Batman Ends

Early next year, fans will be treated to the end of Rocksteady’s Batman saga in Batman: Arkham Knight. To call the series beloved and well-made would be an understatement. When Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, it was lauded by critics and fans as one of the few great superhero games; when its sequel Arkham City followed a few years later, it won Game of the Year. There was a prequel released — using the same engine but not produced by Rocksteady — called Arkham Origins that wasn’t great, but then, I really don’t think it was meant to be anything besides a placeholder.

Rocksteady is producing this latest entry, Arkham Knight, and according to them it will be their last Batman game. It’s interesting to really meditate on because comic book characters never really end. There are branching continuities, mediums, everything you could think of. Despite this, to know that this branch of the story is ending definitively places a pressure to deliver something unique and a true culmination of this saga.

Joker died in Arkham City; Arkham Knight picks up the pieces. Gotham City feels safer than ever, crime is down, but Batman is untethered, confused by the loss of his nemesis. The main plot is nearly identical to the other games: Batman’s villains team up against him. The setting is different this time — moving to Gotham City proper, a map five times larger than Arkham City and featuring a playable Batmobile. As exciting as all that is, what is most interesting is the subplot of Batman’s life post-Joker. The developers at Rocksteady (along with DC Creative Officer Geoff Johns as a consultant) are in a position to explore the depth of the enmity between those two characters in a way we’ve never seen. The relationship between Batman and the Joker has always been different sides of the same coin and while hatred fueled them both, having one without the other would make the survivor likely feel, somehow, incomplete. How they handle that incomplete/unresolved feeling will be critical to how Batman is portrayed throughout the game, and, therefore, be a large part of whether or not Arkham Knight is successful.

By successful, I don’t mean financially or critically. God knows this game will be a financial success even if it’s ten minutes long and features Batman fighting a severe toe-stubbing; critically it will succeed within reason even if it just washes the bad taste of Origins from our palate. I’m talking about success on a story level, in delivering something that is satisfying. That’s a particularly grueling mission, especially considering that this is the story with an ending and not a transitional piece to another game.

The success of the story is hinged on a few factors:

1) Batman’s character arc: As stated above, his state of mind following Joker’s death and a well detailed exploration of what that means to him is crucial to his character arc. How has this affected him personally? Has it changed his methods as a crime fighter? If so, how and why? How does he view the future of himself and the city? Having Scarecrow as the central villain, and considering his fear toxin, could be an excellent and visually exciting way to explore Batman’s psyche.
2) A proper ending: This ties into number 1. Whatever the ending is, it should be built upon the world built in the prior games and the events that will shape this one. The ending needs to be grown organically out of what’s happened and not be shoe-horned in for the sake of itself.
3) The identity of the Arkham Knight: Fans have their theories — Hush, Jason Todd, Quincy Sharp (via interface), and Azrael. Whoever or whatever the Arkham Knight may be, should be based on what and who have been relevant in this series. Again, let it come organically.
4) Not resurrecting the clown: Comic books and forced resurrections go hand in hand. The last thing this series needs, however, is to undo an audacious move by hitting the magic reset button.

Downloadable Content

At the same time, this is still a comic book based story. Just because there’s an ending to it, doesn’t mean it must actually be the end. There are tangential and parallel stories that can be told, featuring Batman or, hopefully, his cohorts. DLC has become a popular fixture in games these days, and for good reason: more bang for your buck. Rocksteady has dabbled with DLC in a number of ways already: offering different costumes for Batman that span his many looks over his 75 years; Arkham City received a number of game companions: a Catwoman story, a Nightwing battle map, and Harley Quinn’s Revenge which largely featured a playable Robin. While they weren’t the best as far as story, they were still well made entries that can be used as a way of establishing a baseline.

Batman is one of the most iconic and popular characters in fiction. Simply “ending” him will never happen. Rocksteady may not want to create more Batman games under the Arkham series, but that does not mean that expansion packs should be ignored; they’re supplemental. It feels now that the time would be right to focus on the character of Nightwing in upcoming DLC. Nightwing is Dick Grayson, the original Robin, who turns 75 next year and is currently undergoing a radical shift in status quo in the comics. Among the fandom, Nightwing’s popularity is almost as great as Batman’s himself; in popular culture, however, he isn’t as well known. However, we live in an age where even Green Arrow gets his own series, so there’s no reason why Nightwing couldn’t be afforded the opportunity to grow.

Whatever happens to Batman character and story-wise during and following the events of this last Arkham game, there is still plenty to explore in DLC. Nightwing could have a story running parallel or after these events; Batman himself could even be a focus depending on how the main story unfolds. Given the extremely large map and the wonderful gadgets we’re to be given, the stories still available to tell are many.

To consider, look at Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, the expansion DLC for Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. Freedom Cry takes place in the established continuity of the franchise, but exists as a standalone story, compressed into four to five hours of gameplay, for an incredibly reasonable price. The game is made to be a jumping on point for people wanting to give the series a chance, and players don’t have to know anything about the main story to appreciate Freedom Cry’s. While its plot is a singular one, it is complete and manages not only to build upon the world created by the main title, but also to delve deeper into the characters we had seen but didn’t know much about. This model can be easily transferred to any of Batman’s allies and used by Rocksteady to great gains long after Arkham Knight’s release.

Other DLC

What fans have found exciting over the years, is that the Arkham games have allowed us different Batman costumes spanning the many looks he’s had over the years. We’ve been able to use suits from the Adam West show, The Animated Series, Zur-En-Arrh and Dark Knight Returns, the Neal Adams Era. All told, there are about twenty of these skins available over the two previous Rocksteady entries (and that’s just the ones available to Batman; even some of the supporting cast get other looks). There’s no reason why this game should be different. Not only should they add new looks this time around, but also offer the original packs as well.

Something else, of course, can be done. Rocksteady fulfilled a number of fanboy wishes by adding a fully useable Batmobile in this final installment. So far, the results are great looking, though one thing does rankle: it isn’t particularly pleasant to look at. It would be nice for a corresponding DLC to come out that would change the Batombile’s skin — giving us options to tool around in the Batmobile from the Michael Keaton era, The Animated Series, or one of the other fifty designs the car has had over the years. Now, this is comes with a major asterisk. It’s rumored that the Batmobile as it stands in Arkham Knight is hard-coded into the game; given its dual modes, heavy visibility in cutscenes and tactical applications, this could be true, which makes switching out the vehicle for (multiple versions of) others costly and time consuming. At the same time, not to sound too entitled, if we’re to spend five or six hundred dollars on a PS4 or Xbox One to play the game, we’d sure like to see how far the hardware can go and how far developers are willing to take it.

The Future

Rocksteady has said that this marks the end of the Arkham saga. That, of course, comes with a heavy subtext. It does not preclude the idea of a new Batman video game franchise or other superhero franchises. Hopefully Warner and Rocksteady’s relationship will continue and broaden to include somebody other than Batman. Rumors have spread over the years about a Rocksteady game involving Superman or Green Lantern, though the most popular one involves the entire Justice League, with the player shifting from one member to another as the story unfolds.

In a perfect world, that Justice League game would be on the horizon from Rocksteady (though I think Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman would be a perfect choice if they want to stick with a single character). Either way, they could still use Arkham Knight as a means of promotion and testing with a DLC that connects the world of Batman’s Arkham with the Justice League or the new single character series. It would serve as a passing the torch moment, as a baseline to observe fan reaction, and to tease the future of the brand.

Arkham Knight will launch sometime in 2015 for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.