Arkham Punch: Origin Story

WTF is Batman: Arkham Origins?

Arkham Origins is the third game in the Arkham franchise, first released in 2013. Chronologically, the story takes place before the events of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, back when Gotham conveniently covered almost the exact same physical territory as Arkham City, plus a bridge.

In this story, a younger, asshole-ier Batman becomes aware that a villain named Black Mask has put a bounty on his head, encouraging a group of total randoms to come and assassinate him. Among these randoms are: Deadshot, some cobra person, the crocodile man, a guy with electric gloves, and… others.

After this lame beginning, it gradually becomes clear that Black Mask has actually been kidnapped and is being impersonated by the Joker, a villain young!Batman has never heard of before, because of dramatic irony.

Batman then spends Christmas eve and Christmas morning punching the assassins, and the Joker, and the police, and some random thugs, in between dramatic cutscenes where he says rude stuff to Alfred. Along the way, he learns a lesson about how he needs friends, but the main point is really that he needs an enemy.

The Joker parts were tight

If I have one complaint about the previous Arkham games, it’s that the story was weak in the first game, and muddled in the second. Arkham Origins blew past my low expectations and delivered the first really solid, thought-provoking story in the series. By focussing on Batman’s relationship with the Joker, and drilling down to what it really means, Origins not only tells a compelling story of its own, but it also reframes the events of the last two games – especially the ending of Arkham City.

And it’s extra impressive because, even though I spoiled it for you (sorry), the first act of this game is a giant fake-out, designed to make you think the Joker won’t even appear. As a player, you go into this believing that it’s some lame filler story where the B-team tries to take out Batman – essentially, that it has nothing to do with anything. Somehow, that makes it even more satisfying when it turns out to be everything.

Once the Joker shows up, the story’s balanced around this really fantastic set piece where he gives a long, semi-interactive monologue about how Batman – whom, we see, he perceives as a nightmarish rage beast – is The One. That special someone who gives his life meaning – that psycho who just keeps punching everything and makes it really funny.

And, while the game doesn’t explore Batman’s fascination with the Joker in as much detail, he does walk around haunted by the question of why he saved the Joker’s life, which plays into his defining feature as the vigilante who doesn’t kill, but also his unspoken need to have someone that he can just keep punching across different situations.

The recycled locations from Arkham City (which I’ll say more about in a second) also work for the story in that they remind us of the last time we actually saw the Joker – several years in the future, in roughly the same place. We’re constantly invited to make a comparison between how this story starts and how we know it ends, which is a very effective way of using non-linear narrative.

My sense is that (notwithstanding the part where Arkham Knight flat-out doesn’t work on desktop computers) Arkham Origins is the least-loved and most forgotten title in this franchise, which is a shame because, in terms of story and character-building, it’s much, much stronger than its predecessors.

On the other hand, the gaming parts were not as tight

For the most part, Arkham Origins is a slightly more polished repeat of Arkham City, a game that was already pretty amazing. The basic locations are the same, and the basic principles are the same, too – in City, you have to solve a series of puzzles to get green, glowing trophies from the Riddler; in Origins, you have to solve a series of puzzles to get green, glowing data packets from Enigma. In City, Zaas keeps calling you one the phone and you have to race across the city really fast to interrupt his murders; in Origins, Anarky keeps trying to blow up buildings and you have to race across the city really fast to interrupt his bombs. In City, you get a freeze grenade from Mr. Freeze that allows you to navigate previously unreachable areas of the map; in Origins, you get a “glue grenade” that inexplicably works the exact same way.

Origins adds new enemy classes, and improves the electric shock weapons you got in Arkham City, but it doesn’t do anything that’s a radical departure from the previous game. Most of what it does is introduce enhancements to the menu systems and maps that make it easier to navigate, complete challenges, and keep track of your side missions.

