STAFF REVIEW of Batman: Return to Arkham (Xbox One)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016.
by Allya Venema

Batman: Return to Arkham Box art What can be said about these games that hasn’t already been said in the slew of positive reviews written at the time’s of their respective releases? Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City can inarguably be counted as instant classics on last gen consoles, and the nostalgia factor was high as I dove back into the Caped Crusader’s world. Everything we loved about the franchise is still here: the amazing voice work by Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill’s classic and perfectly nuanced performance as the Joker, the richly detailed maps rife with blinthem references to Batman’s rich history, and of course the deeply satisfying combat system that rewards advanced players for timing, variation, and strategy over simple button mashing. All these factors and so much more coalesce into making these experiences so much fun...and they are. Still....So much fun.

All this stated, if you’ve already played through Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, there’s really nothing new here for you. Okay, maybe there is: all the DLC is here, so if you never bothered to play through the challenge maps for either installment, or missed out on the additional story content for Arkham City, including a Catwoman-playable campaign and the post-main story Harley Quinn’s Revenge, then this is your opportunity to do so. If you’re feeling nostalgic and fancy a return to the Arkham-verse, then this is also your ticket and perhaps a remaster will be just the excuse you need to silently glide back in!

Admittedly, Arkham City fairs much better here in the HD remaster department, but this has more to do with it being a newer base game than it’s predecessor. The models, assets, and AI are already an improvement over those of Arkham Asylum. As such, the first game in the series doesn’t feel like it gets the same visual upgrade even though both are essentially ports to the same Unreal 4 engine. Character models in ‘Asylum feel a bit rougher, animations aren’t quite as smooth, and physics occasionally defy, well...physics.

Where ‘Asylum suffers the most in the graphical upgrade area is in the animation of Batman’s cape as you free-run through the halls of Arkham. While it makes an attempt at fluttering in the breeze behind, it feels stiff and stilted in its performance. I almost feel bad complaining about this as I read that it took two years for the game’s physics engineers to get the cape animated to the point of realism they achieved upon release in 2009. Again, all the assets are original here so this is to be expected, but it still stands out as a missed opportunity. Would it have been prohibitively expensive to give the World’s Greatest Detective an upgrade by overhauling some of his animations? He is the character whose back we have to see through a 10 hour campaign after all.

While we’re on the subject of graphic issues (which I’ll keep coming back to by the way as this is a remaster), there are frame-rate issues! Most notably on ‘Asylum, but also occasionally in ‘City, as the visuals come to a stand-still for a few seconds as the game would fervently try to keep up with my high rate of travel across the map or between sections of the island. To me, this is inexcusable for a touted remaster of an older title. This is not during an encounter with 20+ enemies on screen either; you can be simply running from one area to another...and the game has trouble rendering??

Lastly, and I should add somewhat strangely, the porting to the Unreal 4 engine appears to have saturated the color palette used in the original games; once more, this is most apparent in ‘Asylum. Blacks are no longer as black. Even at its darkest setting light seems less defused. This may at first sound like a very minor thing, but think of it like 1989’s Batman film versus its tonally different sequel, Batman Forever: goodbye gothic Tim Burton feel, hello Joel Schumacher’s neon nightmare. Batman is supposed to be a creature of the night shrouded in darkness who strikes fear into the heart of his enemies. A fair chunk of the game’s enemy encounters revolve around clearing rooms whilst remaining unseen. These stealth sections become a lot less immersive when anybody with eyes would clearly see a grey and blue clad armored individual conspicuously hanging from a gargoyle inches above one’s head. The entire mood of the encounters suffer from the over-saturation of colour. I found myself playing the game almost entirely in Detective Mode in order to avoid this issue.

Speaking of mood however, the music is still top-notch and exemplifies how a Batman game should be scored. Nick Arundel and Ron Fish do a fine job of creating key themes for our winged protagonist, our main villains, and enemy encounters. Hans Zimmerman would be proud of what these gentlemen have managed to do for the games like what he did for Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy.

Dialogue is another story however. Understand first that the dialogue itself is well-written, the performances are top-notch, and the sound-mixing is spot-on. My gripe however, more-so with ‘City where there is much more NPC background conversation in the world, and you'll find that the dialogue lines run over each other, thus competing for your attention. Many a time during a scripted sequence you will be having a conversation with another character, or communicating with an off-screen Alfred Pennyworth, only to stray too close to a group of NPCs. They will begin their own proximity-activated scripted conversations in earnest while you’re still having another conversation. Every bit of dialogue is so richly crafted and lovingly performed that it becomes a shame to lose some of these bits in a cacophony of voices. You'll end up hearing word-salad, potentially missing dialogue that deepens the experience of inhabiting Gotham City or, more worrisome, missing dialogue that moves the plot forward.

These are relatively minor gripes however. I really had to reach to find something to comment on in regards to these games. That’s because they are still great entries in an all-around excellent franchise that deserves respect.

As with all sequels ‘City seeks to improve on its predecessor in every way and manages to succeed every time. It is graphically superior, the story is more compelling, the combat system more nuanced, the boss encounters more varied, and the world larger and more lived in. There is also a ton more to do across the map with side quests requiring the use of Batman’s Detective mode to track down killers from his vast Rogue’s Gallery, and flight checkpoint missions required to unlock some of the Dark Knight’s more advanced capabilities. The various Riddler Trophies from the first installment return this time with more variations requiring the use of yet more of Batman’s arsenal of gizmos, gadgets, and acrobatic skills. There is also a far more compelling, and eventual, encounter with the Riddler (call it a reward!) than in ‘Asylum, where completing all 240 challenges simply gave you a few extra morsels of story dialogue.

All-in-all Arkham City is the better of the two games on offer here, but both games are wonderful to play-through for nostalgic reasons. However, if you’ve never played either of them before, you owe it to yourself to do so now! Before the Arkham games, Batman lacked a proper, respectful, well-crafted translation from comic book to console (or PC) gaming, but these are the definitive Batman games. These two games, here in one package, can be seen as required gaming for even casual fans of Batman, as they remain love-letters to the Bat’s rich history and his endearing legacy as a superhero for the ages.

- Remaster needed more attention to models as could've used an upgrade for the remaster
- Discoloration issues needed to be addressed to preserve mood
- Still great games though!

Overall: 8.7 / 10
Gameplay: 10.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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