It is no secret that I did not enjoy, and even disliked, Batman Arkham City. It just seemed to be lacking some spark that the original, Arkham Asylum, had. I could not understand why everyone else lauded over Arkham City and, try as I might, I just could not get into it. I was originally supposed to review the game but as I got further in I started hating the game whereas almost all of the reviews out at the time praised it for its excellence. I assumed I just was missing something and, because I had bought the copy with my own money, opted not to do a review for the game. If I just did not “get it” then a review from me would be of no use to anyone.
Over the next couple months I occasionally thought about Arkham City and why I disliked it, when finally the synapses connected and one word prevailed, “Bionicle.” When I was a younger lad, and an older lad, I collected and played with Bionicle toys regularly. Over the years my collection grew and grew as hundreds of my parents dollars were begged out of them for the newest set. But as my collection grew I found it harder and harder to create new and inspired creatures. I had all the coolest parts, so I should just be able to combine all the coolest stuff and have the coolest creature right? Wrong.
I discovered that if I took a handful or two out of my Chest o’ Bionico and limited myself to those random parts, some cool some not, that I enjoyed my creations much more. Limiting myself would force me to think outside of the box and make compromises that ultimately made the resulting creation more unique. Less always created more. More original, more creative, more bizarre, and ultimately more spectacular creations spawned from my self inflicted limitations. I tell you all this to ask you a question.
Are Batman and Bionicle really so different?
Let me explain what I mean by bringing up the issues I had with Arkham City; the main problem being that I loved Arkham Asylum so very much. It had a unique combat system, the story was engaging, and it played like a 3D Metriod game. Arkham City all but abandoned those three things for the concept of “more.” The Riddler trophies are an easy example, but it goes much deeper than that. Allow me to break it down.
Combat: In Arkham Asylum the combat was fresh; there had never been anything quite like it, at least with that level of polish. But rather than innovate even further in the next game, more things were simply “bolted” on. By the end of the game the combat system had become so jam packed full of stuff that nearly every button had a double and single tap use. Rather than be encouraged to try out these nifty tools and combos I was dissuaded by the shear amount and only used the new combinations if I was forced to.
A prime example of this would be the enemies in body armor. Punching them head on would remove your combo and leave you vulnerable to attack, so you had to daze them and then spend five seconds punching them in the gut. This gut punching also left you open to attack, meaning that half the time I battled them I would have to dart away to avoid being punched and they would remain in the scuffle. So often times I would just build up my combo and use a Takedown move on them to avoid ever having to deal with them. They interrupted the flow of any given fight for no other reason than to add an unneeded level of artificial challenge. That is not fun. They were not larger than a normal enemy, they were typically not armed, they were just red; like a glowing beacon of “Don’t hit me.”
I want to hit things. In Arkham Asylum I could hit things; I could continue to hit them over and over without ever interrupting the flow of the battle. The only enemy that made me even slow down my flow a little was a Titan, and that made sense. And even then, I could still punch him without losing my combo.
I could go on and on about how the combat system was nearly destroyed by the bolted on additions, but the Armored enemies and the staggering amount of useless items are the most egregious offenses.
Story: Say what you will about the main campaign; I personally thought it was garbage, resting too heavily on the “twists.” And what little story there was, beyond that, only served as a way to drag you along to the next Villain Cameo. There in lies the biggest problem with Arkham City’s story, or lack there of, there is too much, too little.
Arkham Asylum had villains, but you could count the actual encounters on one hand. Every boss that was prevalent added uniquely to the main story arc in their own way. In Arkham City though, Villains have cameos and then chump out for the rest of the game. How long did you see Harvey Dent, like five minutes. The entirety of Bane’s side quest, and the ultimate conclusion to the teaser sequence from Arkham Asylum, was boiled down to a fetch quest. Nearly every side quest followed the same pattern, find a bad guy, beat us some dudes or destroy some thing, lock bad guy away. Because of that, almost every single side quest felt superfluous, with the exception of the Mad Hatter. He followed the same formula, but you fought on a clock, which was a needed change of scenery.
I can not help but feel like these side missions all took more and more away from the main campaign. Instead of bolstering and boosting the story to heights above The Dark Knight Rises, not a hard feat, it felt more like a story written by a child. To be fair the child was ten and was writing the story for a school project so his dad helped to make sure there was at least some sort of narrative thread.
