Month: June 2015

Secrets of Raetikon

Rae

Fly around a magnificent alpine landscape in search of ancient treasure.

PC Release: Jan 7, 2014

By Ian Coppock

The one time I pre-order a game, and it turns out to be the worst PC port in years.

Rocksteady shat the bed on that Arkham Knight port, didn’t they? Yup. They sure did. There I was, staying up until midnight on a Monday to play something I couldn’t wait to get my hands on, only to be greeted by endless crashes and bugs. The Caped Crusader was getting dropped down to single-digit framerates every time I tried to drive the damn Batmobile. When this happened, a red haze fell over my eyes, and… I forget the rest.

So, anyway, after that horrendous experience, I needed to journey to a faraway land of relaxing tranquility, at least until Rocksteady releases the actual PC version of Arkham Knight. That’s where Secrets of Raetikon, a side-scrolling platformer, came in.

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Secrets of Raetikon is actually spelled with one of those Nordic a-e thingies that looks like the two letters are conjoined like Siamese twins, but I don’t have that on my keyboard, so we’ll stick with Raetikon for now. The game is an arty, side-scrolling indie platformer whose developers have a neurotic fixation with triangles. Consequently, everything in this game looks like origami, including our main protagonist, a little orange bird.

That little guy, right to the left of the giant fox.

That little guy, right to the left of the giant fox.

Right off the bird, the game tells you that it has been optimized for a gamepad and that this is what you should use for the best experience. A PC game optimized for a controller, that’s… well, okay. Moving on, the game starts off with our little feathered friend dropping out of the sky, and taking off into a gorgeous wilderness that looks like it was made out of living construction paper. Your “goal” in the game is to fly around this massive alpine paradise, collecting gems that in turn unlock ancient artifacts that in turn unlock a machine that ends the game.

That’s pretty much the whole plot of the game. This is another one of those instances in which I found a game I like more for its visual beauty than its narrative, but bear with me, because I still had an enjoyable time with this one.

Secrets of Raetikon packs a lot of visual firepower, perhaps in compensation for its lack of narrative.

Secrets of Raetikon packs a lot of visual firepower, perhaps in compensation for its lack of narrative.

The game is a bit more complicated than the premise I gave, but not much. Basically, the game world is divvied up into seven or eight different areas. Your job is to scour each of these regions for silvers, which are little triangular jewels. Once you have enough of these, you then need to fly over to the nearest ancient animal statue, plug your silvers into the coin slot, and watch as the statue releases a shiny triangular artifact.

Does that make sense? Good, because Secrets of Raetikon sure as shit doesn’t tell you any of this itself. It offers the most bare-bones tutorial on how to play the game, but everything else you have to infer for yourself. It tells you to collect the silvers, but it doesn’t tell you why the artifacts are important or what you’re supposed to do with them. Eventually I figured out that you need to plug eight artifacts into some giant machine, but this was through more inference than I thought necessary. This is a recurring problem I’ve noticed with indie games lately; they’re just too vague.

I'm only on my second cup of coffee, Raetikon, and believe me, you don't want to force trial and error on me at this time in the morning.

I’m only on my second cup of coffee, Raetikon, and believe me, you don’t want to force trial and error on me at this time in the morning.

The controls for this game aren’t exactly smooth, either. The bird can flap his little wings to swing into the sky or dive-bomb into the dirt, but it’s unreasonably difficult to maintain control of these functions, even when you’re not caught in one of numerous wind currents. Secrets of Raetikon also takes time to educate you on more complicated functions that only produce the same result. You can gain health by ripping saplings out of trees, or by retrieving an egg and returning it to a nest to hatch it into a baby bird. Thanks, but especially since there are more saplings around, I’ll just go with the two-second approach instead of the 20-second one.

The worst part of this game’s control scheme is the combat. Throughout Secrets of Raetikon, you’ll find hostile animals waiting to feast on your feathers, and the entire forest goes apeshit whenever you’ve retrieved one of those artifacts. Hawks will dive-bomb you, lynxes will leap at you, and all the while your only recourse is to spam the flap button and hope for the best. If there is combat in this game, it was completely unexplained.

