The latest virtual venture into Gotham City may have been marred somewhat by an overabundance of Batmobile that perhaps resulted from Rocksteady tiring of their own brilliant creation, but the truth is that what Arkham Knight really brings to the table is more than the flawless gameplay and innovative mechanics that have made playing as Batman such a joy for four games. The story is a true work of art, plain and simple.
Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Origins were all exciting cinematic romps through the grit that pervades modern Batman comics. Aside from some interesting redesigns, the characters were all true to the source material in a way we seldom ever see in adaptations, and the dev’s understanding not only of their appeal, but of their very essence has been as big a factor as the excellent gameplay in making this video game series amazing.
But Arkham Knight was no longer interested in a typical comic book romp. The characters were all introduced and it was time to really cut to the heart of darkness at the center of Bruce Wayne’s world. While I’d argue Arkham City was the better game, I can honestly say that Rocksteady’s trilogy closer is the greatest and most definitive Batman story to come along in a very long time, regardless of medium. Here are some of my favorite moments when this video game transcended to art. It’s all spoilers from here on out.
Arkham City‘s big finale saw the demise of the Joker -terminally ill from the events of Arkham Asylum- when he died ironically after attacking Batman and destroying the antidote he’d brought to him. I don’t think anybody thought it would stick, but Arkham Knight opens with the player firing up the furnace that consumes the remains of the Clown Prince of Crime, and we see his perpetual smile burned away with our own eyes.
Early in the game, the Dark Knight is diffusing a bomb placed in the Ace chemical plant by Scarecrow. At this point, Batman is trapped inside the plant and doomed, but he is still desperately working to minimize the damage to the rest of Gotham by carefully removing a series of cylinders. The minigame takes a steady hand and after several repetitions and a lot of intensity, you remove the final cylinder and turn around to find Joker’s horrific visage staring you in the face with a gun to your head crowing “Miss me?” Fade to black. Gunshot.
I have to say that is among the best jump scares I’ve ever encountered anywhere, and it’s the kind of moment that only a video game could pull off as effectively. The way Rocksteady diverts the player’s attention with a task requiring both concentration and repetition before springing this on them and leaving them hanging is just brilliant. In the next scene, you control Commissioner Gordon remarking on the Batman’s absence and the player is left with a pile of mindfuck to sort through for a little while.
Comic veterans may have figured that no, the Joker did not rise from the dead, but appeared as a hallucination due to Batman’s exposure to Scarecrow’s fear gas. But it’s not a one time thing. Turns out that before he died, the psychotic clown managed to infect a number of people, including Batman, with his infected blood, meaning that in addition to being heavily dosed with fear gas, our hero has a little bit of Joker in him. The combination means that throughout the game, Bruce confronts his very worst fears as narrated by his deadliest nemesis. It’s a pretty great narrative device, I have to say.
Arkham Knight‘s theme is fear, specifically Batman’s fear of getting his friends and allies killed in his crusade against crime. It’s always been an essential element of the character in the comics, resulting in his distant and cold demeanor towards his loved ones. At one point Batman goes to Oracle’s clock tower to investigate her kidnapping at the hands of the Arkham Knight and is confronted with another vision of the Joker straight out of Alan Moore’s seminal masterpiece The Killing Joke, in which Barbara Gordon answers the door to find Joker, who proceeds to seve her spine with a bullet and photographs his handiwork as part of a plot to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane.
It’s a legendary moment in the Batman mythology, and watching it unfold off the page while helpless to prevent it was quite an experience for me. Any comic fan knows that when Joker struck her down, she became more powerful than we could ever imagine, but witnessing Babs alone, sobbing and writhing on the floor was a horrible experience nonetheless. When I finally looked away I found a message scrawled on the Clocktower wall: “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DRAG YOUR FRIENDS INTO THIS CRAZY LITTLE GAME OF OURS!” It was absolutely bone-chilling. Later on, Bats is treated to the fate of Jason Todd as well, but it didn’t come close to topping this.
One of the surprising aspects of the series is its willingness to kill off established characters. Arkham City not only saw the deaths of DC’s most popular villain, but Batman’s long-time love interest (and baby mama in the comics) Talia al-Ghul met a shocking end as well. And fear toxin-induced hallucinations aside, neither came back. Arkham Knight cheated death once with the player witnessing the apparent suicide of Oracle -which turned out to be just another hallucination- in an extremely upsetting scene, but another prominent character bit the dust for realsies.
