Batman: Arkham City
Video Game Review
By Jeffrey Kieviet
Part I – We’re All Mad Here
Whether or not you’re a comic book nerd, a video gamer, or an internet troll, you know who Batman is. Maybe you’re a fan of the camp from way back when, when Adam West & Burt Ward were “Bam” & “Pow”-ing their way through a rogues’ gallery of sexy Catwomen & mustached Jokers (Cesar Romero refused to shave so they just painted his upper-lip warmer white). Or maybe you remember Tim Burton & Michael Keaton creating an exciting visual world, fusing real-life with surreal imagery, before Burton began phoning it in and Keaton… what has he been up to? Wasn’t he in a Love Bug movie? For a softer side (and Bat-Nipples), you can turn to the Joel Schumacher helmed disasters that reignite the goofy charm of the 60’s TV show. Put George Clooney in a flick and women will learn about comic book heroes (and regardless of the tarnish they inflict upon the source material, Jim Carrey as Edward Nigma is a stroke of awesomeness). There have been hundreds (meaning like 3 or 4) of cartoons and dozens of scrapped projects (like the infamous Birds of Prey TV show or the cartoon Gotham High [which I would have loved to see]) which present The Bat in unique, original ways to grab new audiences and recapture the long devoted fans (The Joker with dreadlocks may have been a miscalculation). And, of course, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises (I feel like whoever named the trilogy was not one for creativity, but that’s another story). They have been nominated for Oscars, wrapped in fame and tragedy over the loss of talented artists (Heath Ledger, of course, and the less publicized Conway Wickliffe) and innocent fans harmed and killed in the horrific shooting of Aurora, Colorado. Suffice to say, even if you’ve lived ina cave since Bob Kane & Bill Finger created the Caped Crusader in 1939, you have heard of Batman.
Batman: Arkham City is a video game that would not, and could not exist without every single one of the previous incarnations. The classic Paul Dini/Bruce Timm cartoon created a gripping visual style for Batman & Gotham (scroll down to Part II). Video games on consoles like the original Playstation or Super Nintendo allow you to don the mask and escape into the Adventures of Batman & Robin, side-scrolling the streets and button mashing criminals into faded pixels.
There are several examples of the best of the best of Batman in comic books: The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke; however, in regards to this story, its origin lies in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Written by Grant Morrison and fantastically illustrated by Dave McKean, the inmates take over Arkham Asylum and invite Batman over for a friendly tea party and a little murder. Morrison is well known to comic book readers as the author of several Batman tales, issues throughout all of DC and Marvel, and the creator of Virtigo’s Animal Man. McKean you have seen all over: his covers of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, covers for Alice Cooper & Toad the Wet Sprocket, and as the writer/director of MirrorMask, a surreal, modern Alice in Wonderland which, if you haven’t seen, please do so now. Go ahead, I’ll wait… Awesome, isn’t it? Well, maybe it’s not your cup of tea but the visuals are astounding and he is able to bring his unique artistic painting to every panel of Serious House.
A Serious House on Serious Earth displayed the world of Batman & Arkham Asylum in a murky light, askew with insanity. The Joker is wearing a coat and high heels, androgyny capturing a greater scope of madness. Two-Face as a sniveling shell of a man, pissing himself in the corner like a frightened child. The Killer Croc, living up to his name in as frightening a visage as possible, not seen again until later books like Arkham Asylum: Living Hell. And Batman, crying for his parents as he bleeds out in a crumpled mass of psychosis.