Well shucky darn and slap a gopher, there's ANOTHER fleet of hawks! I'm so happy I could vomit.

Well shucky darn and slap a gopher, there’s ANOTHER fleet of hawks! I’m so happy I could vomit.

It’s a good thing that Secrets of Raetikon is so pretty, else I would’ve thrown a game with this many problems out the window and gone back to GTA V. For all its gameplay vagueness and unexplained objectives, the game is truly beautiful. You’ll get lost in its brightly colored, triangular artwork, and the visuals are complimented by a light musical score comprised of flutes, hand drums, and a few strings here and there. It’s a gorgeous audio-visual experience with lush environments that just pop, if that makes sense.

On top of that, the game’s level design isn’t bad. Each area contains a lot of nooks to explore, and getting from one end of an area to another is pretty intuitive. You also have some sort of crazy telepathic bird call that tells you where (roughly) the silvers you need are floating. Secrets of Raetikon is hamstrung by its lack of a map, though. You don’t have any sort of chart linking these areas together, so you have to either make your own or memorize the routes from one area to the next. But, there’s only like seven of them, and I have a good short-term memory, so I personally didn’t find this to be an issue.

Secrets of Raetikon feels comfy, like a children's book.

Secrets of Raetikon feels comfy, like a children’s book.

As I said up top, your goal is to fly around collecting silvers so that you can unlock these artifacts. Once you’ve found them, you have to hook them to your talons and fly back to a central area, all the while getting heckled by the wildlife. This is where the game’s funnest challenge kicks in, as you have to endure a gauntlet of pissed-off animals in order to return to the game’s hub. They’ll try their damndest to get the artifact away from you, so you have to be nimble. I just wish the game told me why the little critters were so ticked.

Along the way, Secrets of Raetikon presents small shreds of backstory in the form of ancient stone tablets, written in a Norse-looking language. You have to translate these tablets with runes that you can dig up in the various maps, but again, this game shoots itself in the foot. The runes are by no means English letters, but they look similar enough that I was often able to just read them without having to look for the runes. Once again, Secrets of Raetikon is hamstrung by inference.

If you look closely at some of the letters, they're not all that different from their English counterparts.

If you look closely at some of the letters, they’re not all that different from their English counterparts.

These tablets tell tales of the ancient empire that built the statues you need the artifacts from, but most of them are too little, too late for any sort of effective exposition.

The last and biggest problem I had with Secrets of Raetikon is that it has a true WTF ending. If you don’t like spoilers, skip down to the next paragraph, but since the ending has no bearing on literally anything else in the game, I’ll just tell you: it ends with a game of pong. Yep. A forest adventure ends with a retro round of pong, and then cuts to black once it’s over. Well, that’s a shitty payoff. Maybe I’m not hipster enough to understand it, but I had a crinkled brow during the entire run of the credits afterwards.

Behold! I shall show you bullshit!

Behold! I shall show you bullshit!

So what do we learn from Secrets of Raetikon? We learn that a game can’t quite get away with being mechanically shitty even when it’s visually pretty. It’s like a 7-Eleven donut; really pretty and sugary on the outside, without much substance to speak of on the inside. I enjoyed the game, for what it’s worth, and it’s not the worst platformer I’ve ever played, but I don’t recommend it unless you have a perpetual hard-on for indie platformers and find this one on sale for like five dollars. It still wasn’t enough to do away with the pain of a slow Batmobile.

There are two things I’ve learned in my time on this earth: don’t drink and drive, and don’t pre-order video games.

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You can buy Secrets of Raetikon here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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Batman: Arkham Origins

 A1

Defeat eight legendary assassins who are out for your pointy-eared head.

PC Release: October 25, 2013

By Ian Coppock

And now we come to the awkward phase of the Arkham series. Arkham Origins is a difficult game to review because it’s basically the BioShock 2 of the Arkham franchise. I.e., not a bad game in and of itself, but it pales in comparison to its forebears and doesn’t really capture the grand vision that the wizards at Rocksteady had in mind. It’s a worthwhile addition to the franchise and a fascinating rendition of Batman’s early crime-fighting days, but many of you might find that to be too little comfort for its staleness.