Since I already knew how to punch stuff going in, my first play of Arkham Origins was pretty smooth (and I didn’t have the option to start on a higher difficulty level). The only parts that I found challenging or annoying were parts where I was trying to retrieve the Enigma data packs and had to manoeuvre quickly in tight quarters. In those cases, I often ran into an issue where the camera would “helpfully” re-centre itself just as I was trying to aim a gadget, or one where the game wouldn’t register that I was trying to put explosive gel on the wall instead of the floor.

I eventually came up with a strategy to take out the four snipers who spawned beside a key location in the Diamond District, but the fact that I had to take them out often enough to develop a strategy was annoying. If you’re going for 100% completion, the game involves a lot of back-tracking, and it would be kind of cool if the snipers didn’t spawn so often after the story’s complete, when your only task is squeezing into awkward places while you try to collect all the things.

On the plus side, though, I really appreciated things like how the map let me set specific waypoints for the side-quests and challenges I wanted to complete, how I could fast-travel between some locations, and how the upgrade system was re-organized into distinct trees, including one that unlocks through completing specific challenges and quests. As someone who fucking hates the stealth challenges, I also somehow found them easier this time, and felt like a) I had a better view of what was going on on multi-level maps, and b) I had more intuitive places to hide. This is the first game in the Arkham series where I actually felt more confident attacking people from the ground than I did hiding out in the rafters.

The boss fights were pretty cool

One of the strong points of the Arkham series is that it tries to make story and level progression feel organic, so that it seems like events just naturally roll into each other, and not like you’re completing task A, B, and C so that you can fight a boss and level up. Arkham Origins takes that even farther by creating crazy action sequences that roll into crazy boss fights that seamlessly blur the line between cutscenes, traditional combat, and quicktime events.

For example, there’s a sequence very late in the game where Firefly attacks the bridge in the middle of Gotham. In order to stop him, you enter the bridge dungeon/location/whatever and progress through a normal set of stealth and combat challenges until – well, until everything suddenly goes crazy, and the bridge is on fire and falling down, and you have to jump and grapple and climb through a weird obstacle course that weaves in and out of the location, up to the surface level, out to the bridge, which is also now on fire, and then suddenly Firefly is there, and you’ve got to fight him, too, and you grapple onto him and throw stuff at him, and dodge his fire attacks, and it’s really exhilarating. And, even though what’s really happening is that you’re still progressing through a closed location toward a boss fight, it’s designed so that it feels like those boundaries aren’t there.

And that feeling – that feeling like it’s not a videogame, even though it is a videogame, and like it doesn’t have a structure, even though it does have a structure, and like you’re in control of the action, even though you’re absolutely never in control – that makes the game very exciting. It also means that players never hit a dry spell where they’re just like, “Hmm. I wonder which of my 17 quests I feel like doing next?” because there’s always the pull of something urgent as the A-story continues to escalate.

Mostly, there were not any women in the game

Which made it hard for Arkham Origins to do anything that made me uncomfortable. Which is good, I guess.

Barbara Gordon makes a cameo appearance as a nerdy teenager who helps Batman hack into stuff, and who believes in him even when the whole city thinks he’s an asshole. The whole city is right, of course, but she’s a kid.

The cobra person is a hypersexualized woman, and there’s a throwaway line about how she used to be a man that I feel conflicted about. On the one hand, the game doesn’t make any weird, transphobic jokes about that – and my understanding is that the throwaway line is supposed to be a joke about how the cobra person was a man in the comics – but it’s a strange thing to say.

We also get a pretty dignified cameo from Harley, during her psychiatrist days. My major problem with this character across all mediums is that there’s so little connection between who she was pre-Joker and who she is post-Joker that I find the transition kind of unbelievable, but nothing weird and sexist happens when she’s there, so yay.

In conclusion, this is better than Arkham Asylum

Arkham Asylum is not as good as people remember it as being, and Arkham Origins is better than people remember it as being. It was much less of a step forward than Arkham City was, and it seemed to believe you could make a raft out of glue for no reason, but it polished up a lot of what was good in Arkham City, delivered a solid story, and was decently immersive. It does not deserve to be the forgotten middle child of this franchise.

Image: Batman: Arkham Origins; Warner Bros. | June 30, 2017