In Jr. College (Community College? Whatever, I got my AA. Whether it’s from graduating or drinking I can’t recall) we put on a play of Serious House. Like, in theater. Put actors in cowls and make-up, full with choreographed fight scenes and a stolen Danny Elfman soundtrack in an attempt to recreate the genius of the book in a story that would play out on stage. Our Joker (played by Primitive Screwhead’s own Casey Moriarty) was great, trumping around in high heels, bringing his own unique interpretation post-Nicholson/pre-Ledger, and scared the hell out of me as Joker Victim 23817 (approximate). He shot me in the stomach for no good reason! Our Mad Hatter was fun and ridiculous, and Two-Face was intimidating and intense (which would work for any other Two-Face story except this one). These 3 attempted to take over the duties in the book left empty by our lack of Killer Croc, Maxie Zeus, and all the other villains who fill Serious House’s pages. But the story didn’t translate, the roar of applause was drowned by the “boo” of disapproval, and A Serious House on Serious Earth might have died and floated into the ether, lost to all eternity because a few 20-somethings wanted to play make believe with Batman.
Actual photo from our show
Part II – Batman Like a Rockstar
I’m only slightly exaggerating. Our show was really bad, but this story, Batman’s story, isn’t going anywhere. In 2009 we were given an opportunity to don the cape & cowl and venture forth into the darkest bowls of the madhouse. Batman: Arkham Asylum, the video game, starts with Batman returning the Joker to his home away from home, and all you are allowed to do is walk. Slowly, as the credits fade in and out, you, as Batman, get to take the walk that he himself (you know, the real Batman) has taken so many times before. Knowing Batman will not kill, even the Joker, and knowing at some point the Joker will escape again, and kill again, and it will probably be someone Batman cares for. Again.
The crew from the cartoon put this gem together (as well as Arkham City), with Paul Dini writing and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returning to their iconic roles as Batman and the Joker, respectively. It is universally accepted (there is no citation for this fact, it is simply that, a fact) that these guys are the best these characters will be portrayed. The world they live in is a comic book, so live action will never be able to adequately portray a man who dresses up like a bat to beat up bad guys with gadgetry and savvy so advanced it puts the new Google Glasses Project to shame. Bad guys like psychotic, killer clowns, quacking fat guys in tuxedos, or Arnold Schwarzenegger in a refrigerator saying things like “Ice to meet you.” P.S. I’m glad Schwarzenegger is in spell check. So Conroy and Hamill are as good as it is going to get, and it gets pretty damn good. Conroy’s variation between Bruce Wayne and Batman is subtle enough that it never gets near Christian Bale’s guttural Bat-grunts, but still presented in a way where one wouldn’t immediately guess who Batman really is (it’s Bruce Wayne. And Clark Kent is Superman, just in case the glasses fool ya’). The lunacy in Mark Hamill’s voice brings chills and thrills, and considering it was originally developed as a “kid’s show,” it’s no wonder my generation has grown into the mental masses it is today.
And this is how Arkham Asylum & City play out, like a dark episode of a childhood staple, made for those of us who learned how to drive from Grand Theft Auto and who think they can skateboard because of all those late nights playing Tony Hawk (I had the fractured ankle to prove I couldn’t). You wander the grounds of Arkham Asylum & City, finding Riddler Trophies and beating up bad guys as you discover some sinister plot to kill everybody everywhere forever.
The gameplay is similar between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, with the main difference being the scope of the map and the range of mini-games. The fighting system was a little difficult to get the hang of, since it’s really only punch or counter-punch and then figuring out which bad guys get punched in specific ways (like having to punch them in a way that only dazes or jumping over them so you can slam their own shield into their head) but as long as you string together the button combinations correctly, the fights play out like with as much variation and choreography as you could want in a beat-‘em-up. There are gadgets galore, with batarangs, zip-lines, and the grappling hook, which more or less allows you to swing around the city like Spider-Man.
One of the biggest aspects of the game is “Detective Mode,” so you can more or less see through Batman’s eyes (even though they keep it 3rd person). With the press of a button, sonic radar turns everything neon so you can see which walls can be blown up, which bad guys have guns, and where certain items are located. Unfortunately, this means the only reason to play with normal vision is to see the awesome design of the game. Which is stunning, but I could never find doors (or at least the right door) to go through, I got my ass kicked by bad guys with weapons I couldn’t see, so I basically played the game through Detective Mode. When Batman is trying to diffuse an ice-bomb or find where an attacker is hiding, Detective Mode rocks, but the game looks so beautiful I felt like I was doing it a disservice by not watching the pretty pictures.