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When Rocksteady went to Warner Bros. and said, “Hey, this Arkham Knight project is going to take longer than two years”, Warner Bros. said, “Alright, we’ll commission one of our local studios to fill the void until you guys are ready to go”. Arkham Origins was made by Warner Bros. Montreal, who I imagine were both excited and terrified to be given temporary stewardship of the series. Fencing a game to another studio doesn’t always end in tragedy (KOTOR II and Fallout: New Vegas are good examples) but Arkham Origins feels more like a giant DLC for Arkham City than its own game with its own identity.

Arkham Origins takes places five years before the events of Arkham Asylum, and follows a younger Batman who is only in his second year of vigilante crime-fighting. Batman, who has contended mostly against the traditional mobs and mafias of Gotham City, has yet to go up against any true supervillains. This situation changes immediately when crime lord Black Mask, Gotham’s most prominent underworld figure, places a $50 million bounty on the Dark Knight’s head. The prize draws eight of the world’s deadliest assassins to Gotham City on Christmas Eve, all of whom are eager to pin Batman’s wings back and walk away set for life.

Having been given a reference in Arkham Asylum and a tiny cameo in Arkham City, Black Mask springs to life as Arkham Origin's preeminent antagonist.

Having been given a reference in Arkham Asylum and a tiny cameo in Arkham City, Black Mask springs to life as Arkham Origin’s main antagonist.

Against his butler Alfred’s suggestion to just stay home and throw a Christmas party, Batman suits up and flies into Gotham to meet his hunters head-on, as well as a cadre of other antagonists who are up to no good on Christmas Eve. You’ll face series regulars like Bane and Killer Croc, but new arrivals to the Arkham series include the New 52 female Copperhead, the pyromaniac Firefly, and Deathstroke, the legendary assassin and Suicide Squad alumnus.

A lot of professional critics panned Arkham Origins for shining the spotlight on less well-known villains, but I think it was a refreshing change of pace from the lineup we’re use to seeing by now. Some of the villains in Arkham Origins are making their third series appearance by now, and it was nice to change things up and introduce a few more obscure characters. You’ll get your Penguin, you’ll get your Riddler (or Enigma, as he’s known in his early days) but you can also experience a few lesser-told tales from enemies I found to be just as if not more fascinating than the usual crew.

Sure, Anarky has only appeared a few times in the Batman mythos, but fresh faces are a nice change of pace. Plus, he's a fascinating character.

Sure, Anarky has appeared only a few times in the Batman mythos, but fresh faces are a nice change of pace. Plus, he’s a fascinating character.

The area that Arkham Origins has the most positive impact on is the boss fights. In one of my last reviews, I talked about how the boss fights in Asylum and City are awkward affairs, usually against giant monsters. You have to fiddle with poor arena camera controls and repetitive attacks, but Arkham Origin‘s encounters against smaller, more devious foes are a welcome change.

The boss fight against Deathstroke is hands-down the best boss fight in the entire Arkham series, and second to that is the epic airborne battle against Firefly. These encounters feature much more refined camera controls and a more personal sense of combat.

Boss fights in Arkham Origins are the series's funnest, and much more refined than their predecessors.

Boss fights in Arkham Origins are the series’s funnest, and much more refined than those of their predecessors.

Unfortunately for Arkham Origins, the boss fights and the introduction of lesser-known supervillains are the only main differences between this game and Arkham City. Origns’ gameplay is identical to that of Arkham City, with the exact same gadgets and mechanics (including, curiously, devices that didn’t appear until after Arkham Asylum). The only two new gadgets that Warner Bros. Montreal does introduce are an awkward predecessor to the zipline, which requires you to shoot both ends of a zipline and then grapple up to it, and a pair of electric gloves that break the game with how easily you can electrocute foes into unconsciousness.

