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Batman: Return to Arkham

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Virtuos
Release Date: Oct. 18, 2016


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PS4 Review - 'Batman: Return to Arkham'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Nov. 9, 2016 @ 1:30 a.m. PST

Batman: Return to Arkham bundles Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City in one package, including all DLCS, visually optimized for current generation consoles.

Buy Batman: Return to Arkham

For a long time, "There's no such thing as a good licensed game" held true. It seemed tough to make a good adaption of almost any popular license, especially superheroes. Exceptions were few and far between. Arkham Asylum came out of left field to create a good licensed game that was one of the absolute best titles of the last generation. It was no surprise that Rocksteady's series was held up as an example of how to do a licensed game well. Batman: Return to Arkham offers next-gen players a chance to experience both of Rocksteady's last-gen entries. (The outsourced prequel, Arkham Origins, is MIA from the collection.) Unfortunately, the quality of the port is mixed.

The first game in the series, Arkham Asylum, puts players in the shoes of the Caped Crusader as he delivers a captured Joker to the asylum. Of course, this was the first step in the Joker's master plan, and before you can say, "Holy Prison Break, Batman," the Joker is out and inmates are running the asylum. Batman is forced to go through a gauntlet of villains — from Poison Ivy to the Riddler — to stop the Joker before he unleashes an army of mutant monsters on the innocent people of Gotham. Good thing he's always prepared.

Arkham Asylum was created before the developers had an inkling the Arkham games would be a franchise, and it shows. It's more of a who's who of Batman mythology from around 2009. Rather than focusing on creating a cohesive world, it throws together all of Batman's greatest villains for a rollicking comic book event. The later games in the series are more involved in building their own Batman mythology. If this is just taken as a Batman game and not the start of a trilogy, it provides the best experience you can imagine. The Joker's plot is pretty lackluster, but it is mostly there as an excuse for Batman to punch his way through the entire rogue's gallery.

If you've never played the original Arkham Asylum, then you're in for a treat. It was called one of the best superhero games ever, and it's easy to see why. It's a combination of Batman and Metroid, and it invites players to explore the overtaken Asylum while gradually unlocking new powers and abilities for the caped crusader. It's a semi-linear experience, with a guided main storyline but optional backtracking for collectibles, including a series of Riddler trophies hidden throughout the world. There's not much in the way of freedom when it comes to objectives, but the game is structured well enough that you won't really notice.

Arkham Asylum's an incredibly well-designed game. The oft-copied combat system allows for stylish and fast multi-enemy battles that are simple to learn but complex to master. The stealth mechanics are similarly designed to be accessible to casual players and yet offer plenty of options for die-hards. Optional challenge missions allow to you take on enemies for high scores and do a lot to show off the intricacies of the game. It's bolstered by strong level design, which constantly introduces new concepts and twists to prevent the game from getting tedious. Every time you think you've reached the end of his bag of tricks, Batman will find a new gadget or encounter a new enemy type that helps pull things through.

Arkham Asylum has aged exceptionally well. The game is still as fun to play as the day it came out. The pacing, structure and basic gameplay systems are a solid mix of accessible and enjoyable. There are some flaws. The sequel Arkham titles make a bunch of minor improvements to combat and targeting, which make it tough to go back to the original. I found myself missing attacks or trying to perform moves that hadn't yet existed. Once you reacclimate to the changes, it's still a very good game, albeit a more simple one. Its biggest flaw was also true when the game came out: The overly long and repetitive boss battles aren't very good.

As far as the remastering goes, the Arkham Asylum segment of Return to Arkham is fairly poor. The character models have been redone but with mixed quality. Batman doesn't look bad, but a number of the other characters look noticeably and significantly worse. Commissioner Gordon might be a more detailed model, but it's a poorer-looking model. Likewise, a lot of small changes were made to textures and lighting that make the game look and feel too bright. It's not a change that ruins the title, but it does drain some of the atmosphere and spirit that Arkham Asylum thrived on. Some stuff has improved, but it isn't more impressive than the original PC release of the game, and considering that is seven years and a console generation ago, that isn't high praise. The frame rate also isn't particularly great and sometimes struggles to maintain 30 fps.

The second game in the collection, Arkham City, is set after the events of Asylum. The city of Gotham has carved out a chunk of land to form a supermax prison for the worst of the worst.  Arkham City is presided over by Dr. Hugo Strange, a malicious and unethical psychologist who seeks to use it as his playground. He kidnaps Bruce Wayne, thus trapping Batman within the walls of his city-prison, forcing Batman to find a way to escape and take down Strange once and for all. At the same time, the Joker is hatching his deadliest scheme yet, and before the night is over, Batman will be pushed to his limits.

Arkham City is the more melodramatic of the two titles. It pulls some twists that were, at the time, pretty shocking and tries to have a more cohesive theme and story than merely punching bad guys in the face. In some ways, this highlights the weakness of the characters and story. Several major villains fizzle out, and the Joker effectively dominates the plot. It's hard to complain about more chances to hear Mark Hamill's excellent Joker voice, but it's disappointing that some of the best parts of Batman's villain collection are underutilized.

Unlike its predecessor, Arkham City is a more open game. You're given a large slice of Gotham to play in and can explore it at your leisure. This means that in addition to the story and riddle quests, there are all kinds of optional side-quests across the city. All of the mechanics have been refined, including new combat moves, stealth abilities and gadgets. It's a bigger version of the previous game but retains most of the same ideas. In many ways, it is easy to go from Asylum to City, as the game feels designed with the idea that a player hops right into the sequel. You even retain most of your gadgets and abilities from the original game and amplify them with new ones.

Arkham City is an interesting game to judge. Depending on what you're looking for after Asylum, it's either a huge step forward or a frustrating step back. It exchanges the guided experience of Asylum for more free-form exploration. The result is something easier to play but has more inconsistent tones and pacing. The core mechanics, especially the combat system, are all significantly improved, and even if you find City's new pacing to be weaker than the original's, you'll probably still have a ton of fun just playing through the game and Batmanning the heck out of some villains. Of the two games, it probably aged slightly worse but not enough to prevent it from being one of the top games of the last generation.

Arkham City comes out slightly ahead of its predecessor in terms of the remaster. The updated character models and altered lighting effects seem to benefit it a bit more. It's still flawed, but at least I feel like it hits more than it misses compared to Asylum. Alas, the frame rate is still very inconsistent and seems to fluctuate even more than in Asylum, though it had better highs. It's frustrating in that it's very easy to see how Return to Arkham: Arkham City could have been the definitive version of the game. Instead, it has just enough nagging flaws to stand out.

Batman: Return to Arkham is a good, but not great, package. The games have both aged very well and are still plenty of fun to play, and the remaster allows newcomers to experience them. However, the inconsistent remastering job means that it's tough to be overly impressed. Return to Arkham is effectively a mediocre port of two excellent games. If you've never experience the Arkham games before, then this is a good starting point, but returning fans may be more disappointed than excited by some of the changes. There's still a lot to like in the collection, and the nagging flaws aren't enough to distract from the excellent games.

Score: 7.5/10

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