The Batman: Return to Arkham collection is the video-game equivalent of that old “You Had One Job” meme. For this remaster of two of the Batman: Arkham series’s most acclaimed titles, 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum and 2011’s Batman: Arkham City, all that Virtuos had to do was give these games the BioShock: The Collection treatment. Giving them a proper bump to 1080p/60fps, while including all the DLCs and possibly giving the textures a nice HD onceover, would have been enough to guarantee a roaring success. Instead, the developer bit off more than they could chew, as their attempt to update both games so they could share a visual parity with last year’s Batman: Arkham Knight appears to have been far beyond their skill level.
In Arkham Asylum’s case, while the environments now teem with more detail, the upgrade the game received has been accomplished with a complete blind eye to tone. The original version’s dread and mood has been traded for a brightness that shows off more of the disrepair that grips the Arkham Asylum, but robs the game of its inherent sense of danger. And this pronounced lack of an effectively frightening mood is punctuated by a persistent graphical stutter that occurs anytime the game has to load anything, despite the fact that it’s otherwise locked to 30 frames a second.
This appears to be the unfortunate price paid for severely cutting down the interstitial load screen times that plagued the original game, as the stutter distracts from actual gameplay in Arkham Asylum’s most hectic moments. All the while, facial animations are inconsistently touched up, with some models—such as a particularly wretched-looking Commissioner Gordon—and cutscenes now being rendered in the game’s running engine, making for a consistency in visual quality across the board that also, ironically, doesn’t look as impressive as the original, pre-rendered version.
Arkham City fares much better across the board, with the visual bump in quality getting the game very close to Arkham Knight’s graphically spectacular promised land. The single exception is the framerate, which consistently flitters, unlocked, up and down the spectrum of quality, which by itself can be distracting, and the significant drop during the game’s busier scenes is an active annoyance. Otherwise, the wintery Gotham hellscape of Arkham City represents a rather breathtaking visual leap over its previous iteration.
The ultimate joke here may be that Arkham Asylum, while it stands up to the ravages of time as a game far better than its sequel, is the most technically haggard of the two remasters. The Assault on Precinct 13-inspired premise of the first game is a perfect storm of elements that work for a Batman: Arkham game: the living nightmare of a hero trapped in an ostensible prison surrounded by the criminally insane villains he put there, led by the worst of the lot, the Joker. The game falters when it tries to go bigger than its premise needs (all four games in the series run into trouble with their eye-rollingly silly boss fights), but it makes up for it with so many of the smaller moments: Batman’s suit sustaining permanent damage over the course of the campaign; the player finding the hidden Batcave that Batman had built on Arkham Island because he knew he could be trapped in Arkham at any given time; the conversations the bad guys have with each other before Batman intervenes.
All the while, players get to fully explore Arkham Asylum itself, one of the most fabled locales in Batman’s lore, and fully understand the kind of place the Dark Knight condemns criminals to, something that should inform every mention of the place in any medium from there onward. Telltale Games’s episodic point-and-click Batman game has a B plot centered on Bruce Wayne deciding what to do with Arkham Asylum once he’s done building his own state-of-the-art facility with a better focus on rehabilitation. When that game offers the choice on how to respond, it’s the chilling, inhuman vision of developer Rocksteady’s vision of the asylum that sticks in the mind, making tearing the place down and salting the earth the only sane conclusion.
Arkham City is at its best when feeding off of that principle. If Arkham Asylum was Assault on Precinct 13 writ large and with the brio of a comic book, Arkham City is Escape From New York, where the bad part of Gotham City has been cordoned off, let go to waste, in order to house the worst of the worst. However, the whole project is under the auspices of supervillain Hugo Strange, who has other solutions than rehabilitation in mind. There’s some great subtext here about what rights the criminal element in Gotham has, and Hugo Strange’s ultimate plan is rather chilling for how it brings what Batman does, and the code of honor the hero upholds, into sharp clarity.
But that’s buried under far too many B plots, such as supervillains betraying each other at every turn, a litany of dead-end fetch quests and side-missions, and a rather cramped, unwieldy open world where it all takes place. In addition, where Arkham Asylum provided a tether to something resembling normalcy in Batman’s ongoing communications with the information broker Oracle, throughout Arkham City one can only hear the ramblings of the downtrodden and vicious, the talk of those who should never have been sent to the Arkham City mega-prison, and those who aren’t far enough from society for comfort. It makes for a rather miserable, oppressive environment that even the relative power trip of being Batman doesn’t ease in the slightest.
There is, however, an emotional core to the game—that of a dying Joker having permanent access to Batman’s ear, and realizing in so many words that the Dark Knight might very well be the only thing giving his life any purpose. While still distressingly grim, this element is at least grim in a way that deepens what we know about these two iconic figures’ relationship, but that tale is on the periphery of Arkham City. The focus is squarely on presenting an anguished landscape, and nothing Batman does during the course of the game makes the city feel even remotely hopeful.
Distilled down to its core elements, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City excel at delivering an experience where you inhabit the boots of the World’s Greatest Detective in every aspect, whether knocking bad guys unconscious to the bone-crushing tune of 30-hit combos, or piecing together a crime scene, or gliding on massive wings above the corrupted Gotham streets. The version of that experience Return to Arkham offers, however, is a compromised one, using new technology to create an inferior port.