Light to Them Who Sit in Darkness and the Shadow of Death: Batman Arkham Origins Review
 
In keeping with the critical lens paper I posted last, this is a review I wrote a long time ago for Batman: Arkham Origins. As I post more about games I've made, and maybe more reviews, 


Part of why I'm posting several kinds of writing I've done is so I can gauge what types everyone would like to see more of. Let me know what you think, and we can start moving into meatier works. Thank you!


Batman is, paradoxically, a perfect character for Christmas stories. Best known is probably the amazing-in-its-insanity Batman Returns, which is definitely about the oxymoronic greed and charity of the holiday season as embodied by Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck and penguins who have missiles strapped to their backs and have a penguin funeral for the Penguin. Even nearer to my heart might be the Batman: The Animated Series Christmas episode. The plot itself isn’t of much consequence: Joker sets up a present-themed death trap for Batman and Robin, baiting them with Gordon, Bullock, and a journalist. What makes that episode work is Dick forcing Bruce to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, “the story about a man who gives his life for his town. Sound familiar?” It still touches me, to think of Batman needing a reminder that he does such good for Gotham.

The comics, by virtue of a regular publishing schedule, have many wonderful examples of Batman Christmas stories. While the obvious go-to is The Long Halloween’s Christmas issue, that mostly serves to move that story along. Better examples would be the two December issues compiled in Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. The first, “Wanted: Santa Claus--Dead or Alive,” drawn by Frank Miller, is a nice little redemption story. The other, “Favorite Things,” features Batman hunting down a gang who stole the last Christmas gift he got from his parents, is perfect for understanding why Batman is made for Christmas.

Bruce Wayne never grew up. He believes in right and wrong as absolutes, even if he doesn’t believe they’re simple. He knows that you should be afraid of the dark, and big, loud toys are a lot of fun. In “Favorite Things,” Batman both busts heads, but also gives money to a poor, single father who helped the burglars (“Little boys shouldn’t be left on their own,” pleads the man). After the violence is done and the criminals caught, Bruce, still in his batsuit leggings, sits in front of the train set his parents gave him, still shocked that he almost lost something so precious. Alfred reassures him that he is “safe and sound in his old bedroom” and puts Master Bruce to bed.  It’s a far cry from the Alfred of Arkham Origins, who scolds Bruce for his hubris, accusing him of not being a “hardened vigilante,” but instead a “boy with a trust fund and too much anger.”

Batman and Alfred argue this next to the roaring Batwing, ready to take the Dark Knight to a confrontation with the Joker and Bane, after the player has already fought the Deathstroke the Terminator, the deadliest man alive, and saved the lives of countless Gothamites. Watching this scene, I couldn’t believe the game was trying to get me to buy into the idea that Batman was still some neophyte vigilante. Didn’t Alfred realize we were having this conversation next to my flying urban assault vehicle while I sacrificed my Christmas to put myself in the crosshairs of the most effective killers on the planet? Maybe that’s arrogant and insane, but it’s not amateurish. But that’s the problem with Batman: Arkham Origins: it confuses and blends the technically proficient and inept into each aspect of its execution.

Other people have spoken of the game’s technical problems, pointing out that, like its main character, the game is clumsy but earnest. There’s no need for me to go over concerns of competency, but I do want to address how those flawed executions tell another Batman Christmas story, one that serves less as an origin and more of a coming of age, which is nothing if it’s not learning to deal with disappointment.

When you first see Batman in the sumptuously animated world, you recognize his costume as riot gear patched together and branded with the Bat symbol. This batsuit, emblematic of the game world, is piecemeal, functional, and dark. While I like it, in and of itself, it also represents the tonal and continuity problems of Origins in relation to Asylum and City, its Nolan Batman influences at war with over-the-top comic book storytelling and action adventure game mechanics.

The opening in Blackgate Prison lets you know fairly quickly and effectively you are Batman, living urban legend, quick time event fighter of marginally-human bosses like Killer Croc, and law enforcement pariah. Oh, and you’re going to be fighting a series of assassins crime boss Black Mask has sicced on you. All in a Christmas Eve’s work for the world’s greatest superhero detective, and a perfect structure for a game.

