Back in the late 2000s, the idea of a solid Batman game was a pipe dream. Until then, the closest that players had gotten towards really feeling like a proper dark knight was with a 2005 tie-in to the Batman Begins movie that featured Christian Bale’s growly voice and face punching the fear out of his enemies. Not a bad game at the time, but clearly movie fodder material before the industry shifted its efforts towards quick mobile games.
And then in 2008, something magical happened. Rocksteady released a Batman game that was ticked all the right boxes and then some. A dark and atmospheric environment that was just as much of a character as the Batman was? Check. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their iconic voice acting roles as THE Batman and Joker? Check and double check mother-lover. A combination of brains and brawn as Batman fought and stalked his prey across Arkham Asylum? You better believe it!
Rocksteady released a sequel in 2011, that expanded their Arkhamverse with Arkham City. For many fans, it’s a tale of two games: Some preferred the tighter and more focused labyrinth of Arkham Asylum over the bigger distractions of Arkham City that went for broke with the sandbox genre, while others cherish the more polished combat and a third act shocker from the sequel over the disappointing finale of the original game.
Thing is, they’re both good games. Damn good games that set a benchmark which the gaming industry copied for years to come. In the early 2010s, just about every action game had players pressing Y or Triangle to duck an attack, that’s just how much of an impact the Arkham series had on developers. It’s Batman with a slick new coat of paint and a ton of content added to the mix.
A coat of paint that very quickly cracks and peels the more you venture into the Arkhamverse.
Developer Virtuos Games applied a can of Unreal Engine 4 to Return to Arkham, and the results are mixed at best. While Batman may pop and shine with the added textures, coming off noticeably better in the process, the rest of the asylum and its inhabitants suffer. The reason why Arkham Asylum worked like a charm in 2008 was because it used the limitations of console and PC technology to its advantage.
Deeper shadows and blacks hid flaws, while painting a more gothic approach for a Batman game that had not yet been seen at that point. Return to Arkham drags the dark knight kicking and screaming into the light, with every corner of the madhouse shining with these new details. On paper it sounds great but it also robs the game of some sense of mystery.
It also looks downright odd, while characters seem to have also lost a lot of detail in their facial expressions. Even worse, the frame-rate regularly dipped below 30 frames per second as even running across a corridor as Batman resulted in odd screen jitters. Fans weren’t expecting Virtuos to emulate the gorgeous work that Rocksteady had created with Unreal 4 in Arkham Knight, but a serious lack of a higher frame-rate here feels like a slap in the face.
But here’s where things get…weird. Arkham City in comparison looks fantastic at times. Remember, Arkham City was a bolder and more explosive Batman game. The Hollywood blockbuster approach when compared to Arkham Asylum’s moody indie credentials. Applying this brighter school of thought actually works wonders for Arkham City and can look absolutely breath-taking at times.
The frame-rate is also weirdly a lot more stable here, hovering around the 30FPS mark and regularly going higher in quieter scenes in a manner that creates the illusion of the first sequel venturing into Call of Duty territory. It’s not always perfect however, with more explosive sequences starting to pull at the seams of the Arkham City engine as the action intensifies.
A pity really. There’s a fanbase out there who’ll replay the Arkham games with a few new graphical tweaks, especially if the package includes all of the DLC that came with those two magnificent games. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are still a pair of the best damn Batman games ever made.
If you’ve never touched an Arkham game before and want to jump in at the beginning, Return to Arkham’s graphical foibles are easy to overlook, with gameplay that still holds up magnificently today. Maybe even better for anyone who felt that Arkham Knight jumped the shark with the amount of bat-skills available.
But for any seasoned caped crusader who found every riddle within the asylum and the city several years ago already? Batman: Return to Arkham just doesn’t look the part of a big-scale upgrade, making this a hard sell to anyone who has a moderately specced PC or a last-gen console that has already been graced by the bat.
Last Updated: October 26, 2016