Mild spoilers for Batman: Arkham Origins ahead.
When I was a kid there were Batman movies. Sure, they weren’t Christopher Nolan movies, but I also wasn’t a full grown human being with any prevailing sense of quality in entertainment beyond the litmus test of “did somebody get eaten by an animal in this movie?” And yet, other than the knowledge that I definitely saw them, I have little to no memory of the Burton/Schumacher rotation of Batman films.
But my youth wasn’t without a Batman, because I grew up with Bruce Timm, Kevin Conroy, Paul Dini and Batman: The Animated Series. The Tim Burton Batman movies may not have left much of an impression on my oh-so-malleable boyhood brain, but Mask of the Phantasm certainly did. I couldn’t tell you anything about the plot of Joel Schumacher’s Batman “movies,” but if you invite me over to Christmas dinner I can recite the Joker’s rendition of Jingle Bells from the Animated Series’ first Christmas episode.
All this is to say that while the prevailing rendition of Batman to most people this decade has been Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, another rendition of the caped-crusader unfolded concurrently and is still pressing onward today.
Like the Dark Knight Trilogy and the New 52, the Arkham games (Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and now Arkham Origins) have constructed a distinct rendition of Batman with its own aesthetic and characteristics that may very well come to define the character to fans in generations to come, much as my early idea of Batman was formed not by the movies of the day, but the Animated Series.
Arkham Asylum and Arkham City both presented a Batman at the height of his prowess; fully established Bat-family, rogues gallery and world-class skill set. He’s a Batman of resources and networking, be it his repurposing of villainous technologies or his utilization of a large cast of allies and acquaintances for information.
Arkham Origins, as the name would suggest, predates these developments in favor of a younger, more ruthless and stubborn Dark Knight in the second year of his crusade against crime. This younger Batman isn’t a team player. He didn’t come here to make friends, he came here to win. But the story of Arkham Origins lays the ground work for the figurehead of resourcefulness the Arkham Batman becomes in his later life.
While the story rewinds the clock in the Arkham universe, most everything else is near exactly the same. For better or worse the animations, the graphics, the map and the gameplay are all heavily reliant on assets from Arkham City. When it comes to beating the crime out of criminals with gadgets and fists and kicks and counters this is great. When it comes to looking at the environments said beatings take place in, it’s a pretty steep letdown. With all there was to do in Arkham City, players have likely spent a lot of time in a lot of areas that look a lot like much of Arkham Origins’ map. While there are some new areas the aesthetic is overwhelmingly similar, down to the wintery weather. The drastic leap forward between Asylum and City isn’t repeated in Origins.
Luckily, while the gaming aspects of Origins are largely a retread, the story will give fans of the Bat plenty to mull over. It isn’t always great, but when it’s at its best Arkham Origins offers sterling character moments. It also offers a Hans Zimmer-fied rendition of “Carol of the Bells” courtesy of composer Christopher Drake. But back to the character stuff.
Arkham Origins is set on Christmas Eve, making it appropriate for young children. The Batman is still largely an urban myth to the everyday citizenry of Gotham, but the criminal underworld knows better, and they aren’t happy. This prompts Black Mask to put a one-night-only, $50 million bounty on Batman’s head, a task for which he hires assassins from across the DC Universe. Needless to say, Batman opts out of watching A Christmas Story with Alfred.
The assassins out for Batman’s head range from stupid to awesome and are handled both with finesse and imbecility. Deathstroke, for instance, presents an exciting boss fight that the developers have rightfully hyped for months before Origins’ release, but is done and over two hours into the game. Given all the aforementioned hype, you may have gotten the impression that the lethal assassin would be hunting you throughout the course of the entire narrative, an always present but rarely seen threat. Nope. Fifteen minutes, two hours in and done. On the flip side, Bane is handled quite well, this interpretation a careful treading between the urban terrorist of The Dark Knight Rises and the ridiculous luchador that first popped up in 90s comics.
But the real treat that Arkham Origins offers is it’s delivery of the first encounter between Batman and The Joker. Both characters are portrayed by new actors: Roger Craig Smith voices Batman and Troy Baker (on a roll after Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us) plays the Joker. Both actors are following legendary predecessors (Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker) and both do an admirable job of bringing younger incarnations of the characters to life.
The interactions between Batman and the Joker in Origins are fascinating, particularly watching the wheels begin to turn in each man’s head as they begin to realize just what the other represents. This retelling of their first meeting serves as both an ode to the characters’ fifty-plus year history and as an exploration of why the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime are destined to battle forever.
The character dynamics between Batman and the Joker on display, as well as the performances of the two characters, make what is often times a par for the course game truly worthy of the Batman, and Arkham, mythos. But if that isn’t your thing, you’re probably better off replaying Arkham City with a different downloadable Batman skin.
It’s exciting to think that much as my idea of Batman was formed by the 90’s Animated Series there’s some 13-year-old out there doing bath salts and Instagram whose concept of Batman is being molded today by the stories told in the Arkham games. Like the works of Frank Miller or Bruce Timm before it, the series offers a distinct take on a badass character. After having wrapped up Origins I’m excited to revisit this adaptation of Batman again.