“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…”
-Bruce Wayne, Detective Comics #33
I really want to begin my review of Batman: Arkham Origins with this moving TV spot released to promote the game. It might just be one of the most powerful visualizations of the life of Bruce Wayne, the orphan, and just what motivates him to do what he does. It’s all in the eyes.
Set five years prior to the events of Arkham Asylum, third installment in the series, prequel Batman: Arkham Origins explores the first encounter between a younger and less experienced Batman and the man who will become his archenemy, the Joker.
Arkham Origins was released for PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows (yawn) and it does little to mix up the standard gameplay introduced by Asylum and City, even though it was developed by Games Montreal and not the Arkham series creators, Rocksteady Studios. Because of the change in developers, Arkham Origins seems less to fit into the franchise than any other installment. It’s sort of the black sheep.
Indeed it was criticized for its many glitches and gameplay errors, its multiplayer elements, and unnecessary changes to core features. It also sees the departure of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill from voicing their iconic roles, and though the new and younger actors give it their all, one can’t help but sense that their little feet are too small for their fathers’ shoes as they attempt to do their impressions.
While Origins may not be the best game in the franchise, it spawned several DLC’s, two spin offs and an animated sequel, and it still has many great moments, great characterizations and some awesome sequences of narrative. However, the script is missing that Paul Dini touch, as he did not return for this installment.
Even though Arkham Origins was released in late October, it’s Christmas Eve in Gotham. Why don’t they just shut down Gotham city every time it’s a holiday? That seems to be when the maniacs come out to play. Several story beats inform us that we’re dealing with a Dark Knight who is still finding his place as resident vigilante of Gotham: the GCPD distrusts him, the city is not yet overflowing with insanity, and Batman himself is green around the bat-gills. When the Black Mask, currently the most powerful crime lord in the city, puts a million dollar bounty on the Bat’s head, eight assassins enter Gotham to hunt the Dark Knight down. They are the ferocious Killer Croc, world-class marksman Deadshot, weapons expert Deathstroke, contortionist Copperhead, pyromaniac Firefly, martial arts guru Shiva, pushover loudmouth Electrocutioner, and the intimidating Bane.
Batman’s confrontation with the eight assassins, some deadlier than others, forms the backbone of Origins’ storyline. But a rogue element is introduced. Someone is undermining the Black Mask’s hold on the criminal underworld, usurping his power and setting himself up as the true ringleader of Gotham. It’s someone who will take the city into a new and far darker direction. Of course it’s the Joker.
It’s great to see the back and forth between Batman and the Joker for the first time. Two outstanding moments come to mind. Batman saves the Joker’s life by breaking his fall, and the Joker almost kills the Bat right afterward but stops to wonder why on earth the vigilante would save his life. The epiphany the Joker has in realizing that the Dark Knight will not take a life or allow one to be taken is the founding moment when the Joker’s hideously pseudo-romantic fascination with the Batman begins.
The second moment comes when the Joker tries to drill a loophole into Batman’s black and white worldview, and since it represents the climax of the game, I’ll put up a spoiler warning, but it’s too clever not to mention. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Taking police captain Jim Gordon hostage, the Joker and Bane together push Batman to his limit. The Joker seats himself in an electric chair which will slowly build up a lethal electric charge for every beat of Bane’s heart, which is hooked up to a monitor. The only way to save the Joker is if Batman kills Bane, stopping his heart, or… if Batman refuses to take Bane’s life then the Joker will die. Brilliant.
Battles, detective activities and predator missions pretty much follow the same schematic as previous games. There are however a handful of innovations that help keep the action somewhat fresh and maybe warrant this third installment. Arkham Asylum took place in a single facility on an island. Arkham City took place in a sub-section of Gotham. In Arkham Origins, the area is expanded even further, including the area of the slums of City as well as other large sectors to explore. The world is bigger and in order to accommodate the Dark Knight’s movement throughout the city, he can now use the Batwing for immediate transport from place to place.