The map for Arkham Origins is also little changed from Arkham City. You travel around in the exact same areas that will one day be turned into the massive super-prison. Yeah, they’re not covered in concrete barriers and patrolled by TYGER guards, yet, but they’re identical otherwise, apart from a few Christmas decorations. To the game’s credit, Arkham Origins does introduce another island connected to Future Arkham City via a big suspension bridge, but it comprises less than half of the traveling and gameplay area. They might as well have copy/pasted Future Arkham City for how different it looked.

Arkham Origins even copy-pastes Mr. Freeze's ice grenades (oh I'm sorry... GLUE grenades) and copies the same river channel navigation mechanics. I mean... really?

Arkham Origins even copy/pastes Mr. Freeze’s ice grenades (oh I’m sorry… GLUE grenades) and copies the same river channel navigation mechanics. I mean… really?

The other gripe I have with Origins’ gameplay is that it introduces a fast-travel mechanic. You can jet around various locations of the city in the Batwing jet. Seen as an innovation by some, I hardly used it, because flying around the city is a huge part of the Arkham series’s character. Gliding over to a goal means a few minutes of adventuring fun along the way, as you complete side quests and ambush baddies, but fast-traveling imperils this aspect of Arkham and makes the game feel more sterile. The system is given pause by the side quests, which reappear in Arkham Origins the exact same way as they did in Arkham City.

The issue a few of the hardcore purists out there might also grapple with is the voice acting. Kevin Conroy, busy with Arkham Knight, was replaced as Batman by Roger Craig Smith, one of gaming’s boda fides, and the Joker is given a decent performance by Troy Baker. Both are great voice actors, but I’m not sure either were up to the task of filling Conroy’s and Hamill’s shoes. The other performances given were fine, nothing particularly great or terrible to say about them.

Having the two main leads replaced by other people takes some getting used to, even if the replacements are still talented.

Having two major voices replaced by other people takes some getting used to, even if the replacements are still talented.

Despite evolving the franchise in only one major way and being in lockstep with Arkham City on absolutely everything else, the story in Arkham Origins was stronger than the guys and gals over at the big review networks may have indicated. Warner Bros. Montreal penned an interesting story about a younger, less confident Batman. That overconfident smugness I bitched about in the last two games is gone, replaced by an understandable doubt about going up against these big baddies. To reinforce this notion, criminals scream that a creature is attacking them when you descend. The cops don’t know who you are yet. There is no reputation preceding Batman, the isolation of whom makes him a more vulnerable character.

The plot also manages to keep up Arkham‘s tradition of stuffing tons of villains into a narrative that’s still fluid (the antithesis of the 2007 Spider-Man 3 film). Villains weave in and out of the main story and will sometimes steal into Gotham City for you to hunt down. There’s a simmering conflict between Batman and Alfred, the latter of whom is worried that Bruce Wayne is squandering his family’s fortune. You can also investigate “normal” crimes committed by normal people (murders, assaults, kidnappings) fed to you by the Batcomputer. The crime scene investigation mechanic incorporates a crime reconstruction video mechanic that divided critics and fans. I thought it was a neat concept, but it was also an unnecessary complication.

On the surface, Batman's crime investigation tool is a lot more sophisticated, but it pads the mechanic and can prove frustrating.

On the surface, Batman’s crime investigation tool is a lot more sophisticated, but it pads the mechanic and can prove frustrating.

Despite its inconsistencies with gameplay, Arkham Origins is able to be consistent with its holiday theme. Arkham Origins: Cold, Cold Heart, a piece of DLC content, is set a week after Arkham Origins and tells the origin story of Mr. Freeze.

Cold, Cold Heart comes in a bit short at about four hours of content, but its narrative is surprisingly strong for a DLC. Basically, Bruce Wayne is hosting a humanitarian award ceremony, only for Mr. Freeze to crash the party and abscond with the award nominee. As Batman gives pursuit, an increasingly ugly tale of love and betrayal starts to unwind across Gotham. This story is made better by Batman’s new suit, which allows him to punch with goddamn fireballs, but let’s be honest… anything can be made better with fireball boxing gloves.

