People have been telling me I have to play the Arkham games since the first one was released. For years, I've heard that they were fantastic, that they offered the experience of being Batman, that the writing and voice acting were great, and so on and so forth. But I just ignored them, not because I thought they were wrong, but because I was worried they might be right.
Then, last year, I heard something about the third game in the series that made me pay attention. The story is entirely set on a single night when eight assassins are hired to try and kill Batman. And that night is December 24th.
I knew it was just a matter of time. That time, incidentally, was the duration it took for Steam to mark Arkham Origins down to $7.49 during one of their ridiculously amazing sales. I bought it and set out to experience the holiday-fueled mayhem.
A few words of warning before I continue. I am not remotely qualified to review video games. I certainly played my share back in the day, but the day in question was back in the 80's and early 90's. As systems evolved, I mostly abandoned the practice, not wanting to get caught up in yet another hobby. I've played a handful of games on computers, the Game Cube, and the Wii since, but I'm certainly no expert.
That said, I'm more than qualified to talk about Batman and the holiday elements. I'll offer some thoughts on the rest of the experience, but take these with a grain of salt. For better or worse, this is the first modern open world adventure game I've played that doesn't rhyme with "Regend of Helda".
So then. Let's discuss what how this was.
The game starts with a breakout and murder at Blackgate. As you restore order, the game takes you through the basic moves. I was a little underwhelmed at this point: I didn't find the controls immediately intuitive, and I found Blackgate a bit dull (though I liked the Christmas lights). I then fought Killer Croc, and moved outside of the prison....
Suddenly, I was in Gotham. The Gothic architecture was right out of the comics, only given life in three dimensions and in greater depth than I'd ever hoped.
And it's CHRISTMAS.
The lights, the decorations, the over-sized Santas and fake gifts on roofs... they didn't take this lightly. The holiday permeates every level of the game's design. The music incorporates familiar holiday themes, too. On top of that, the writing reflects the season. Criminals with a sense of humor reference it left and right, while Alfred is constantly reminding you what day it is.
Like most action and noir stories set around the holidays, Arkham Origins uses Christmas as juxtaposition to make the darker aspects feel even darker. It's no mistake that most of the more disturbing sequences explicitly reference the date or use holiday trappings in their delivery. The effect works here, achieving a genuinely disturbing tone.
From a story and character perspective, the game delivers above my wildest expectations. The writing is top-notch, and you don't need to add "for a game" as a qualifier. It's a great Batman story, regardless of medium. The villains feel complex and believable while retaining their core essences. Batman undergoes a character arc throughout the piece - granted, it's an extremely common arc for him, but it's delivered with such nuance and attention to detail, we'll overlook the fact it's been done before.
I think the larger plot is handled even better. As I mentioned before, the story opens with eight assassins being hired to kill Batman on Christmas Eve. Naturally, I'd expected the game to be structured in a relatively standard "level" manner: you make your way through the assassins one-by-one, then go after their boss. It's a fairly generic video game premise, and I'd expected a similar execution.
Turns out, I was wrong. The story spins off in unexpected directions as the assassins' characters come to the forefront. They're not universally interested in the money or the job, they aren't all part of the main story line, and they don't necessarily get along. The video game plot-line unravels and is replaced by something much more operatic and engrossing.
The voice work helps, as well. The earlier games used the legendary Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill from Batman: the Animated Series. This one replaces them with Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker. Both due an admirable job, with Baker in particular delivering a Joker nearly indistinguishable from Hamill's. The supporting cast is also great.
The game's only major fault is the design of several female characters. The Arkham series, like most video games, was clearly designed by men with teenage boys in mind as a core audience. As a result, women are sexualized to an unnecessary and often baffling degree. Characters who should be lithe are buxom, and their dialogue and mannerisms are layered with innuendo. This type of thing is always obnoxious, but in the context of such stellar writing and a complex world, it's all the more unfortunate.
There are a few other issues I have with the game, but these are more preference. I feel like the armies of gangs wandering the street could have been culled to a third of what's present without impacting the difficulty or opportunity for advancement. The fact you usually can't turn a corner without coming across a half-dozen thugs looking for trouble undercuts the sense of alienation that gives the game its charm. Likewise, while I've gotten the hang of the controls, I still find them somewhat cumbersome.
But these are all ultimately minor issues in a stellar Batman game featuring a story that can hold its own alongside the best of the Dark Knight's tales in comics and animation. Gotham at Christmas is something that deserves to be experienced: consider this one highly recommended.