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The Sequel Slump: Batman: Arkham City

Batman Arkham City 2

Originally published by 3/8/14

Yeah, it’s time to pick on a bit of a sacred cow here. Though it’s considered by many to be the best Batman game ever, listeners of the podcast may recall that Rich and I weren’t quite as impressed with Batman: Arkham City as most. It certainly didn’t live up to what made Batman: Arkham Asylum so fantastic, and that’s why the game is the next to face the harsh eye of The Sequel Slump.

However, before I go any further, I have to stress that I am by no means saying Arkham City is anything less than a great game. In fact, I enjoyed it far more when I revisited it later on. Plus, it’s still superior to the games that followed it, Origins and Knight. What I am saying, though, is that a lot of the big changes made to this sequel took away from what made Arkham Asylum such a special experience.

Let’s start with the first thing you’d expect from a sequel: a bigger game, both in scope and length. Arkham City certainly has a lot more going on than Asylum, but that’s actually one of its biggest problems. In trying to add so much to the experience, the game’s illusion that you’re playing as Batman was diminished

For example, take a look at the open word of Arkham City itself. While the asylum was a carefully-constructed maze, always pushing you to the next area you needed to visit, Arkham City let you go where you wanted from the start. The story was still linear, but you had more room to explore and take part in side quests. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what made Arkham Asylum such a great environment was the specificity and detail that went into creating it; there’s a lot more dead space in Arkham City.

Batman Arkham City 3

Another problem was that with such a large city to explore, Batman needed to adapt in order to get around. Suddenly, Batman could use his grappling hook constantly, and in conjunction with his cape, he was basically flying around the city. Sure, Batman has used his cape to glide before, but in Arkham City he’s zipping around like Spider-Man or Bionic Commando. It was an action that didn’t exactly scream Batman, and that hurt the immersion into the character.

Another aspect that was made bigger in Arkham City is the narrative, and this is the place where I think the game dropped the ball hardest. The story follows Batman as he infiltrates and investigates Arkham City, a walled-off section of Gotham that has been turned into a prison. The prison city’s warden is longtime villain Hugo Strange, who is attempting to activate the mysterious Protocol 10 within. All the while a sickly Joker continues to torment Batman following the events of Arkham Asylum.

On its own, this would be a simple enough story, but Rocksteady complicates things with a large number to insert a lot of superfluous characters and developments. Given that Arkham City is a prison for all of Gotham’s criminals, the developers chose to stuff in as many of those famous supervillains as possible. While a lot of them show up briefly in cameo appearances and side-quests, some are shoehorned into the plot, making for some unnecessary and convoluted turns in the story. Look, this fan likes to be serviced as much as the next – that sounds really wrong, I know – but Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins didn’t need to be in this game, at least not in such a major role.

Batman Arkham City 1

All of that aside, though, my biggest problem with Arkham City is that my favorite part of the original was nowhere near as fun this time around. While the free-flow combat system only got better, I was severely let down by the stealthier predator rooms. Put simply, the interior environments in Arkham City are just all-around weaker than in Asylum. Areas like the old GCPD building and the Courthouse don’t have the same complexity and challenge as the stealth rooms at the Asylum. This is alleviated a bit in the dedicated challenge mode, but I missed the challenge of exploring an environment and stealthily taking down a room full of thugs.

Ultimately, a lot of my problems with Arkham City can be waved off as nitpicks, and truthfully, I’m okay with that. At the end of the day, Arkham City is a great video game; it’s just not the game I wanted it to be. Rocksteady wanted to expand and shift the focus of the series a bit, and I wanted more of the same. Simply put, my expectations were not only too high, but the wrong expectations to have. Having those expectations in check allowed me to enjoy the following games in the series far more, even as they introduced flaws of their own. Still, even after all these years, Asylum stands as the series’ best, making Arkham City a slump all the same.