O

Batman’s first showdown with Mr. Freeze is short, but it’s a competent and well-built piece of work, especially in comparison to the game to which it’s attached.

Arkham Origins is not a bad game, but as I said up top, it feels more like an Arkham City DLC than its own game. Aside from some improved bossfights, clunky new gadgets, and a travel system that takes the soul out of the series, this game is in rigid synchronization with everything else that Arkham City did. Part of me wonders if Warner Bros. Montreal did this simply because they were so terrified of screwing the pooch on a critically acclaimed series, but the fear to innovate is what kept it down all the same. Assuming that was the reason this game is so samey to City.

My advice? Get this game on sale, and if you’re a hardcore Arkham City fan. I advise you not to expect anything amazing, but there’s more novelty to this tale of a young, insecure Batman than meets the eye. Couple this with appearances from rare comic book villains and a dystopian aesthetic, and what we have is a game that at least preserves what made Arkham City great. It’s just too bad it didn’t concoct anything truly great on its own.

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You can buy Batman: Arkham Origins here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Outlast: Whistleblower

A3

Risk your life and your sanity to expose the horrors of an insane asylum.

PC Release: May 6, 2014

By Ian Coppock

It’s finally here! That damn review I kept promising to write like a good blogger, but kept pushing off like an asshole. Who here thinks it’s been too long since I reviewed a horror game? (Raises both hands).

And, of course, if you missed the title card, this review brings us back to the universe of the scariest game I’ve ever played, and one of my favorite horror games: Outlast. Whistleblower is a DLC that was crafted and released not long after the main game. We’re about to return to the Mount Massive Insane Asylum, which is a facility not unlike the one Red Barrels should be incarcerated in for genius, if truly terrifying, horror-craft.

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Outlast: Whistleblower is a piece of DLC content featuring a new story and characters, set in the same remote asylum that journalist Miles Upshur investigates in Outlast. This time, your character is Waylon Park, a freelance software engineer under contract by the insidious Murkoff Corporation. Disgusted by the company’s brutal experiments on the asylum’s patients, Waylon decides to send the anonymous tell-all email that begins the events of Outlast, making you the eponymous whistleblower.

Unfortunately, Waylon’s cutthroat superiors are unimpressed with his handiwork.

Oh shit.

Oh shit.

Not long after sending off the email, Waylon is administered an “anesthetic” by a sadistic guard’s boot, and “volunteers” for the same horrifying experiments being performed on the asylum’s mutated inmates. Lucky for Waylon, the monsters break free and shut off the power before he can be turned into one of them. But, they now have free run of the place. I’m not so sure conditions have improved.

From there, Waylon’s only goal is to get the hell out of hell, and he’s got his work cut out for him. Mount Massive’s mutated inmates start running amok, murdering their tormentors and destroying the facility they so hate. As Waylon, armed only with the video camera used to record his torture, you have to sneak past roving psychopaths and malfunctioning security systems in order to survive. If you can escape, the whole world will know of Murkoff’s shady experiments.

I don't feel like playing Operation right now, thank you.

I don’t feel like playing Operation right now, thank you.

Waylon is a silent witness to some pretty heavy shit. Just like in the main game, your only means of survival are to run and hide. In some ways, Outsmart would’ve been a more suitable title for this series, as you’ll be doing just that against the monsters. You know, whenever they’re not busy drowning scientists in toilets, bashing guards’ heads in with bricks, or forcing orderlies to eat their own colons.

Whistleblower‘s gameplay is identical to Outlast, and I was a bit disappointed by that. I was hoping that, as a computer engineer, I would be able to, I dunno, hack some systems or rewire some lights. Any sort of deviation from the beaten, bloodied path we’ve already seen in the main game. The software engineer component of the narrative isn’t played up at any point except the very beginning. I do, however, appreciate that Waylon quietly closes doors instead of just slamming them like Miles Upshur does, but that’s more for my own sanity than any discernible impact on gameplay.

Whistleblower's gameplay is congruent with the main game's, down to the infrared video camera.