“But dad I want Mr. Freeze in the game!”
“OK son, but why is he there?”
“He freezes stuff dad, he’s Mr Freeze!”
“DAD, MR. FREEZE!”
“Fine! We will put Mr. Freeze in.”
“Dad, I want Solomon Grundy!”
Yeah, I know that example featured two baddies from the main campaign but it is not exempt from the cavalcade of villain pop-ins. In fact, the main campaign has probably the most offense transgressions. Characters pop in with just the tiniest bit of reasoning and leave with little to no development. Even the Joker was a one-dimensional character whose only discernible motive was to give the story some sense of urgency. Oddly enough The Penguin had the most perceivable growth, even though it was done through museum voice boxes. All it truly amounted to though was “Boy I sure do hate both Batman and Bruce Wayne.”
Gameplay/ Exploration: Speaking of The Penguin, remember that time you had to backtrack and destroy those signal jammers? Yeah? Now, remember backtracking in Arkham Asylum to hunt down the three Murlocks? No, you do not, because that did not happen in any way, shape, or form. In Arkham Asylum you were never barred entrance to a building because you did not complete a fetch quest. When you could not get into a building it was because you did not have the appropriate item, but you will have the item eventually, so come back when you do.
This MetroidVania style of exploration made Arkham Asylum seem immense, even in comparison to Arkham City. You could show me on a blueprint how City was X times larger than Asylum and I will show you useless empty space used to hide even more useless Riddler Trophies. Instead of instilling a sense of awe at the massive scope of the city it felt more like “Wow, look at this huge place I’m in, separating all the small places I actually want to be in.” So any backtracking I had to do felt like artificial gameplay extension and not natural progression.
There were notable exceptions to that obviously, the Bat Raygun and Bat Ice grenade. Both of these items expanded Batman’s abilities and allowed him to reach new areas. But unlike the original game, in which the new items offered you different areas to explore, the Raygun and Ice Grenades just felt like glorified doorknobs. Mostly unlocking small spaces containing another trophy. Ya-hoo. The reason backtracking in Arkham Asylum was acceptable was because you were almost guaranteed to see something new. In Arkham City, I am going to grapnel the same gargoyle, pass the same door I opened six hours ago, and beat up the same beatniks I destroyed ten bazillion times. Oh, but this city sure is big and cool and big.
Batman Arkham City really was a matter of quality over quantity for me. Throwing more villains at a game never made it good. Just look at all the Batman games that came out before Asylum to see that. Concurrently, combat is not better when you just add “more.” This is especially true when the “more” you add gets in the way of the original flow. When I am jamming out with your combo system I do not want to have it interrupted because I hit the guy in red instead of the guy in black right beside him. Nor do I want to stop what I am doing to deal with some punk who is apparently wearing marshmallows. A boot to the chest will still knock you down, even if you are wearing body armor, you do not just absorb it.
But even with those two staying lackluster, I could have enjoyed the game, at least for its adventure aspect. But instead of slowly becoming uniquely familiar with every inch of the area by pure attrition, I became familiar with the quickest route from one mission centric building to another. My Bat Feet only touched the ground when I made a mistake with my grapnel hook. Because, instead of having a smaller area packed with little mysteries and wonder, I was given a larger area with very little interesting things scantly placed throughout. And by “interesting things” I do not mean Riddler Trophies.
Arkham City stands as a testament to how, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Instead of working fluently together, the parts were disjointed and drew attention from one another. There is a reason people enjoy MetroidVania style games, because everything has a purpose. The bombs, rockets, and morphball all have their use; be they for combat, story, or traversal. Can you say the same thing for Ivy, the Reverse Batarang, or the VR challenges? How could the main story or gameplay have been improved upon if these just did not exist? Did no one think “I’m pretty sure we have all the parts we need, now let’s make something with them.”
So, in that, are Batman and Bionicle really so different? Are games themselves really so different than any other form of creation or art? When forced to work within some sort of confine, ingenuity and wonder are born. Great things can come from unlimited potential, but so often art comes from the struggle of creating it. Neither paintings, movies, literature, or music can be improved upon by simply adding “more,” so why would a game be?
There is a lot of meat to Arkham City to be sure, but just not from the same animal. “Let’s stuff bacon wrapped hotdogs inside bratwurst and cook it inside hamburger and then put it in a chicken and put that in a turkey and then dice it up and fry it in lard.” No, let’s not.