Batman: Arkham City Retrospective

Bigger, better, bloated

After enjoying Batman: Return to Arkham Asylum far more than expected, I swiftly added Batman: Return to Arkham City to my backlog list. I found it strange that my memory of the original Xbox 360 release was so fuzzy compared to 2009’s Arkham Asylum, especially as I unlocked most of the achievements and I’m sure I replayed it at least once since 2011.

Returning to it a decade later, it’s now clear why it was just as influential and even more beloved than its predecessor – but I also understand why it left me reluctant to pick up 2013’s Batman: Arkham Origins or 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight day one.

As with Arkham Asylum, Arkham City is another entertaining and easily-digestible way to learn more about Batman’s expansive roster of supervillains – though I should point out that playing the prior game is essential to enjoying the narrative arc and finale.

Six months after the events of Arkham Asylum, a dilapidated chunk of Gotham City is walled off as an open-air prison, with The Joker, Two-Face, and The Penguin carving out fiefdoms. The head warden is Hugo Strange, who seems to have considerable influence over new Gotham mayor Quincy Sharp (who took credit for restoring order at Arkham Asylum). He maintains control over the perimeter using the brutal TYGER Security paramilitary group but mostly lets the prisoners run wild as they squabble over food and medical drops inside. Events kick off when Bruce Wayne is apprehended and incarcerated – all according to plan, of course – before swiftly recovering his Bat-suit and setting out to investigate the mysterious “Protocol 10”.

For better and worse, the ongoing rivalry between Batman and The Joker takes centre stage many times during an improbably long night – once again tackling the idea they represent two extremes that would not exist without the other. Thankfully, the plot is still full of twists and turns, providing an entertaining excuse to explore several key locations – including the ruins of Wonder City – with a dozen exciting and often weird scenarios and boss fights. You’ll encounter and briefly play as Catwoman; take down Mr. Freeze, Ra’s al Ghul, and Clayface; and potentially encounter a dozen other villains if you tackle the side missions.

On one hand, it’s a dense and exciting ride but the main story arc rushes towards a conclusion and it never feels logical that Batman would take a breather to go tackle some side missions or collect several hundred Riddler trophies. Another issue is that the side missions are doled out piecemeal between major story beats, making it possible to miss a few if you don’t systematically explore, cutting off those mission chains until the post-game.

In retrospect, I still prefer the tighter narrative and horror-tinged atmopshere of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Now that said, Arkham City is undoubtedly more mechanically complex and satisfying than its predecessor.

Arkham City Penguin KO

Fly like a bat

Arkham Asylum laid the Metroidvania-inspired foundations for the Arkham games, but while it was fun to backtrack and explore new areas with new gadgets, the “Caped Crusader” rarely made much use of his cape.

With a significantly larger environment to traverse, Arkham City provides greater verticality and more opportunity to soar through the air. You get the grapnel gun from the get-go, and a simple gliding challenge unlocks the “grapnel boost” ability – allowing Batman to accelerate towards, and launch off of grapple points to extend his airtime.

It’s an impactful change that makes it easier to take the classic Batman approach of sticking to rooftops and shadows, before diving down to pick off individual goons or crash full speed into a mob. It also makes aggressive-stealth viable outside of the scripted predator sequences, while the constant back-and-forth across Gotham City’s horseshoe layout is made more enjoyable.

Return to Arkham City Visuals

More glorious, gratuitous, (supposedly) non-lethal violence

Arkham City retains the counter-and-combo combat approach but ramps up the scale and intensity of common brawls and the complexity of boss fights – well, at least those you encounter in the main story.

You start with more basic abilities but you’re still constantly gaining XP, from combat and exploration activities, that reward new skill points to unlock new abilities or improve existing abilities. There’s an expanded skill tree with more gadgets you can integrate into combat and more combo-takedown moves available – but it’s a mixed bag and feels designed to pad out the experience. There are arbitrarily granular upgrades – like separate melee and ballistic armour upgrades – and you share a skill point pool for discrete Catwoman upgrades.