Whistleblower’s gameplay is congruent with the main game’s, down to the infrared video camera.

 As Waylon, you are unarmed against the monsters running the madhouse. To that end, Whistleblower is loaded with places to hide, but you’ll only spot them all if you’re either clever or hopped up on adrenaline. In lukewarm contrast to Outlast’s hub-centric level design, Whistleblower felt much more linear. There was only one area, a maze-like series of corridors, that contained any of the same back-and-forth found in the main game. The DLC is essentially a sequence of cordoned-off areas in which you deal with a few threats before moving on.

That same design philosophy applies to the special one-of-a-kind monsters and inmates you’ll find in Whistleblower. One of the design elements that made Outlast so scary was that you didn’t face enemies in a series of linear encounters. Rather, they ducked in and out of the game’s storyline at random intervals, so you never truly knew when the threat was over, until the game was over. In Whistleblower, you encounter a handful of especially dangerous inmates, but it’s a one-and-done-style set of encounters. This made Whistleblower more predictable, and less terrifying.

Your encounters with major foes are confined to single events, rather than the less predictable bits-and-pieces style of Outlast.

Your encounters with major foes are confined to single events, rather than the less predictable bits-and-pieces style of Outlast.

Despite a setback in its level design, Whistleblower makes some noteworthy additions to Outlast’s grim art. Waylon spends a good chunk of the DLC on the Asylum’s grounds, looking for an exit, and the entire area is enshrouded in dense fog. Every so often you’ll see a pale light softly glowing in the distance, but far more often you’ll hear footsteps in the grass, or see shapes sprinting toward you from the other side of a rickety fence.

The asylum’s interiors look pretty much the same as the main game. You even have a few small run-ins with major antagonists from the main game, who cross paths with you having just chased or about to chase after Miles. You don’t cross paths with the ill-fated investigate journalist himself, but you can visit areas before and after his passage.

Uh-oh.

Uh-oh.

Despite its drawbacks, though, Whistleblower is the most horrific piece of Outlast content out there because of its insidious main antagonist, a creature nicknamed “the Groom”. Encountered later on in the game, the Groom is out for your blood personally, and sets you on a terrifying chase through a dungeon dressed up as a bridal shop.

GEEZUS!!!

GEEZUS!!!

The Groom, who has assumed the personality of a chauvinistic bachelor from the 1950s, is the scariest monster I’ve ever encountered in a horror game, and regular readers will know that I’ve seen my fair share. You’ll be hiding in a locker, terrified for your life, only to here cheerful whistling and creepy tunes about marriage from decades long gone.

Mostly because of this character, Whistleblower contains the most graphic torture and violence scenes I’ve also ever seen, and they haunted me for a bit after playing this game. The Groom has a gruesome agenda for the inmates who fall into his trap, and let me tell you… just made sure you have a strong gut before embarking upon this adventure. You will also find yourself driven, by morbid curiousity, to explore the Groom’s fascinating character. Just like in my review of Arkham City, I love games that present all sorts of strange characters.

Nummy...

Nummy…

The interesting thing about Whistleblower is that its worst horror doesn’t stem from running and hiding, but the unwilling comprehension of torture. Sights and sounds in this game are arranged with a precision that chills me to the core. I’m not just talking about blood smeared on a wall and then getting chased by a monster; I’m talking about seeing others suffer in a means planned for you, and you have no choice but to sit there and watch.

The reason why this is important is because Red Barrels has found a way to make psychological horror just as scary as survival horror. The two are distinct entities, and the former is often hamstrung by the fact that you’re playing a game, and the hallucination being experienced by Oswald Mandus or Alan Wake or whomever poses no literal threat. But, seeing a glimpse of a horrific fate that you’re about to experience is much more brutal, and brings the psychological horror to hit home as hard as the actual running and hiding. I was impressed by Red Barrels’ innovation. Scarred, but impressed.

Skins anyone?

Skins anyone?

