On a slow news day, a tweet from Kotaku's Jason Schreier got folks talking about Batman. When asked if Warner Bros. Montreal would have anything to show at E3 2017, Schreier said “I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much for that one yet. Last I heard it was rebooted.” Rebooted in this context could mean a couple things. Either the franchise is rebooted, in the sense that the Batman video game mythology is being removed wholesale from the Arkham series, or, it could mean the project itself is rebooted, meaning the studio has started from scratch from a previous idea. Either way, my wheels are spinning. Based on my own distaste for Rocksteady’s run with Batman overall, I’m nothing but hopeful for whatever Warner Bros. Montreal has cooking.
Here’s the thing. I’m a longtime fan of Batman. I have stacks of DVDs on my shelf and a closet full of comics longboxes. And you know what? By the end of the Arkham series, I hated the whole deal. Like, I really hated it. Rocksteady’s interpretation of Batman was so offensive, it hurts just to think about it. But there was a ray of light peaking out from that whole mess, and it was Batman: Arkham Origins.
Yep, the black sheep of the series was secretly the best entry the whole time. Sure, it launched with an awful mess of technical problems which ruined the game’s reputation forever, but as far as I can tell they were eventually addressed. I picked up Batman: Arkham Origins on Steam for cheap, years after the fact and played through it with no problems. I really enjoyed it! It is basically a reskin of Batman: Arkham City, but it had something no other game in the Arkham series had: actually decent writing.
Batman: Arkham Origins starts out with Black Mask setting a big group of mostly street-level villains after Batman over the course of a single night. It’s a novel setup that lets less whimsical villains like Deathstroke take center stage and makes the eventual, inevitable Joker stuff really effective when it kicks in. Beyond that, the story draws from all of Batman's history and uses it to tell an original story that incorporates bits and pieces of established continuity. It’s a story that explores the familiar Batman/Joker relationship, but for video game writing it’s briskly paced and tonally consistent and restrained.
On the other hand, the Arkham series leans really heavily on the 90's Batman: the Animated Series, but puts it in a blender lined with black goo. It tries so hard to be dark and gritty and almost trips over itself into comedy in the attempt. It ends up being violent and vulgar in a way an out of touch adult would think a broody teenager would be, topped in poor taste only by the recent Zack Snyder DC films. It doesn’t help that Kevin Conroy’s vocal performance is the most phoned-in delivery in his career. Unsurprisingly, a more enthusiastic performance from Roger Craig Smith only made the higher-tier writing seem even better.
Ultimately Warner Bros. Montreal would do well to leave the Arkham gimmick in the past and come up with something entirely new. The studio has some real talent, especially in the writing department. With a proper budget and time, something Batman: Arkham Origins obviously didn’t get, the studio could come up with something really great. Rocksteady’s undeserved shadow will still hang over it, but given the right time and energy, we could get something that feels fresh and less cynical.