It was always going to be tough for Warner Bros. Montreal to dispel the narrative that inevitably preceded Batman: Arkham Origins. It was the first of the three Arkhams to arrive a year after the last, it wasn’t a Rocksteady entry, and you didn’t even need to squint for it to look like City. The next proper Arkham would be the one after, and Origins would prove iterative, unexceptional, and overall irrelevant to the conversation.
Or, to use the words of Quarter to Three reviewer Brandon Cachowski-Smith, a “cash in.”
“The combat isn’t as good,” Cachowski-Smith writes, “The story is weak and meaningless, all tension drained from it because we know that nothing bad happens to anyone as they’re all around in Arkham Asylum, and the gadgets are either exactly the same or have the barest of cosmetic differences to distinguish them from previous games’ gadgets.”
I sympathize with Warner Bros. Montreal to an extent. I suspect the time frame, and the publisher’s stipulations, meant a City-a-like was always prescribed.That said, I think the studio missed a trick. For all the things that Cachowski-Smith says we know, a well written origins story would’ve saved the game from that sense of mediocrity.
As it is, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s so raw about this Batman. The prevailing theme of Batman being a man, not an island – otherwise he’d be called Batisland – isn’t convincing, not least because he plays like the human battering ram his older self is. The cut scenes tell us that Batman needs help from the likes of Commissioner Gordon and Alfred, but as Batman sweeps through dozens of Gotham’s goons at at time, it’s clear that he doesn’t – and trust me, there is a lot of beating up goons in Origins, even for an Arkham game.
“At its best, Arkham Origins is like its superiors,” says Ludwig Kietzmann in his Joystiq review, “But it’s often worse or uncommitted to its young Batman, who is just as unflappable as the old model.”
“This younger Batman is paradoxically stuck in his future ways,” Kietzmann goes on to conclude, “His game re-calibrated into a lopsided, combat-heavy flashback. And as the confused time travelers that we are in this chronology, we can express disappointment when we realize his best days are yet to come – like they did already.”
Again, maybe Warner Bros. Montreal was always up against it here, which makes you wonder why a prequel that couldn’t reduce its hero was ever green-lit. It’s not like Warner Bros. Montreal is a poor studio, either. It provides welcome tweaks and additions here and there, like a greater sense of being able to swing and glide your way around Gotham, or the crime simulations that are more interesting than hand-holding puzzles ought to be.
If there’s one ray of sunshine in a reflection as bleak as the Gotham landscape, it’s Origins‘ examination of the dark knight’s relationship with his arch-nemesis, the Joker.
“Origins recounts the first meeting between Batman and the Joker and digs deep into the warped psychology of the villain,” writes Phil Kollar in his Polygon review. “At first I was disappointed when I started stumbling through areas full of skewed TVs and neon green graffiti, because it felt like retreaded territory. But Warner Bros. Montreal has some genuinely surprising and dark twists with the Joker that make his role here feel essential in a way that the other villains never do.”
To me, this was most evident when Origins switched things up, having me play the Joker in a sequence set in his mind, just after he sees Batman refuse to take a life. The Joker struggles to reconcile the idea of a hyper-violent hero who declines to kill, and sees a similar mentality to his own – a sense that Batman simply gets off on the violence, even if it is in the name of good. This comes to a fore neatly when we play the Joker in a mass brawl, and Batman’s combat simply transposes onto the clown-faced villain. It’s a simple, perhaps obvious way of expressing Joker’s perception, but it’s effective too.
Sadly, Origins doesn’t have enough of these sequences, and far too many that don’t make the most of what’s there. In one scene Batman saves a near-death Alfred, but the whole thing plays out so inconsequentially, and more to the point so quickly. What should be a momentous, significant moment in the genesis of this complicated hero plays out in just a few minutes, and with almost no reference to it afterwards.
Maybe I expect too much of the Batman games now, not just because of the quality of Asylum and to a lesser extent City, but the Dark Knight film trilogy too. An early sequence in Origins sees Batman enter Blackgate prison, but for all the lack of atmosphere you’d think he’d wandered into a library. The prisoners visible in the few cells in sight are set in repeated motions, cheering and raising their arms ad nauseam, yet the background noise is minimal. Go up to them, and they won’t even snarl their anger at this young hero.
I found it hard not to think of how this scene would’ve played in the films: a horde of furious inmates, baying for the blood of this upstart vigilante, tearing at the bars to grab a piece of him, or unleashing their fury into a deafening cacophony.
Maybe that’s the issue the Arkham series is straddled with. Asylum was a welcome surprise for a licensed game, but we’re three entries in now, and a winning formula is only going to get you so far when Hollywood shows what can be done.
“It’s a little depressing how in just a span of three games,” sighs Tim Spaeth on Episode 102 of the GameCritics.com podcast, “This has gone from what I think we called the the best comic book game ever made to just a stale – I think the phrase [Richard Naik] used was ‘cash-in,’ and I think that’s very. very accurate.”
Indeed, Origins is not a bad game. It’s just a little depressing.