A couple new additions to Batman’s gadgets include the Remote Claw and the Shock Gloves. Batman lifts the latter off of the Eletrocutioner and he can use them in combat to strike even harder than ever before as well as in the field to charge certain devices and machinery. The extra armaments are welcome considering some of the boss fights in Origins are more complex and challenging than ever before.
A much harder mode can be accessed: “I Am the Night” mode essentially gives you one life and no continues. If Batman dies, that’s it. You have to start the game over again. It’s the ultimate challenge for the vigilante that has reached the peak of human performance. That’s a cool and thematic way to encourage some replay value and a real challenge if you want to shoot for 100% completion. Unfortunately, it happens to be in a game that I didn’t really want to play again.
“Crime in Progress” and “Most Wanted missions” fill out the roster of sidequests available in Origins. These include working alongside an untrusting GCPD. It wouldn’t be much of an Arkham game without the Riddler. In his place is Enigma, an alias used by the rogue of riddling prior to his adopting his green be-question-marked clothes. However, most of these side-missions seem so textbook, run-of-the-mill and almost chore-like that Arkham Origins was the first game in the series where I didn’t even come close to completing all the extra content. Sounds like I’m dismissing or belittling it. I’m not. The boss fights are amazing. The graphics will please. The voice acting is still great. But it’s a good game among other installments that have been mindblowing.
The 8-Bit Review
The graphics aren’t a vast improvement over Arkham City. It’s kind of like a sequel that isn’t quite as funny as its predecessor because it reuses old jokes. They were funny the first time but they’re eye-rolling the second time. Like dad jokes. However, Origins does its best to give us something new. The facial animations, for example, seem more articulate than ever, especially with the Joker. I always thought that his mouth didn’t open quite wide enough when he spoke, but no more.
This version of the Joker has some impressive lips! And I say that in a purely platonic tone. The extra attention to animation made up for the lack of Hamill’s voice. Maybe a little bit. Also, Batman’s face looks better to be, too. It’s like they finally figured on dropping his brow down so he looks actually angry and not merely mildly irritated. Other characters, like Killer Croc, Bane, especially Black Mask, look much better than their original versions in Asylum or City. Character models are less stiff than they used to be and little visual snippets during some of the fight sequences seem torn straight from the pages of the comic books. The game’s cutscenes especially are the finest in the series (thus far) and the most life-like. Snow-pelted Gotham city looks even more detailed and uninvitingly grim than it did in City. Copperhead’s poisonous hallucinations stand in for Scarecrow’s fear toxins but they accomplish the same freaky effect. Arkham Origins remains faithful to the name of a franchise that has always featured some really great graphics. Origins is a cinematic experience with graphics built to emphasize that.
I was impressed right of the bat (heh) with Origins’ soundtrack. When the title screen came up and I heard the music for the first time, I put the controller down and just enjoyed the barreling drums and morose chiming of Gotham’s Carol of the Bells. Beyond that, I don’t recall too many other tracks. It’s mostly the same brooding darkness and ferocity that characterized Asylum and City’s OSTs with a little added flavor of traditional horror sounds. At times it’s more discordant than its predecessors.
And now to the voice acting. Roger Craig Smith does a great job by not attempting to sound too much like Kevin Conroy. He in fact sounds like he is much younger and unsure of himself. He hits all the character beats for Batman: the determination, ferocity, and darkness of the character.
Martin Jarvis’ Alfred (ironic name) plays a much larger role in Origins than the faithful butler did in the past games, and though he voiced the character in City, he brings a fuller emotion to the role here. Brian Bloom’s Black Mask and JB Blanc’s Bane are massive improvements over the voices those characters had in City and Asylum, Rosa Salazar’s Copperhead has a thick, authentic-sounding accent, and Wally Wingert returns to wield his wily arrogance as Enigma. Of course everyone wants to know what the Joker sounds like without Mark Hamill.
Troy Baker is phenomenal but it’s clear he’s doing an impression rather than bringing some new layer to the role. He follows all the ups and downs and all the whimsy of Hamill’s menacing tones, but because he does such a great job, it makes you wonder why they didn’t just get Hamill himself anyway, besides the fact that they wanted the Clown to sound younger. Baker seems capable enough in the role that he could feasibly take on the part after Hamill’s eventual retirement.