Which is the beginning of Origins’ problems. It is such a game, and a sandbox at that. The first assassin you fight, Deathstroke, confronts the nascent Caped Crusader as a warrior, the most dangerous prey. Batman calls him “Slade,” and you know he’s a big deal because Batman is on a first name basis with him and he’s a boss with a gadget so he’s kind of a big deal. By now you’ve figured out the leveling up system, maybe even making it through the health upgrades you need to take before you get any abilities you’re thinking might help you take down the Terminator. All you need is carefully timed counters, the kind that the new martial artist enemy could have taught you to perform if you fought them before Deathstroke. You’ll also need to mash “counter” to fend off bow staff barrages. You’ll do the same so as not to get hit with a harpooned propane tank. Better pay close attention.

I don’t know why Deathstroke had the remote claw tool, other than Batman needed to get it somehow. There’s a lot this scene doesn’t tell you though, and it falls into the comic book writer’s worst pitfall by assuming you know these characters already. Deathstroke is dangerous because you, presumed reader/player, read The Judas Contract (which is one of ‘Stroke’s alternate costumes in challenge mode). He has the item because you played Mega Man and know this is how you get abilities.

After this first, major boss the game opens up, and Origins stumbles into some of its other missed opportunities, though not its worst. When I read the world was going to be twice as large as City’s, I groaned. Possibly audibly, but not as much as I was bothered by the name “Electrocutioner” (and certainly not as bad as when I realized that I could just kick him, unlike every other electricity-based enemy in the history of video games). While City played better than Asylum (batclaw slam seemed so obvious in hindsight), Asylum is the better game because it uses Batman’s gadgets to parse out the space, story, and mechanics. This strengthens the structure of the game’s play and story much better than the freedom of sandbox play.

Origins suffers even more than its predecessor from sandbox syndrome by creating a lot of dead space, annoying objectives, and covering up those problems with obnoxious obstacles. I spent so much time gliding from place to place, engaging in fights I had trouble seeing thanks to the spotty camera just to break the monotony. I could have taken out the radio towers to enable fast travel, but I hated that tower climbing aspect of Assassin’s Creed, Saints Row 4, wherever else it’s shown up, so I wasn’t about to do it with Batman.

The radio towers also bring up a lot of questions, like why doesn’t Batman just drive? We saw the Batmobile in Asylum. And if Chris Sims is right, and of course he is, and the Batmobile is a silly part of the Batman mythos, how much more so is the Batwing. Even the idea of needing to see the Batwing is suspect. I asked people what happens when you fast travel in Skyrim. The response is that it doesn’t matter, because you get there. Batman is just there, always where he’s needed. We don’t question it, and I don’t feel like working through the obtuse Riddler (yes, Riddler) obstacles to earn fast travel.

The problem with avoiding the Riddler subplot is the city, otherwise dead thanks to a nonexistent winter storm, is crawling with gunmen who shoot you when you’re on your way to something else. So you’re obliged to foil Nigma’s plans, an extortion racket he defends as being a more sublime way of affecting change in Gotham than Batman’s strong arm tactics.

While I appreciate the desire to link Riddler and Batman in some thematic way, I missed the Riddler trophies because they are the best metaphor for the character I can imagine. Nigma is a guy who uses crime as an excuse to prove he’s the smartest person in Gotham, so of course he would use trophies and silly riddles about wherever you are. Those riddles encouraged you to explore the maps and meaningfully fleshed out the story with items and related stories, but were lost in a more, I can only guess, “realistic” interpretation of the Riddler.

This ill-advised pursuit of realism does benefit the game in the crime scene missions. Showing off the new mechanic, augmented reality crime scenes, these segments go a long way toward how I envision Batman’s adventures would unfold from his, rather than a writer’s perspective. Of course Gotham’s criminals don’t all work in thematic concert together always. Sometimes the violence is going to be random and involve non-super people. Batman’s going to get sidetracked from hunting down Deadshot or the Mad Hatter to bring in the perpetrator of some totally unrelated killing, which never happens in comics or movies, and this tactic offers an engaging verisimilitude.

Realism does fail, though, with Bane, a mercenary army leader in the Nolan vein. It works fine, except that the game turns him into a ‘roided-out monster who buggers suspension of disbelief even more than Joker, whom he despises yet works with for some reason. He’s also working with Bird, an accomplice drawn from the comic archives and changed completely for the game. Similar to Deathstroke, there’s some sort of nod being made to comics fans, but then again, there isn’t. It’s a choice as arbitrary as turning Bane into the venom wrecked beast we know from the other games, which is too bad, since I liked Origins’ character design, even though a lot of the choices, like the Joker pairing, are unmotivated.

