Everybody wants to be Bruce Wayne. Riddled with trauma, forced to deal with murderous psychopaths, intensely strained personal relationships due to an ethically dubious vigilante second life… truly, a perfect power fantasy to escape to. Or so video games think, given that they love to make games about one certain caped crusader. Most recently, Rocksteady has shone the bat signal in a most prominent fashion, delivering its Arkham series with spectacular flair, its influence still felt in every modern superhero game since with even some games outside of the Marvel/DC remit taking inspiration from the crunchy combat. Whilst we wait for the inevitable, long-rumoured sequel to the Arkham lineage, why don’t we take a walk down memory lane through the caped crusader’s greatest hits. Which bat is best? Well, that’s for me to decide and you to take umbrage with, so let the debate about the best Batman games commence!
7. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate
You may not remember this spin-off, and that’s probably for the best. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate transported the caped crusader and his courageous capers to the small screen - specifically the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita. It’s a 2.5D side-scroller that picks up right where Arkham Origins left off, as Batman deals with an explosion at Blackgate prison which allows Joker, Penguin and Black Mask to run rampant.
Whilst the plot is meandering and ultimately pointless, it did have a number of ambitious ideas - it tried to graft as much of the console experience as possible to portable devices, with stealth gameplay, grappling and even explosive gel making the cut. The inventive use of the camera must also be applauded - zooming in at various flashpoints and courting glides, as well as putting Batman in the literal crosshairs as part of the Deadshot fight.
Combat is still crunchy, but the level design is all over the place, and the downgrade in graphics is extremely noticeable, with muddy textures and murky signposting leading to constant misdirection. It was an attempt at a Metroid Batman game that fell very short of the mark. Given that it’s entire premise is framed around one of the less interesting Arkham narratives too - it didn’t have the means to craft a gripping story that could make it worthwhile. The game was eventually ported to consoles and PC, and whilst it looks much better than it’s portable predecessor, a fresh coat of paint can’t fix the poor design behind the scenes.
6. Batman: Arkham Origins
Oh, Batman: Arkham Origins. An intermediary game in the series handled by a different developer in WB Montreal - the team took a bold step by creating a prequel, setting the game five years before the events of Arkham Asylum. It’s a much more contained narrative than the rest of the Arkham games, with a plot that sadly doesn’t amount to much beyond introducing Batman’s relationship with Troy Baker’s Joker - who totally steals the show with numerous standout scenes! Unfortunately outside of some clever character to character quipping, the rest of the plot is shot full of holes and often undermines its own most interesting twists by plugging them up or forgetting about them.
The gargantuan open world is nice to look at but awfully hollow, and detective mode was somehow turned tedious. Despite the excellent boss battles that really utilized their respective villains, the game feels bloated with overpowered gadgets that dumb down the combat into monotonous punching. The game often chucks legions of enemies at Batman without rhyme or reason, instead of being careful with its encounter design, a tactic which quickly gets old. It also had a very odd multiplayer mode which felt tacked-on to the main game. Whilst it’s definitely worthwhile if you’re an Arkham loremaster, Origins falls down because it doesn’t reinvent itself like the other games- or at least where it tries, it fails and just provides more of the same.
5. Batman Arkham VR
Despite the fact it’s near the bottom of this particular list, Batman Arkham VR is actually very good, it’s just that the barometer for Arkham games is set very high. This escapist fantasy of a virtual reality experience came out in 2016 and is technically the last proper Arkham game we’ve had following Arkham Knight. As far as short VR games go, Arkham VR is incredibly successful in everything it sets out to do, which is a rare feat!
It tells a gripping story and doesn’t feel like a disconnected Batman toybox. You’ll grapple, fight bad guys, and even experience hallucinations courtesy of the crown prince of crime, but it all serves a consistently exciting narrative separate from the rest of the games. From the underpants-ruining segment in the sewers to the intricate application of detective mode - you’d have to be a fool to skip Arkham VR if you’re a self-respecting Arkham fan with a pair of goggles lying around. There’s plenty of villains to contend with, famous cameos and models to gawk at and even a suite of difficult challenges that give the game some genuine replay value. Many may pass it off due to its limited scope compared to the more gargantuan console games you’re used to, but if you’ve ever wanted to don the cowl yourself and watch batarangs curve through the air - this is about as close as you’re going to get.
4. Batman: The Telltale Series (Seasons 1 & 2)
Gone but not forgotten, Telltale Games went out on a high with one of its final releases being the second season of its take on Batman - a revolutionary look into The Dark Knight’s fascinating relationship with The Joker. Whilst the first season was bread and butter Batman, it still had enough twists and turns and fun (but clunky) combat sequences to keep you interested. The Enemy Within though - that may well be the most unique modern Joker story we’ve had. Anthony Ingruber’s John Doe is absolutely magnificent, simply one of the finest performances of the past decade in games. In The Enemy Within, you court the initially innocent Doe as he falls in with a rough crowd in the Pact and deals with his emotions concerning an electrifying Harley Quinn who is clearly up to no good.