Rockstar, the makers of GTA and the Red Dead series, did not make this game (oops). Rocksteady did, and that was an easy mistake to make. They take the benefit of previous games before it (like an boosted cross between Spider-Man & L.A. Noir) by creating an adventure that plays out like an experience, not an 8-hour movie or something to just sit back and watch. Every time you die or fail a mission, you’re taken to a “continue” screen where your current villain talks directly into the camera and taunts you. Two-Face cocks his gun, the Joker laughs, and Harley Quinn shakes her… kids these days. Video games are nothing but T&A.
Once you learn the clip of the game, it moves pretty smoothly. The fight with Mister Freeze is epic, unlike the Penguin who steal’s Freeze’s freeze gun. The boss battles are always the best parts, although this time you get to fight with Bane as opposed to against him. My favorite subplot was a little bit with The Mad Hatter. Remeniscent of the Scarecrow segments from Arkham Asylum, you’re poisoned, fitted with a black, bunny mask, and set to fight wave upon wave of henchmen on a melting clock. Very Salvador Dali meets Alice in Wonderland. Which is what this game is. Batman crawls down the rabbit hole into this strange world filled with crazy characters. Only instead of having them recite a poem, Batman just punches them in the face!
Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
*For those of you out of touch with pop culture, a “spoiler” is information that could ruin any surprises in plot or whatevers of the current topic of conversation, in this case Batman.
Part III – The Last Laugh
In Kevin Smith’s Smodcast, Fatman on Batman, he is talking with Paul Dini about an episode of the Batman cartoon where Batgirl is killed, Commissioner Gordon sees that it’s his daughter, and blames Batman. It ends up all being a dream, but it is a truly terrifying episode that has real world implications for someone like Batman. It is not all going to end well. Dini and Smith discuss the idea that this would be how Dini would liked to end the show, the last Batman story. For those of you who have seen the episode, it’s good. You may not like it, you may not want Batman to end, but if he has to go, he needs to go out big. Of course, he can always come back as an older Clint Eastwood, like in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but at some point, Batman has to go away.
The Joker is infected with some disease and it is up to Batman to find the cure, because the Joker manages to infect Batman with the same thing. Other plots are going on, the Warden of Asylum is now the Mayor of the City, Rais Al Guhl is trying to kill or be killed, Riddler is off… riddling things. But Batman & Joker are dying. In the final moments, there is a small amount of antidote left, Batman will live and now he literally holds the Joker’s life in his hands. There is a long pause, deep contemplation about what Batman should do. Saving the Joker means the death of dozens, hundreds, thousands. But Batman is a force of good, and good doesn’t kill (even though by not killing the Joker he may as well kill all his victims, vicious circle, all that jazz). Joker does something stupid and is left with a broken, empty vial of the antidote. Batman would have saved him, instead, the Joker dies. Mark Hamill sends his Joker on his merry way. In that classic pose, Mary clutching the dead Jesus (or more aptly, Superman clutching the dead Supergirl on the cover of Crisis on Infinite Earths), Batman carries the dead Joker out of the City, and deposits him with the police.
This is a comic book world so Batman goes back into the city to keep doing what he does, and the Joker could come back, even though they’ve destroyed the Lazarus Pit, but as far as I’m concerned, this was a solid last Batman story. Between the 2 games you meet everyone you love from the comics, cartoons, and movies. You get to glide across the city and dive-bomb the nogoodniks, throw a smoke pellet, disappear onto an overhanging gargoyle, and silently take-down the baddie. Or just walk in, put up your dukes, and let ‘em have it. Batman is kind of a badass.
Batman: Arkham City
(Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth)
(Written by Grant Morrison)
(Illustrated by Dave McKean)
(Published by DC Comics)
(Batman: Arkham Asylum)