Joker is the part of the story that comes closest to working, unfortunately frustrated by missed opportunities and a couple quibbles I have with how time is parsed (he makes it into therapy instantly upon his arrest. Whatever.). By the time you finally see him, you’ve fought some supervillains, yet he’s still chilling. This has nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with the writing and Troy Baker’s delivery of it. To be sure, the Joker’s body count is high, but the game does very little to make the player value any life other than Batman’s/their own and whichever villain he’s/you’re moralistically not killing. While I’m for Batman not killing, naming a trophy “One Rule” and leaving it at that doesn’t go into the many potential reasons for Batman’s vow.

While I’m talking about how death is handled in the game, the game tries to instill a sense of guilt in either Batman or the player for people he’s failed. One is Commissioner Loeb, who’s a scumbag, so why should you care. Another is a woman killed by the Joker, but her name is Bank Manager, so, again, you don’t care. In City, when Strange has opened fire on his prison and killing dozens of hardened criminals, I cared because I had some agency. Origins handles these moments in inconsistently characterizing cutscenes: Loeb dying makes Batman sad, but when the Electrocutioner dies, he gets a shiny new toy.

Plus, several sequences are littered with corpses so what difference do a couple more make?

In this context, nothing Joker does makes him interesting. Instead, it’s what he is. Some folks on the team realized the Clown Prince of Crime loves Batman. Of course they’re building on both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns, but when you play as Joker in his own mind, or see Batman’s beautiful monstrousness through Joker’s eyes, you understand how he could love such an angry man.

Joker’s mind is, bizarrely enough, the only setting in the game that makes sense. The reason Arkham Asylum is such a central location in Batman mythology is because, as he worries in both Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Death of the Family, it feels, or could feel, like home. The asylum is a reflection of Batman, refracting his heroism into all manner of twistedness. City was a less successful extension of that, positing Hugo Strange as the person Batman would be if he thought he could fix the problem of criminality, rather than fight the problem of crime. Origins’ world is too plain to explore this kind of internal life, and the last two scenes of the game typify this perfectly.

What must be the final boss, since it’s the only one you can conceivably fail, is the final confrontation with Bane. This is after he’s assaulted Alfred in the Batcave and left, which confused me, since it seemed like he should still be there for a climactic

confrontation. This beat was forestalled to the end of the game for a perfunctory boss fight similar to the one with Freeze in City. With the Freeze fight, though, there were reasons given for why you couldn’t use the same attack twice. With Bane, the game’s gaminess gets in the way, requiring a false difficulty of forcing different tactics for no perceivable reason. The fight does a poor job of communicating to the player, then ends what could be an emotional confrontation with the man who assaulted your surrogate father with a snide remark and Batman leaving another enemy in a nondescript cell block. The fight with Bane could have happened anywhere, and while there’s an attempt at subtext (Batman uses a prison security system to defeat him), it’s hardly meaningful.

The final scene with Joker, though, is almost powerful. Cornering the Clown in the prison chapel, a setting so incongruous as to present itself as intentionally gothic and gorgeous, the Carol of the Bells plays while Batman screams at his most hated and perfect nemesis, easily dispatching him, because as Jeph Loeb wrote in one of his Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween specials (not the one that’s just A Christmas Carol on Halloween), it always comes down to a thug with a gun. It could be a huge moment, and comes very close. If only you had been building a relationship with the Joker for a full game, instead of the second half of one.

This is also the only scene that really uses Christmas, which is a shame. If this were the story of what Batman’s true love gave to him, what an amazing 12 days it could have been. Instead, this last scene, which I actually like is a very subdued scene, hints at what could have been. Joker singing Cold, Cold Heart over the credits is much the same. I imagined fighting henchman while and the Joker atonally chided me for my jaded heart. Instead, it came next to some lame explanation for why the game is titled as it is.

Beautiful, frozen, paradoxical moments ignored in favor of rote exposition. Origins could have shown the sort of holiday that birthed the Batman and Joker’s destructive and operatic romance, rather than a parade of thin characters and mechanics strung together with objective markers. That gothic tragedy is somewhere in there, and I hope that star shines in the next installment. Like the sadly absent Harvey Dent said about the mob: it’s nice that “they keep giving you second chances.”