Looking back at ‘Batman: Arkham’ series

By Aidan Finn, Staff Writer

On Nov. 10, the beloved actor Kevin Conroy passed away at the age of 66. After giving his voice to various animated characters over his decades-long career, his most iconic performance will unquestionably go down as Batman in the “Batman: The Animated Series.”

The series remains relevant and beloved in pop culture, with its gripping character depictions and art deco atmosphere reminiscent of golden-age comic books of the ’40s. Conroy’s intimidating but human depiction of the caped crusader helped make the show, along with excellent supporting performances from the likes of Mark Hamill and Tara Strong. 

Conroy gave his voice to several other Batman projects over the years, like other DC animated series and various straight-to-video films directly adapting iconic comic storylines. One of his most successful, and the one where many were first exposed to Conroy, was the excellent “Batman: Arkham” series.

Conceived and developed by Rocksteady Studios, a fairly unfamiliar developer as of the late 2000s, they broke into the mainstream with their 2009 hit “Batman: Arkham Asylum.” The third-person Metroidvania boasted an incredibly stylish and fantastical depiction of the DC universe, with the seedy, gritty concrete confines of Arkham Asylum being the perfect setting for a “Die Hard” movie starring Batman. 

The combat was what many regarded as Asylum’s biggest impact, a combination of light attacks and counter moves that has been replicated relentlessly across the seventh and eighth generation of gaming — everything from “Mad Max” and “Lord of the Rings” to even Marvel comics copying DC’s moves with various Spider-Man games of the Xbox 360 days. 

The atmosphere, however, has remained the secret sauce no other comic game has been able to crack, not even later Batman games like the recent “Gotham Knights.” Especially in later interactions such as 2011’s “Batman: Arkham City,” the Gotham underworld handcrafted by Rocksteady was cold and ominous, a concrete world where the thugs and trash are all that populate the streets, with the ruins of society rusting underneath the orange hue of a street lamp and mild snowfall. 

Distant sirens and howling wind are the white noise of nighttime in “Arkham City,” broken by the occasional scream and explosion off in the distance, with the sweeping horns and chorus of the triumphant hero rising up as you take flight. 

“Arkham City” greatly increased the scale of the 2009 debut with a larger prison-city, new villains from the dark knight’s rogue gallery and a phenomenal plot that pitted Batman in a high-stakes investigation and conspiracy of genocidal proportions. Kevin Conroy gave his ’90s Batman the same weight as he did prior, with internal monologues acting as hints and sharp comebacks toward the colorful villains.

The side quests that littered “Arkham City” were another department where Rocksteady flourished, with compelling storylines that brought the obscure and weird villains of Gotham to life, like a murder mystery tracking down Deadshot and a disturbing caper hunting the mysterious Hush killer. Boss fights are even more reflected in the developers’ sheer creative ingenuity, like the infamous Mr. Freeze fight, where the player cannot use the same tactic of attack twice. 

While Rocksteady was working on the follow-up title, the extensive development time it would take led WB Games to push out a prequel in 2013 by newly-formed developer WB Games Montréal: “Batman: Arkham Origins.” No Rocksteady or Conroy, this was the black sheep of the series, giving the similar but off-feeling nature of the gameplay. 

Copy-pasting various aspects (and exact locations and environments) from “Arkham City,” the game was set just a few years into Batman’s career and involved a Christmas themed adventure with a million-dollar bounty and an onslaught of assassins from all over the DC universe that needed to be fended off. The game made for a great snack between mainline entries, and it created much atmosphere in a snowy city now fully open for Batman to explore. Seeing familiar faces like Commissioner Gordon and Killer Croc, along with debuts like the walking Edgelord Deathstroke, made it a fun time and fitting send-off to the seventh generation. 

2015 rolls around, and after various delays, “Batman: Arkham Knight” releases as the final entry in the storyline as a next-generation showcase. With incredible visuals that blew the already impressive “City” out of the water, it depicted Gotham City in a new massive scale, with a massive plot to go along with it, including Scarecrow and a new villain, the Arkham Knight, at the helm. Conroy returned and gave arguably his best performance yet with his co-star Mark Hamill, a performance that gave a true sense of finality that is rare in any comic story (most are destined to be rebooted and revived until the end of time). 

While issues with the game’s overreliance on the Batmobile for gameplay mechanics were sad (a mortal sin “The Wind Waker” learned in 2002), the incredible visuals and animation work made it a fun ride. Even in 2022, the game looks incredible, which is genuinely messed up, given it looks more detailed than “Gotham Knights,” which was released just weeks ago. 

With that, the studio remained silent for years and years as fans grew more relentless in their wait for another game, turning the Arkham subreddit into a toxic dumping ground for memes. The eventual reveal of a new Suicide Squad game in 2020 put quarantined fans at ease, but the game has been deep in the constant delay space that is modern AAA gaming.

With the passing of Conroy, it is a good time to go back and appreciate these truly incredible games that legitimized comic book games in the mainstream scene after years of rushed movie-licensed games from as far back as the ’80s. With them, Conroy’s excellent performance will live on and be remembered. 

You can play all the “Arkham” games on Xbox Series X with backwards compatibility as well as PC. 

 

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