I’ve enjoyed Batman: Arkham Origins. It’s not Arkham City, but I wasn’t expecting Arkham City, as I rank that among my top games of this generation and expecting that level of quality would just be unfair. What I keep walking away from the game thinking is not that it’s boring or glitchy or bad, just that it feels really, really strange.
And the more I think about that feeling and where it comes from, the more I appreciate the game.
Having completed Arkham City twice, I decided to play it once more on Hard difficulty in order to “prepare” for Origins- completing every side quest, every Riddler challenge, et cetera- finding once the experience was over that it was both satisfying and a little magical. Where that special something, that magical feeling, came from obviously had to do with the game’s tone, atmosphere and general feeling.
On paper, Arkham City is the most terrifying place on Earth. But when the world is reshaped into the fantastical, with eye-popping colors and gangsters dressed in clown makeup and wearing weird masks and working for clowns and penguins and undead ninja assassins, it becomes a thrilling trip through Wonderland. But that’s not what Arkham Origins is. It’s not wondrous, it’s not a thrilling trip through a world not our own.
It is not, dare I say, comic booky. And that’s great.
It’s been said with very good reason that Arkham Origins is the story of the one night in which Batman came face-to-face with the world’s greatest assassins and his greatest enemy, thus changing him forever, but I see it as the night in which Batman finally broke Gotham and craziness began pouring out. The underlying story of Batman, after all, is one of escalation (as was pointed out directly in both the Nolan films and Arkham City, to cite the most widely-known examples).
When Arkham Origins begins, criminals are the same criminals who walk the streets of any city in America- there are just more of them, the operations a little more vile, and that is what it would take to produce someone like Batman. The game opens with a brash, comic booky action by a major criminal, but it’s not hard to overhear thugs around the city noting that it was strange for him to do so (and later twists in the story provide ample reason for the attack). This world is ours, just a bit worse. The only strange thing about it is the crazy guy in the bat suit with ridiculously expensive gadgets.
The bad guys are wearing pretty standard winter wear, save for the more high-up thugs who wear black masks, and all of the colors are washed out in comparison with the previous Arkham games. The font and user interface are more hard-edged, more stoic, more technology-based, because young Batman has yet to become a legend worthy of sweeping scores and dramatic presentation. He’s an angry, dangerous young man and he’s special because of his toys.
The game is lonelier, which makes extended play sessions feel uncomfortable. The Bat-family is an unfathomable thing at this point, and we see Bruce at a stage in his life where he seems relatively content with the concept that it will be just him and his butler on the other end of a radio until one of them dies. Occasional radio transmissions from other characters provide a sense of relief which spurs the story forward, and when it became clear that one ally in particular was going to go out of contact, I felt melancholy. That thick feeling which was left behind was the very first time an installment in the Batman franchise truly encapsulated what it has always meant for the man to fight alone.
This perspective upon a world which has not gone totally mad yet manfiests in interesting ways. Batman’s detective work, for example, is more complicated, because the crimes are more relatively normal. When The Joker blows up the top of a cathedral in City and Batman soars out of it, we view it as a cool moment but nothing to make a scene about. In the world of Origins, where the presence of Batman is only beginning to escalate things, the crimes are worth investigating because they are crimes which occur all over the world: A man is shot. A man falls to his death. Someone has a scuffle with a con man.
And young Batman is, in some ways, a more interesting character than the stoic, near-perfect Batman in his prime seen in the prior installments. He still has things to discover and learn. When we hear him ask Alfred if he can look up details for “someone named The Joker,” we feel a chill because we know that he doesn’t know his life is about to change. When he makes a statement about his own imperviousness, it feels like an attempt at self-assurance: Can he really do that? Is he really that good? Is he bluffing? He isn’t stating facts at this stage in his life. He is saying: “I need to believe I can do this," instead of "I have done this a thousand times already."
Much of this comes through in Roger Craig Smith’s surprisingly excellent performance as the younger Bruce. Replacing Kevin Conroy as Batman has to be a position any actor would feel pressured by, but when he speaks, it means something. It reminds us of what we know Batman will become, and that becomes a strange source of comfort.
In fact, looking back on the moments that feel comfortable in Origins is a revealing exercise. When The Joker appears and kills someone, I feel more in my element because it is a dip back into the wonderland in which I loved to lose myself. When Batman is standing on a rooftop and listening to two average thugs debating whether or not they should commit the sadly average crime of robbing a liquor store, I feel weird about all of it.
Does this speak for issues others have had with glitches and gameplay disappointments? Of course not. All I can speak for is how the game feels, and however strange it may be, I can only respond to the creators with a salute.