>> Batman: Return To Arkham

Completed the main story, collected every Riddler trophy and beaten every challenge (predator and combat) for Arkham Asylum and Arkham City on hard mode.

In honor of Kevin Conroy's passing, I decided to replay Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City among other things to pay tribute. I abhor Batman: Arkham Knight's nonsensical and botched story as well as the crappy car combat that I refuse to play it. For my playthroughs, I played on the hardest difficulty, collected every viable secret or collectible and completed the challenge arenas and maps to understand the game's strengths and flaws. My attraction to both games are its casual yet versatile combat and stealth gameplay although not for its serviceable story; however, completing every optional content and imprecise combat is where it hampers the experience. I do like and recommend both games as a casual Batman game but my overall experience was negative when completing them as a completionist.

For this article, I will assume the reader is familiar or played both games so I will not be detailing the game mechanics mentioned instead focusing on its design and implementation. I will be primarily writing about the issues of both games and primarily using the first game as a point of reference since the second game mostly improved on the first game.

>> Padded Metroidvania

As a metroidvania, backtracking for collectibles and secrets is an issue in both games. Fundamentally, the incentive to retread old areas with new tools for rewards is not very fulfilling for a few experience points specially the many Riddler trophies. Since several rewards are locked by late gadgets, the player is punished for coming back earlier and that some of them are simply using the new gadget without posing some challenge. Most importantly, barely any changes in the old areas like new enemy configurations or optional challenges for a stronger reason to revisit. Another issue is the lack of exits where the player has to travel all the way back after reaching the end or simply unnecessary retreading. Aside from completion, the player has no incentive to explore old areas and is wasting their time.

An issue specifically as a completionist is that, the collectibles feel like checklists when they are revealed instead of encouraging discovery. Since the game is not really about exploration, this is understandable cheap padding but conflicts with its metroidvania design. I think just not allowing players to come back to old areas until the end of the game or simply not having those Riddler trophies and riddles would be a better design. The Easter eggs and references can just be those without external rewards or pressures. I do like the interview tapes and lore but I think they can be reworked as rewards for the optional content.

These issues are primarily felt in the first game specially with the lack of horizontal navigation even if the line launcher is a subpar solution and the lack of exits in long corridors. The workflow is running to every room on foot (or wire), finding every collectible and repeating this process on the remaining room and levels which is tiring and boring. The second game fixes some of the prior issues with the grapple boost for horizontal mobility, better challenges, improved side quests and Riddler informants but suffers from the same issues. Catwoman amplifies this issue of backtracking where Batman has to discover and open the path first rather than independently which feels worse. While I praise the new and better challenges, a huge amount of repetitive and boring Riddler trophies are still peppered throughout the map. I feel the game wasted my time since I have to do this to unlock the other more intriguing optional challenges.

>> Lenient Stealth

While I like how much gadget variety is offered, the game does not push the players to act creatively or aggressively by offering too much safety in vantage points and wall hacks. Although the game rewards gadget variety, it is small and does not penalize camping. While the second game offered many adaptive solutions such as destroying vantage points, communication jammers, armored enemies requiring noisy takedowns, mines, hostages and so on, but the underlying issue is not really addressed. I do like the detective vision as an accessibility option to better see and find options such as breakables or interactables, but do not like how it trivializes the stealth gameplay. My suggestion is to simply design rooms without vantage points or cheap exits, reduce experience points when using those options by half or so, decrease the value of silent takedown while increasing the other options, a time limit that may or may not increase with takedown, rework the detective vision to reveal enemies with a limited use noisy sonar for a short period of time similar to the sonic batarang's explosion or any of these would just be direct incentive to be more proactive.

As a revealing anecdote, I avoided using vantage points and detective vision in my playthrough to heighten my experience; however, the final Riddler challenge I had left involves executing an inverted takedown and since predator rooms do not respawn, I had to start New Game Plus to complete it which is almost funny but mostly sad.

