It appears nostalgia, no matter how recent the source it’s drawn from, can be a blessing and a curse. For Batman, it’s already starting to feel like the Dark Knight’s cultural rebirth in the mid-2000’s is an age ago, and when you see the rather mixed results from the more recent use of the iconic cape and cowl, it’s not out of the question to dream wistfully of the majestic hope and promise of the duo of important outings in cinema and videogames for Bats.
Batman remains in vogue of course, he’s had plenty of peaks and troughs throughout his 77 year history and survived, but the solid revival run of Batman greatness that came about with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum game is certainly fading at this point. On the positive side you have a successful, if brief, foray into VR, and a promising portrayal of the character via Ben Affleck in the movie world. On the negative you have Batman vs Superman, a dreadfully dire animated film version of the notorious Killing Joke, and a Telltale game series that’s currently not hitting the mark at all well. This would be a fine time to revisit the golden age of Batman games again then, a return to Arkham- as this repackaged and remastered twin pack of games title would suggest, is on the cards.
Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, two of the finest games of the last generation, get thrust onto PS4 with a bump up to Unreal Engine 4, and grab a few graphical flourishes added along the way. They’ve come back bright, only perhaps a little too bright. Visually-speaking at least.
Arkham Asylum: A colorful madhouse of genius
Arkham Asylum will always go down as a genuinely surprising and important moment in gaming history. Comic book games had been terrible with the odd exceptions such as Spider-man 2, but Rocksteady came along and delivered a Batman game with heart and soul. There’s an insane level of depth that’s down to a great appreciation for the storied history of the character and the world of crime he inhabits.
Nothing brings that home more than the deliciously clever idea of bringing in the likes of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to reprise their roles of Batman and The Joker from the animated series from the 1990’s. I could go over old ground about where this game went so so right, but that’s been done many times before, and this piece by Garri Bagdasarov does a fine job of selling the importance of Arkham Asylum. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the changes made for this remaster.
The most telling one is the change to a more modern version of the Unreal Engine. In both Asylum and City this does indeed provide some prettier visuals, but Asylum needed a proper overhaul in order to survive the transition, because its age doesn’t mesh with the new engine too well.
Nothing’s changed mechanically, it’s still a splendid mix of light stealth, bite-sized deductions and some of the most satisfying combat of the past decade, but the engine change cripples some of the dark atmosphere of the original build. The visuals are a touch too colorful now, cutting back a lot of the shadowed, gothic brilliance of the art design and in turn revealing the previously-hidden wrinkles the engine facelift just can’t shift. It affects Asylum more than City due to the more confined areas found on the mostly indoors-set adventure. This doesn’t stop Asylum being the gloriously fantastic game with a piss-poor final boss fight it always was, but it does take the edge off the brooding atmosphere.
Also rather unforgivable is the frame rate. It’s pretty solid in game for the majority of your time in Arkham(no jump to 60fps though for either game, if you care about that), but the transition between areas, and the loading of certain cutscenes, sees some irksome juddering that breaks immersion. It’s credit to the power of Rocksteady’s game that these issues don’t seriously impair your enjoyment.
It’s unfortunate that there wasn’t more effort put into bringing Asylum up to scratch, but galling that this actually feels on par with the original version rather than better. A touch up on NPC face models, a lot less of the clipping, these were small details that could have been smoothed out to truly remaster Asylum instead of creating fresh problems.
Arkham City: Bat to Bat hits
Arkham City does much better. Its open world looks rather lovely here, sparkling with life and color that’s more acceptable in the snowy, neon-lit streets of Arkham City than the dark and dank confines of Asylum. Character models are well-detailed, the game runs smoothly, and the balance of Batman the detective and Batman the vigilante is still perfectly poised within the more expansive areas. Throw in a plethora of challenge maps, skins and a DLC story epilogue in Harley Quinn’s Revenge and you have huge amount of enjoyable Batman shenanigans to dive into.
For a more in-depth look at Arkham City, read the review here
Don’t get me wrong. Even Arkham City could have had a bit more work done, even if it’s something as simple as ensuring Batman retains the costume he’s wearing in cutscenes instead of reverting to the default would have been nice, but there’s little to complain about in Return to Arkham’s version beyond that. It’s a complete package that looks a bit better than it did five years ago. I suppose the only other problem with the Return to Arkham package is that it’s not doing anything all that new with the old material, but this material is still gold.