Sunday, March 31, 2013

'Batman: Arkham' Games and Tentative "Review"

SPOILERS for Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City (although... kinda... like... duh)

I'm a huge Batman fan. I won't go into the long history, but just know that I was watching the old series before the animated one was on TV, and Batman: Returns has been and remains one of my top five favorite films since it was new.

So part of why I was so excited to get my PS3 in November was because I could finally play those Arkham games everyone raves about. I got through the first one not without some difficulty, and on the default difficulty level, but was shocked and slightly appalled that I was barely 60% finished with the game when the final battle with the Joker was over and the credits were finished rolling. This happened because it has a crapton of side challenges in the shape of riddles from Edward Nigma (a.k.a. The Riddler, of course) I had missed/ignored. Also, I seemed to have missed a crapton of documents and stuff along the way, and I guess my fighting wasn't quite good enough to earn all of the upgrades to the Batsuit and combat skills. Which okay, I get that. But I guess it kind of pissed me off because it let me see the end credits with over 1/3 of the game incomplete. And while I'm all for replaying good games (and this is definitely one worth replaying), I'm also for, you know, finishing them. The fact that I even missed those documents and skills had me a little angry, too- where the Hell were those pieces of paper and interview recordings at- I thought I had explored every room pretty gorram thoroughly, after all. 

But still, I loved the game. I had fun the entire time, even when there were parts on which I was stuck. I especially loved doing the thing where you hang upside-down from a gargoyle or something, stealth-grab a baddie from beneath you, and hang him from there by his ankles. In situations where there are a bunch of dudes in the same room you had to get this way, it's really fun to basically just stack their unconscious bodies in the same spot by snagging one dude, swinging to a nearby gargoyle/ledge, using a Batarang to cut that dude down, then swinging back and waiting for the next moron to come "inspect" the situation. I once had five guys piled up under the same gargoyle. Pretty boss.

I also liked how I never thought it was too hard, but I also never thought it was too easy, either. That's a tricky balance, and while there were bosses I had to re-fight a few times, I never got so stuck I turned the game off in frustration (as I'm wont to do sometimes). I'd know exactly what I needed to do in order to improve, if it was a fight. There were some kind of scary/trippy dream sequences with Scarecrow that I died in a lot, but that's because the game turns kind of side-scroll-ee, and I needed to figure out the terrain. Once I did, then it was a question of my reflexes in making sure I wasn't spotted- I liked that.

And and and and! I freaked out when Gordon "died" for a few minutes, shouting, "No fucking way, are you kidding me?" and I even started to cry a little, so I had to pause it for a few seconds. I could barely keep playing, and then the anger and determination I felt in moving on had to be synonymous with what Batman himself in the game was feeling- the closest thing he has to a friend, apart from Alfred, dead? Aw HELL no... Fuckers goin' down. (Of course, Batman would be better at keeping it at the level of justice, and not reaching revenge, than what I was clearly experiencing.) And then, when I realized he was alive, holy poop, I was so relieved. I mean, I literally had to pause the game, and I grabbed my chest and sighed, "Oh thank GOD." And after I caught my breath, I moved on.

I'm now playing through City, and it's hella harder, and I don't think the design is as good. The map is more confusing and has, I think, too many options. See, while both before and this time all of the sidequests are listed on the map in their various locations, this time you can set them as your objective or whatever- which is cool, but then it gets hella weird because I sometimes can't tell the difference between side missions and actual ones. Or, worse yet, the actual main mission isn't visible on the map!

For example, the first time you're trying to track down Mr. Freeze, you're supposed to find the coldest area of the city (a lame mechanic that I'll get back to soon), which ends up being the GCPD building. But as you're trying to get in, Victor Zsasz gives you a ring on the telly and says he's gonna off some hostages if you don't find the next phone and answer his call. I thought it was just a sidequest, so I ignored it the first time, and then whoops, time ran out and I had to restart or whatever. So this led to me having to leave and go back to GCPD more than once as this douchebag kept calling me. This particular and required sidequest was fucking stupid because it's not like you'd answer and the clock would restart- no, I had to go all the way back across the city to the police department in order for the original phone to ring again. And then I'd have to track down the new location.

So this leads to another criticism of this one. I'm not liking all of the stupid directional swingy things I'm having to do, the things where you're tracking some signal or the temperature (as said above) in order to find the location at which the next part of the game takes place. They're kind of like the (albeit ridiculous) trails Batman would pick up on in Asylum (blood, tobacco, I think pollen or something? yeah, they were kind of whacky, but in the sort of, Well of course he'd do that, he's the goddamn Batman), or at least serve the same purpose. But I dunno, I think it's kind of silly and rather boring- glide, grapple, tumble, glide, grapple, tumble. At least when running along the trails in Asylum, I'd have baddies to knock out- you can pretty much unintentionally avoid anybody getting to your destination in City. And I guess this makes it feel more like fluff and filler than actual gameplay. 

Now, full disclosure, I'm only about 12% through this one, so we'll see what happens when I'm finished. Maybe the mechanics will become more intuitive as I develop a rhythm to this one. And maybe I'll figure out a way to make it more... entertaining. I guess by doing the side missions? Harrumph. I still find that a problem- the main game itself should be engaging enough on its own, and the side missions should be what feels like the fluff. Am I being too demanding, here?