Gripes aside, the updated free-flow combat is incredible. Batman can now counter multiple opponents in ridiculous displays of speed and dexterity; he can counter-disarm many melee weapons and turn them on their owners; and he has more options to stun or disable the increased number of firearm-wielding foes. With larger mobs occupying more vertical and complex locations, it feels more essential than ever to first find a high point, scan enemies and the surroundings using detective vision, plan an approach, and identify priority targets before diving in.

The highs and lows of big city life

Of course, shifting to a dense and sprawling urban environment has its ups and downs. It’s not perfect and there are some barren, unfinished-looking spots, but Rocksteady still shows its prowess with an attention to fine details, excellent level design when indoors, and plenty of environmental storytelling.

The city is far from a featureless sprawl of brick and concrete, with multiple districts that feature a distinctive visual design or layout that forces you to change up your approach to traversal or combat. “The Bowery” features the Gotham Museum, Iceberg Lounge, and more affluent apartment blocks; “Park Row” has a strong Gothic vibe with the Solomon Wayne Courthouse, Church, and Ace Chemical building; “Amusement Mile” features the flooded streets around the old GCPD building and Olympus nightclub; while the “Industrial District” features the towering chimneys and elevated walkways of the Sionis Steel Mill. Above it all looms Wonder Tower and the the everpresent gaze of Hugo Strange.

Although most feel less expansive than those found in Arkham Asylum, there are a half-dozen enjoyable interior locations, including the sprawling Sionus Steel Mill, multi-wing Gotham Museum, a claustrophobic sewer and subway system, and the multi-layered ruins of Wonder City. Each location feels every bit as detailed as the streets, packed with environmental storytelling elements, and they feature most of the Metroidvania-style roadblocks you’ll return to later to progress the story or unlock new secrets.

As with Arkham Asylum before it, simply exploring Arkham City is an absolute treat for those with an eye for small details.

Arkham City Museum

Restraint is a virtue

Unfortunately, open-world design is inherently problematic when it comes to narrative pacing and the desire to fill that space with content – seemingly irrespective of whether it offers compelling gameplay or not.

In Arkham City, the side mission content feels woefully underdeveloped compared to the story missions, and many fit the description of “busywork”. The endlessly spawning mobs on the streets coupled with an expanded skill tree is a compromise I can live with, but half the side missions simply involve some contrivance to criss-cross the city repeatedly, culminating in some sort of boss fight that’s just a variation of common stealth or brawler gameplay. There are some highlights like defeating The Mad Hatter and his illusions, tracking down Hush by investigating crime scenes, and saving Nora Freeze, but the rest of them left me cold.

My biggest gripe is the return of The Riddler, who was seemingly given months to redecorate Arkham City with an inordinate amount of Riddler trophy mini-challenges – including dozens you can only collect as Catwoman – and construct elaborate challenge rooms that make little spatial sense given their entry point. There’s a better narrative incentive this time as you periodically solve riddles and rescue hostages, but you’ll still need to collect over 400 Riddler challenges to discover his hideout and resolve the side mission. It’s beyond excessive, ruins the otherwise immersive atmosphere, and can literally double your playtime with tedious busywork.

Return to Arkham City Side Missions

Bigger, better, bloated

Ultimately, my feelings on Batman: Return to Arkham City are more mixed than I anticipated. It takes every element of Batman: Arkham Asylum – the narrative stakes, the core gameplay loop, the boss fights, and the environment – and ramps up their scale and complexity. It’s the better the game in an objective sense, but that increased scope brings with it intrusive open-world busywork and potential pacing issues for a narrative designed around a single chaotic night.

Now that said, I’d still recommend it to anyone interested in Rocksteady’s Arkham universe – just so long as they first play the shorter and more focused Batman: Arkham Asylum, ignore The Riddler challenges, and use a guide to prioritise the standout side missions. My younger self clearly had too much free time as Batman: Return to Arkham City is not a game I’d ever encourage you to try 100%.

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