In an interesting turn of events, the plant-hybrid eco-terrorist Poison Ivy joined forces with the Caped Crusader to save Gotham by taking control of gigantic ancient plants lying beneath the city, using them to absorb Scarecrow’s toxins and purify the air. This unusually supernatural moment was a change of pace, but it made for some epic visuals. However, the victory came at the cost of Ivy’s life when the strain of absorbing so much poison overwhelms her, causing her to crumble to dust as she utters her last defiant words in Batman’s arms: “Nature always wins”.
Throughout the game, Batman is aware that he is slowly losing his sanity. There were other Gotham citizens similarly infected by the Joker’s tainted blood, and each was driven insane in turn and took on various aspects of the deceased psychopath’s personality. While Harley Quinn found this twisted legacy delightful, our hero’s stoic anxiety on the matter is clearly illustrated by his visions of Joker taunting him and anticipating the moment where, aided by his foe’s repeated exposure to the fear toxin, he will take over his mind completely.
After being forced to surrender to Professor Crane, being publicly unmasked, and then personally overdosed with the villain’s fear toxin needles, Bruce Wayne withdraws completely into his own mind to face his greatest enemy one last time. At this point, the player becomes the Joker, who has taken over Gotham with terror in direct contrast to Batman’s campaign for justice. He even has a Jokermobile, which he uses to massacre dozens of people before popping out to hunt down his rivals in crime personally in a shooter sequence.
But just like how Joker has been haunting Bruce’s every move, the Bat shows up to make his nemesis face his own fears, driving him back with by confronting him with visions of his own terror of being forgotten and finally locking him away before regaining consciousness. The entire sequence is so unlike anything else I’ve ever played, illustrating and contrasting the two characters so well it made for a much more interesting climax than another dumb boss battle.
Having spent an entire game overcoming his various fears, Batman now has to deal with the fact that the entire world knows he’s Bruce Wayne. After witnessing the victimizations of his allies, taking down the titular former protege-turned-psychopath, watching one of his greatest villains sacrifice herself for him, nearly losing his mind to the machinations of the man who once died in his arms, and once again saving Gotham from apocalyptic doom, he’s been undone by the media of all things.
Bruce tells Alfred to ready the “Knightfall Protocol”. Depending on how much of the game you complete, you get a series of endings when you enact it. Having cleared all of the sidequests, you get the second ending where Bruce Wayne lands the Batwing in front of Wayne Manor in full view of the press and enters moments before the mansion explodes.
And if you have managed to complete Riddler’s insane gauntlet of puzzles and hidden collectibles you get the coda, in which a family very much resembling the Waynes is accosted in an alley by confident muggers enjoying the privileges of post-Batman crime. Then they are suddenly confronted by an apparition of the Bat, who explodes into a gigantic flaming phantasm as it comes for them.
It’s an initially baffling sequence until you consider it. Having mastered fear itself, Brucy Wayne apparently faked his death and years later, Batman re-emerged not as a man, but as a myth personified, using Scarecrow’s trademark weapon to his own advantage to strike true terror into the hearts of criminals in a way he never could as a mere man in a suit. As trilogy closers go, it beats the hell out of running off with Catwoman to Italy or some shit.
We’re All Mad Here
Arkham Knight pre-orderers were treated to a bonus DLC mission where they got to play as Harley Quinn. I’m calling this one a bonus since it’s not actually part of the main game, but it’s definitely worth a mention here because of the character work woven into the content. It’s funny because when you google “harley quinn dlc” the first thing that pops up is an article creatively titled “Arkham Knight’s Harley Quinn DLC is Terrible”. I respectfully disagree.
The content of the download is admittedly meager and it was disappointing that the prequel tale of Harley springing her occasional patner in crime/confirmed love interest (in the comics), Poison Ivy, didn’t offer any reference to their long-time relationship. Plus the boss battle with Nightwing is lame. But these aside, there is some really fascinating insight to the former Dr. Quinzel offered up in this little romp through crazy town.
The primary source of character develoment comes in the villainess’ equivalent to Batman’s detective vision, in which the world tints red and her subconscious thoughts are messily scrawled across the walls accompanied by creepy disembodied giggles. Meanwhile, Harley’s former self pleads with her from within her own mind. I’ve never seen her portrayed this way and it was a refreshing interactive look into the mind of a psychotic but delightful character that is too often treated as an eye-candy side villain. As pre-order incentives go, this was one of my favorites.