>> Disempowering Combat

This is my greatest grievance with the Arkham game series. The combat system works well at a casual level but executing it well specially with the second game's hardest combat arena, The Joker's Carnival, shows how poorly it feels at a high level. Most of the time whenever the player commits an error, the question should be how can they correct their mistake, but here it is how did the game caused it. The following issues show a loss of player accountability discouraging mastery and skill over both games.

The worst issue is the imprecise attack targeting where the wrong target is attacked which happens most of the time specially in between combos. After completing the hardest combat challenge, I still do not know how targets are chosen and only adapt based on the targets in that direction. As long as enemy is between the intended target, the player always has to anticipate that the next target is the one in between no matter how precise the analog controls are. This is also why disarming shields and stun batons or special takedowns of armored enemies is always a priority to avoid hitting them by accident. An attack target indicator would help this issue like what the third game did but my experience with it has been underwhelming. I am not sure if there is even a perfect implementation of this targeting but it still feels disruptive when the wrong target is hit.

Outside of freeflow focus, random normal attack timings is the next issue. While I appreciate the number of animations, the inability to select the fastest attack animation often leads to a counterattack from an enemy jab which seems faster than any of player attacks. The worse feeling is losing to an attacking an enemy before they choose their attack because a high flying long committal move was chose which does not teach anything but only being unlucky. Attacking far away enemies is the only lesson here but since the attack targeting is also not accurate, it feels the game is making the error rather than the player. Even the fixed animation of the cape can still be beaten by a jab, so the best option is to actually attack an enemy after an dodge which feels bad.

I do not know the term for this design where enemy slides in place to attack the player or similarly to Batman attacking far away enemies but I will call it here as attack magnetism. When a player sees an incoming attack, the player needs to determine whether to continue their current action if they knew it would not hit or acknowledge it with a counter, dodge or quick action. For example, the aggressive option is to attack a far away opponent to put the player out of range while maintaining the offense. The issue is that the attack magnetism is unpredictable or ambiguous whether it would still connect with the new position specially with the pipe, push kick or double thug attacks which have a deceptively long ranges. Precise countering is also not a solution as its range is also unpredictable leading to a lost combo. My suggestion is to show counter range like a dotted circle in the floor, remove the attack indicator if the attack will not hit similar or something to that effect. Between the unpredictability of counters and attack magnetism, dodging is the most consistent way to reset their attacks which feels underwhelming.

Another issue is the auto-adjusting camera where after attacking an enemy, the camera adjust slightly to face towards it; however, it disorients the next movement possibly causing a failed attack. It also is too close to the player where long reaching attacks such as pipes or swords behind the camera cannot be reacted to. Also when attacking enemies outside the camera, a cape stun is always the safest option if it hits an armored, shield or stun baton enemy. This issue would be easy to fix with options to disable auto-adjustment, increasing the field of view and possibly making it more top-down to feel more in control of the field. As an accessibility point, the auto-adjusting camera can induce motion sickness specially attacking far away enemies quickly which I occasionally in my numerous attempts.

Although this may be possibly on the player's side, the input system seems to be broken at times. I felt this the most when dodging at attack but the dodge does not execute. Other times executing a button combination does not work as intended such as countering a weapon attack (shield or knife) when a disarm was intended. It could be my fault for being slow, jittery or incorrect with timings or buffering, but more often than not I notice these moments as frequent enough to warrant a mention.

The two factors at the highest level are speed and score by maintaining the combo counter. With all these issues and objective in mind, the safest and fastest way to play is to attack once (or twice if in freeflow focus) and then quickly dodge (or preferably jump over an enemy or attacker) to reset attack animations. Counters, aside from its unpredictability, are also discouraged since it is the slowest option unless it is with multiple enemies although they can still be used as breathing space and at close range. Blade counters are also risky and dangerous specially as titans or one-armed thugs can interrupt them. Achieving the freeflow focus is also mandatory when dealing with tougher or faster enemies such as safely stunning titans or damaging one-armed thugs. The overall strategy feels like a defensive mitigation of randomness and unpredictability in the combat system instead of being in control with all the gadgets and controls.

>> Concluding Thoughts

Regardless of my negative experience, I do recommend the first and second game, but do not expect completion be pleasant nor mastery be a rewarding experience.

RIP Kevin Conroy