I'd like to move on to a new topic, and that is the ladies. Let's start with this image here:

On its own, fairly harmless, kinda sexy, sorta hard to take a stand on, to be honest. It speaks slightly of bondage, but it's hard to tell who's in charge, here, since while Catwoman has the handle of the whip, Batman has a bunch of it wrapped around his arm in what looks like an intentional move. So I can't decide how I feel about this image, and that's kind of how I feel about Catwoman so far. Because I was uber thrilled and happy to see that you actually play as her within the first five minutes of the game- and she's in a pretty non-skin-showing (although kinda tight) outfit; here's a better image:

See how it completely covers everything? The way it hugs so tightly is a little meh, but I do understand that's how Catwoman rolls- lots of pleather. And her character is sexualized, but can often be pretty badass and sexy while not objectifying. But then I realized this kinda thing happens: 

It's all open, and the angle is screaming, "BOOOOOOBS!" I mean, seriously, there's shadow from underboob there. It looks like if she sighed or breathed too hard, her boob would fall right out. That's annoying as Hell. And I noticed in most of her cutscenes, they're filled more with poses like this than substance- she does a lot of hip swaying and chest heaving.

But hang on, let's backtrack a bit, because there was another game. And in it, the only two women that weren't damsels in distress and wearing lab coats were Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. So here is Harley, first from Arkham Asylum, then Arkham City

She's pretty covered, but the poses, my God the poses. Here's a good example from City:

It was really annoying to watch her in-game because she'd do nothing but bend over and show her cleavage or ass whenever she was onscreen. Look at the angle of her back- it looks fucking painful! She'd just shift her weight from foot to foot, sticking her hip and boob out over and over again as she whined about Mr. J. It's as if she didn't know how to stand with her back straight and her hips aligned. And yeah, absolutely no independence at all.

And then there's Poison Ivy. Oh my God, this one really pissed me off. Her character design didn't change between games, so here's a montaged image: 

Panties made out of vines and a "coat" thing that doesn't really cover much (may as well just be a bra). And likewise with her, LOTS of thrusting the hips and boobs out there into the camera. Also, her character "development" is about as good as it was in Batman and Robin, which is to say, pretty damn shitty. It's actually rather nonexistent. Maybe I'm really dense, but I couldn't pick  up on any sort of motivation, other than, "You killed some plants, bro."

I guess my point is that while I had been vaguely aware that there were problems in how these games portray women, I'm experiencing it first-hand now while playing, and it makes me sad. It creates two minds in me, one that's all, Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na BAT-MAAAAAN! And the other one that's all, Oh wow, can we get any more objectifying?* 

Harley Quinn, in particular, has a great story as an addition to canon because fans loved her so much from the animated series that comic writers started writing her in, and she's even had her own spinoff series- in which she does a bunch of stuff, you know, solo, and isn't all, "Oh noes, Mr. J., baby, why'd you hit me? I lurve you!"  But of course, all she does is provide T&A in these games- she herself is never a real threat (so far- again, not done with number 2 yet). 

And you know what? Even if Poison Ivy's origins/ character is extremely corny or whatever in the existing canon, why can't they fucking make it better in new additions to said canon? See, this is why the whole "canon" argument from apologetic defenders of the genre is really frustrating for me, and, frankly, bullshit. If every new edition of the comic is adding to it, if every game, every movie, then why the fuck don't the women get better? The men do, why not the women? Batman has had how many different tellings of his origin story? The Joker? How many different personalities has every male character had? Just Batman himself, even? And they're all legit, but HEAVEN forbid we make Poison Ivy less sexxed up and have more coherent/ less laughable goals and motivations because that would be, gasp, out of character...

Now Catwoman, at least, has a lot of impressive source material, material with  the potential to make this version of her pretty stand-alone and kickass. So while I'm hoping Catwoman impresses me more as I get to see her in action later, I don't think Ivy or Harley will, if the first game is any indication  (and since there's enough pre-existing stuff about them that's rather simpering and annoying- any kick-assiness is likely to be ignroed).

And this, of course, is part of the larger issue/discussion of women playing and being in games and reading and being in comics. Something I'll probably rant about myriad times here. But if you've ever heard of Anita Sarkeesian and are familiar with any of her vlogs or statements, then you've heard it all before.

So I guess I'd give Asylum a 9.5 out of 10, but so far, City is more like a 6, maybe even a 5. 

*Sadly, we can. Observe: Bayonetta. I may or may not comment more on this gal in a later post/ group of posts.


  1. I'm not a gamer so I just watched the walkthrough for Arkham City. I found it pretty entertaining. I agree with you on Catwoman's costume. She's a very sexual character but that costume is completely impractical. It's almost as though you have to balance "capable female character who can fight" with "fanservice" as though it's somehow not as entertaining to play as Catwoman without the constant visual stimulation.

    Harley Quinn annoyed the heck out of me because it's less a grittier restyling of the clown costume and more a pseudo punk princess look a la Avril Lavigne.

    Poison Ivy was disappointing more than anything else.

    But I absolutely agree. "Why the fuck don't the women get better?"