The video below showcases the use of classical music and the voices of Bane, Batman and the Joker.
Holy frame-rate drop, Batman! This game has more glitches than a pacemaker built in Mexico. What really makes it stand out is the fact that Asylum and City are both as smooth as butter. The redeeming factor comes not from the regular fights against the typical hoodlums. In fact, there seemed to be a lack of predator encounters (my personal favorite). But we’ve done all that before.
What keeps this gameplay score from dropping any lower are the boss fights. We’ve seen some fun, complicated and challenging encounters against Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze in games past, but Arkham Origins has some really awesome bosses. The eight assassins are the perfect excuse. Firefly is fought in various stages. Shrugging off Copperhead’s illusions is thematic and tense. Fighting Deathstroke and later Shiva is especially difficult and therefore memorable with its precise timing and countering counterattacks, while at the same time Origins rewards you with a laugh for taking out Electrocutioner (spoiler: highlight to reveal) with a single punch to the jaw. The final fight against (spoiler: highlight to reveal) a beefed-up Bane might be the best in the three main games. Certainly better than Titan Joker in Asylum.
Dini’s genius may be no more but this still holds up as a fair Batman story, albeit a little less shocking than the stories we’ve already seen in City and Asylum where the appearances of supervillains were less contrived and more natural. However, Origins is not without its moments. When I reached its conclusion, I inevitably wondered the wonder everyone wonders about prequels: why was this made? Prequels tend to feel a little forced sometimes. Laying out the positions of characters and the foundations of things to come can often be too large a burden for a narrative to bear. But what I think makes Origins a story that was worth telling was, again, the examination of the first encounter between Batman and the Joker. It’s different than the comic books that have already told this tale, like The Man Who Laughs. Setting up the consuming fascination of the Joker for Batman and the Bat’s inability to do away with the Joker because of his values makes Origins a worthy entry in the Arkham series, so far as narrative is concerned.
Arkham Origins suffers from the same problem you encounter in Arkham City, though possibly not to exactly the same extent. The problem is this: adding more techniques and skills and gadgets cumulatively means more button inputs to remember. At a certain point, it simply becomes too much. Either some skills will become redundant or obsolete, or you’ll just be unable to remember them all. Origins seems to have consciously tried to trim back at least some of Batman’s capabilities but it’s not enough to bar the flood.
This score shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering everything I’ve already said about Origins. It’s hard to nail down exactly what it is that made this game less engaging than the others. Perhaps it was a matter of accumulating factors: different writer, different actors, not enough innovation, too many chores, too much routine. For me, Origins has the least replay value of the entire series.
Considering how heavily Origins relies on rehashing and setting up everything that has come before it, we can’t expect too high of a score for uniqueness. However, one example of a freshened up feature is the more involved detective mode that lets you pick apart a crime scene, even play it back in reverse and view it happening from all angles.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Arkham Origins includes a multiplayer feature but I never made it so far as playing it. That means I can’t grade it, either. Maybe someone else can elaborate on it? I have heard that it ain’t no thing, as in nothing special.
As for myself, it’s already clear that I didn’t enjoy Origins as much as I did City and Asylum. It suffers from a few too many flaws, most notably its glitchiness. They kept releasing more downloadable content but wouldn’t get around to fixing the actual game?
Batman: Arkham Origins is not a bad game. It just isn’t exceptional. It’s just pretty decent with several great moments and bosses. It might be more boss-driven than other games, so that’s a plus, though I’d have to go back and cross-check how many bosses there are in the older entries, yada yada yada. You know, I just don’t care to do all that work, just like I didn’t really care to do much in Origins beyond a few Most Wanted missions after beating the story. If you love Batman, go ahead and play this game if you’ve already beaten the others. If you haven’t played any of them, go get yourself checked by a doctor for chronic negligence, then forget this review and pick up Arkham Asylum.
Aggregated Score: 6.5