Return of the Bat… Again.
Game: Batman: Return to Arkham
Developer: Rocksteady Studios/Virtuos Games
Publisher: Warner Bros
(Review code provided by publisher)
Arkham Asylum is pretty much one of my favourite games of the last generation. A phenomenal example of both design and gameplay, it introduced a combat system that was copied ad nauseum but never bettered. The sequel, Arkham City, took the claustrophobia inherent in the first game’s titular institution and infused it into an open world that felt as creepy and restrictive as it was gorgeous and open. Returning to Arkham was something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, but it was with some degree of trepidation that I booted the games up for the first time on the PS4.
The main reason for the uneasy feeling was the less than healthy delay that the game suffered earlier this year. Whilst it was undoubtedly for the good of the game, I was a little concerned that a remaster was suffering from the fate usually reserved for brand new Triple A titles. After several hours with both games, it sadly seems as though my fears weren’t entirely unfounded.
Let’s start off with the good stuff. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are both absolutely fantastic video games. As mentioned above, Asylum is quite simply a masterclass in videogame design, introducing new mechanics at the exact right moment, with backtracking never feeling forced, and allowing new areas of the environments to be discovered even though you’ve been in the exact same place before. The sense of brooding and foreboding that exists within the walls of the Asylum have rarely been bettered in a game. If you want a game with atmosphere in buckets, then Arkham Asylum is for you.
At least, it was. The jump to Unreal Engine 4 has, quite literally, cast a new light on the Asylum, with the game feeling much brighter than the original, down to a combination of strange new lighting effects and retouched character models/environments. It’s a weird feeling, and one that takes a degree of the game’s look and feel away from what should really be a stunning package. In fact, if this were the only version of the game to ever be released, I can’t see that there would be many complaints about the look. But the fact that the original Arkham Asylum felt so perfect, so grimy and so undeniably… Well… “Arkham” just underlines those changes. I’d be interested to see whether they were intentional aesthetic amendments, or if it’s an unfortunate by-product of pushing the game to a new engine.
One thing that genuinely did surprise me was the performance. Arkham Asylum runs at a disappointingly unstable frame rate. There are hitches all over the place, and the game chugs at indiscriminate points along the way. Check out the below video to see how the excitement for stepping foot back into the world of Bruce Wayne slowly drained from me as the performance issues crept in ever more frequently, to the point where I just found myself losing patience with it. The game struggles to hit a consistent 30 frames per second for any extended period of time, which can be a little frustrating when you’re in the middle of a cut scene that hitches and stutters, and even more so when you’re in the middle of a lengthy free-flow combat sequence. It’s a real shame, as the game itself deserves a technically flawless remaster to match the rest of it.
Fortunately, there are areas of Arkham City that fare better. The lighting doesn’t impact on everything too much, as the overall feel of the walled-off area of Gotham is heavily dependent on the contrast between the neon glow of the lights and the grungey city streets. The weather effects look absolutely gorgeous, with rainfall and other precipitation swirling in the wind and settling on the caped crusader’s cowl and armour, causing it to glisten in the moonlight. Disappointingly though, the frame rate is just as inconsistent as the first game, although when City hits the high point, it’s at a smooth 60fps. Sadly, these moments of fluidity are all to infrequent, resulting in a disjointed feeling game that should probably have been capped at 30 to hide the inconsistency.
Arkham City includes all of the DLC, which does mean that all of the catwoman missions are in, as are all of the skins and additional challenge rooms that were available if you wanted to splash the cash back in the day.
Overall, the Return to Arkham wasn’t quite as welcoming as I’d hoped it would be. The changes to certain character models and environments, be it subtle or blatant, have combined to strip the Asylum of some of its creepy charm, whilst technical issues mar both titles in the collection. It almost feels like the game could do with another few months of development, even after the delay, as the performance is something that could theoretically be tweaked and improved. Hopefully the team at Virtuos can get some patches together and tighten up the frame rate and adjust some of the lighting and colour grading, because if they do? This will be essential. As it stands, though, it’s a collection of two technically underwhelming ports of two incredible games that make some disappointing art style choices.