inside vents, on rooftops, inside the Batmobile, it’s a great way to have fun with the character but also make some serious comments on the plot of the game. The Joker is actively messing with Batman’s psyche raising the stakes and demonstrating that it’s a matter of time before he takes over completely. There are some fantastic moments that are nods to Batman’s comic book history such as visions of the death of ex-Robin Jason Todd and the brutal shooting of Barbara Gordon, both of which we get to see play out first-hand while remaining powerless to help. These are some of the most effective moments poignantly highlighting why Batman keeps his friends at arms length and what he views as his greatest failures.
This brings us to the Arkham Knight – a faceless, highly-trained soldier that claims he knows Batman’s every move. For those who know their comic books it’s pretty consistently telegraphed who this ‘new’ Rocksteady villain is – Jason Todd. While the character’s writing could have been better – he comes across a tad annoying – his slow turn to the light works well enough and shows Batman’s faith in his former ally to put things right when it comes to the final confrontation with Scarecrow. Having a persistent physical threat alongside Scarecrow’s psychological terror works nicely and does lead to some cool set piece moments such as rescuing the workers from ACE Chemicals, racing through the tunnels to escape being crushed or testing Batman’s stealth prowess in the shopping arcade.
The main plot of the game is pretty entertaining and always feels like Batman’s racing to keep up with the villains’ carefully laid plans – as a good Arkham game should. Unlike some of the other games, Arkham Knight has more intensity, the death of Barbara Gordon is one of many moments of failure for the Dark Knight. Emotional turmoil is a theme throughout the game, this is done through key moments like when Alfred, overjoyed that Jason is still alive asks Batman if Jason’s okay – to which he replies ‘no, he’s not’ adding a real sense of dismay to what should be a happy moment – this has additional weight when you consider that Jason goes on to be the Red Hood – more of an anti-hero who has no problem crossing the line of murder where Batman will not. A character who gets an unexpected amount of screen time is Poison Ivy as her aptitude with plant life is key to protecting Gotham from the Cloudburst’s toxins. Her sacrifice is a serene and strangely beautiful moment in the game.
Adding nuance to certain characters works really well in this universe where so much can be boiled down to good or evil. This is further explored in Arkham Knight‘s side missions called Most Wanted. What seems like a routine rescuing of 17 firefighters from what we presume to be Firefly attacks turns out to be the fire chief creating work for his fire crew, working with Firefly to set fire to buildings so the crew aren’t laid off by the city of Gotham. The Shadow War DLC deepens the story of the League of Assassins by introducing Nyssa and asking the player to choose whether to let Ra’s al Ghul live or die – it’s the series’ first experiment with player choice and either decision has repercussions, it will be interesting to see if this is factored into any future titles. Finally, the In From The Cold DLC features Mr Freeze and his desperate attempts to save his wife Nora. It plays out as a typical Batman mission until the end when Victor finally decides to listen to his wife’s wishes and simply live out her remaining days together without cryogenic freezing to try and find her a cure. It’s a satisfying conclusion for a villain that is far from irredeemable.
Rocksteady should be praised for the smaller details and subtle nods that give the game such an impressive atmosphere. Whether it’s Joker popping up on statues or posters as the fear toxin takes it’s toll, the long list of DC references and nods to characters like Superman or Green Arrow or simply GCPD officers commenting on how cool the Batmobile looks to drive. It all adds to the sense of a comic book world come to life. The fact that NPC’s and villains will comment on Batman’s unmasking as Bruce Wayne is especially appreciated. Of course, Rocksteady has shown it isn’t afraid to make significant changes in an effort to create its own lore. One of these moments is Jim Gordon referring to Batman as Bruce – this takes place in the elevator on the way to confront Scarecrow on the rooftop. While Jason shouts Bruce’s name in front of Gordon earlier, there isn’t much of a reaction and one interpretation is that Gordon has known Batman’s identity for some time. This change from the traditional relationship between Gordon and Batman is interesting to think about and emphasises how much these characters trust one another.
Good stories tend to stick with us and the closing scenes of Arkham Knight does just that. There’s no boss fight or battle to contend with, instead it’s a deep psychological look at Bruce Wayne, Batman and the Joker. The fact that Scarecrow is the main villain of the game and is a bystander for much of this scene, left confused by what’s unfolding in front of him is a testament to how close Batman and Joker’s relationship is and how integral it is to the Arkham series. But first comes the unmasking of Batman – it’s a huge moment for the character who senses the end of his tenure is near and for the universe at large; is the Arkham saga essentially finished now or is there more to this than meets the eye? It’s unlikely Bruce Wayne would really kill himself and Alfred by blowing up Wayne Manor but it does raise major red flags over Wayne returning to Gotham as Batman and puts his litany of sidekicks at risk of discovery. Hopefully this has some real stakes for any future games and credit to Rocksteady for making such a bold move if that is the case.
It’s in these final moments we see Joker fully take over Batman and a glimpse of what chaos that would cause. It’s a cool, albeit strange scene as Joker guns down his fellow criminals and enjoys seeing Gotham in flames. Afterwards is a great case study of the Joker and his ego – ultimately he’s scared of being forgotten – a surprisingly human fear for a criminal who so often acts without remorse or humanity. We are also shown a little of the fear that Batman inspires in criminals as he pops up without warning as a stone statue eventually breaking out of one of them to incarcerate the Joker in a corner of his mind where he can no longer have an effect on him. Players are also shown Scarecrow’s fear gas and its effect on its creator when concerning Batman who appears to be more demonic and supernatural.
When reflecting on Arkham Knight it’s noticeable that it has more intensity, greater consequences and a much more psychological view of Batman as a character. There are signs of more nuanced storytelling compared to previous games aided by a cinematic approach and a more vibrant Gotham for players to explore. There is the dependably strong performances from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill who ground the story of these larger than life characters suitably. The stunning finale leaves us wondering what next for Batman in video games? If the Arkham series is to continue in any significant way then will we see a drastically different incarnation of the character?
What did you think of Batman: Arkham Knight‘s story? What did you think of the plot and story compared to the other games in the series? Where would you like to see the story go next?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.