Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City did many things right: it managed to distill all of the things that make the Dark Knight a compelling character into a cohesive game that finally got Batman right. It gave us his martial arts training, his second-to-none detective abilities, and his utility belt full of gadgets, and combined all of these factors into a game that was deep, compelling, and most of all fun. It also did one thing wrong: its ending, which left the Joker dead and a mourning Harley Quinn trying to fill the grinning void in his empire, painted the Arkham canon into one hell of a corner.
The obvious, and not necessarily the best solution to this problem? Make the third game into a prequel! WB Games handed the reins of development over to their internal studio in Montreal to explore Batman’s early years (again) in Batman: Arkham Origins, a title that gets a few things right, but manages to get a few things wrong in a game that manages to maintain Arkham’s free-roaming spirit, but lacks the punch of previous efforts.
Set in the early years of Bruce Wayne’s mission of beating the hell out of the mentally ill, Arkham Origins takes place on Christmas Eve, with the skull-masked sadist Black Mask putting a $50 million bounty on Batman’s head. As a result, a septet of deadly assassins comes out of the woodwork, looking to bulk up their resumes and their wallets by killing the Caped Crusader. There’s a fairly well-telegraphed plot twist that, sadly, manages to cheapen the story slightly (poor Black Mask’s marquee is quickly reduced to a supporting role), but the plot as a whole feels pretty by-the-numbers, especially in the wake of two rock-solid Arkham games. The biggest issue with the prequel plot, however, comes from its lack of dramatic tension. We know which characters will make it out from the get-go, and the secondary characters have so little impact that you won’t even wince if they’re murdered or maimed.
The other issue comes from the lack of innovation. There are so few additions to the formula that it feels like a retread at best, and the additions that are there are such a blatant deus ex machina at times (the electric gauntlets are especially guilty of this) that it detracts dramatically from any possible gains.
That’s not to say that WB Montreal doesn’t try to forge their own identity at times. While everything will feel pretty familiar to Bat-veterans, the prequel status lets us see Batman at an angrier, rawer state. This is reflected in numerous ways: the free-flow combat feels more brutal, and Batman’s cool-headed demeanor occasionally shows a crack as emotional cues push him into more violent territory. It’s a unique take that gives us a few tasty hints at a more vulnerable vigilante.
While my gripes against Arkham Origins may sound damning, it retains so much of its predecessors’ DNA that it’s still a worthwhile romp through Gotham City. It’s as fun as it ever was, but it does so little new or unique that it doesn’t have the same impact as it could have. Check your expectations at the door, and you’re sure to enjoy yourself.