To say much more would spoil the magic - but the story carefully unravels into cathartic magic as difficult decisions force you to mould your own worst enemy. The game forces you to choose between Batman’s moral code, his secret identity and the livelihood of his friends, all the while the naive and endearing John Doe is a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off in the background. It’s an absolute must play for Batman fans, especially if you’re looking for a different take on the admittedly excellent Arkham Joker you might be used to. Can you stop The Joker from becoming The Joker? If that question excites you, you must play Batman: The Telltale Series.
3. Batman: Arkham Knight
The fourth and final Arkham game (at least for now) dropped in 2015 and was another revolutionary AAA title that was definitive within its console generation. A magnificent game simply to look at, Arkham Knight’s slick streets and particle effects felt very next-generation, even if some of the new features implemented did not stick the landing. As many pointed out upon its release, the Batmobile was ultimately too ambitious and didn’t work as intended, getting in the way of fluidity instead of complementing Batman’s movement through Gotham City. The game introduced interesting new gadgets like the Jedi Mind Trick-esque Voice Synthesizer and allowed you a greater sense of control when playing as Nightwing or Catwoman across the bombastic story, sometimes synthesizing in combat with bats to wallop thugs with joint takedowns.
The story of Batman: Arkham Knight is fantastic and brought back the best Arkham villains - both Scarecrow and The Joker reappear as well as some exciting foes from wider Batman lore like Man-Bat and Deathstroke to pad out the rest of the game. The ‘Arkham Knight’ that gives the game its namesake is a totally original character too - providing intrigue and mystery as you navigate the narrative. Sure - the twist is fairly predictable if you’ve peeked behind the Arkham curtain at some of Batman’s comic outings, but it still provided a lot of tension. At least they didn’t just tread the same ground or play it safe like Origins. Whilst the story puzzles could be genuine headscratchers that made you feel like a super sleuth, the Riddler challenges weren’t up to scratch, especially compared to Arkham Asylum, which was doubly disappointing given that the tedious puzzles were required for the game’s very cool true ending. Arkham Knight is an essential, unmissable conclusion to the Arkham story.
2. Batman: Arkham City
How do you follow up a revolutionary superhero game like Arkham Asylum? Well, simply put, you make Batman: Arkham City. I remember sprinting home from school to play this game when I was 14 and binging all of it in a matter of days. Unlike Asylum which came out of nowhere to change the genre forever, Rocksteady’s sequel was a more calculated success. It took the marvellous foundation of their masterpiece and removed the stabilisers - City allowed players to explore a detailed open world chock full of content as an even more powerful caped crusader. The freeflow combat was refined into a cathartic dance of death, turning every encounter into an engaging puzzle where the player must decide when and how to use their new gadgets to unravel the enemy A.I.
The bountiful side missions and of easter eggs oozed tantalising lore into every nook of its gritty, grimdark world, complemented by a rogue’s gallery of Batman’s most dastardly villains. Yet - it’s the more unusual picks that shine, like Clayface, Hugo Strange and Ra’s al Ghul. Of course, Mark Hamill’s Joker returns, delivering an astounding performance right through to the game’s unforgettable crescendo.
Even the DLC packs were fantastic - extra jolts of fun for players raring for more. Again, the Riddler challenges in Arkham City were changed for the worse much like Arkham Knight, involving more annoying tedium, as well as the ‘one-and-done’ boss battles which lacked the gusto of Asylum’s more surprising and meaningful cameos. Too many cooks and all that. Arkham City was the perfect, refined follow-up to Arkham Asylum, even if it couldn’t reach the revolutionary heights of its forebear.
1. Batman: Arkham Asylum
Batman: Arkham Asylum had the element of surprise. Almost 10 years ago in August 2009, Rocksteady’s magnum opus appeared on store shelves, a game of incredible ambition and scope from a relatively new studio that had never tried anything like this before. What Rocksteady delivered is still widely considered as one of the best games ever made, a cohesive reinvention of the hallmarks of the ‘superhero game’ that has since paved the way for many similarly revolutionary titles that have drawn inspiration from its systems.
As they say, less is more - and by focusing the game within the decrepit confines of Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady created an atmosphere you could truly lose yourself to. Instead of letting Batman easily prey on whatever cannon fodder he fancies, perched from skyscrapers in a seamless open-world, Asylum captured the fear and claustrophobia of being locked in with your worst enemies running riot, making each encounter count. It also encouraged exploration, what with the Riddler challenges asking you to catalogue comic artefacts, unravelling curious lore about lesser known villains.
Yet, you don’t even need to be a comics fan to enjoy Arkham Asylum. It is one of the best stories ever told in a video game, with adrenaline-pumping combat and stealth sequences layered between each magnificently voice-acted cinematic flashpoint. Mark Hamill’s Joker quickly cements itself as one of the finest interpretations of the character, but let’s not forget about the rest of the villains, especially Scarecrow, whose fourth-wall breaking sequences will likely be remembered as some of the most stimulating and inspired moments in modern video game history.
There was nothing like it when Arkham Asylum came out all those years ago - and to an extent, there still isn’t, even if the game has gone on to influence most third-person action games that followed in its footsteps.