To sum up, despite sabotaging some of its own level design and offering no new gameplay, Whistleblower introduces a new character that takes the Outlast universe for a plunge. A fascinating, horrifying, dangerous character that is both captivating and repulsive. Whistleblower‘s overarching plot deals mostly with eluding these threats, but the DLC actually ends after the main game, and offers some closure that Outlast‘s abrupt cut to black might have missed. It’s an adrenaline-pumping adventure clocking in at about 4-5 hours of gameplay, and a worthy story that should help tide you over until Outlast 2 comes out.

Just remember to breathe through your ass.

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You can buy Outlast: Whistleblower here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Batman: Arkham City

A11

Confront your worst enemies and fight for your life in a cordoned-off piece of Hell.

PC Release: October 18, 2011

By Ian Coppock

I know, I know, I haven’t reviewed Outlast: Whistleblower yet. I’ve been trying to bring back the Saturday edition of Art as Games, but with all the crazy stuff going on this summer, it’s been a bit of a challenge. But, I want to continue to bring the Wednesday edition to your selection of gaming media, and we still have a few Batman games to get through, so for now we’ll have to content ourselves with Batman: Arkham City; the sequel to Arkham Asylum and Rocksteady’s current magnum opus.

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My last review was a bit hectic and unorganized, but this time I had an opportunity to order my thoughts before regurgitating Batman fanboydom all over the page. Most critics consider Arkham City to  be the greatest Batman game ever made, an assertion that I for the most part agree with. This game brought several important changes to the franchise, such as an expanded open world and organic side-quests, and continues the deep, atmospheric narrative started off by Arkham Asylum.

Arkham City takes place one year after the events of Arkham Asylum, in which the Joker’s mad rampage around the titular asylum left it hardly capable of housing supervillains. To solve this problem, Arkham’s administrators decide to buy out the poorest section of Gotham City, wall it up, and dump an entire metropolis’s criminal population into a single area. SURELY nothing can go wrong!

Arkham City is a dumping ground for insane criminals. Since it manages to shit on the poor while also brutalizing inmates, I can only assume its installment was a Republican policy.

Arkham City is a dumping ground for insane criminals, right in the middle of Gotham City.

To complete its new setup, Arkham City hires Dr. Hugo Strange, a character you comics fans out there might recognize, and the sketchy private military company TYGER to operate the super-prison. Gotham City becomes less discerning about who to dump into Arkham City, and soon innocent political prisoners are shacked up alongside the serial killers.

Batman, convinced that Arkham City is a ticking time bomb, campaigns publicly as Bruce Wayne against the prison. He immediately gets arrested by TYGER personnel and dumped into the complex alongside all of his favorite supervillains. Apparently the Bill of Rights has been revoked in Gotham City, and private companies can now make arrests. Whoop-dee-doo.

City

You get to play as Bruce Wayne in the prologue, but he’s almost as dangerous in this suit as in his other one.

After calling in a supply drop, Batman changes into his real suit and sets out to investigate Protocol 10, an ominous-sounding contingency plan that’s to be initiated at dawn. You have one night to figure out what it is and shut it down, all while battling the criminals who are out for your blood. Arkham City is divided up into territories ruled by several big-name baddies, including the Penguin, Two-Face, and of course, the Joker. Other criminals run rampant throughout the slums, hatching schemes of their own without aid from armies of thugs. Meanwhile, you also have to manage the TYGER guards who patrol the prison from the walls and their helicopters.

Yep… in no way will this situation turn into a shit-show.

The Joker returns for Round 2 in Arkham City, but a mysterious illness leaves him looking worse for wear.

The Joker returns for Round 2 in Arkham City, but a mysterious illness leaves him looking worse for wear.

The basic gist of Arkham City‘s gameplay is the same as that of Arkham Asylum. Batman is controlled from an over-the-shoulder perspective, and you have to rely on a combination of stealth, gadgetry and melee supremacy to move around Arkham City safely. You can take out waves of unarmed baddies using the inventive free-flow combat system, which allows you to quickly attack and counter oncoming foes. In a dangerous upgrade from Arkham Asylum, enemies can now come at you with knives, and will sometimes throw objects at you or use car doors as shields. Batman’s suit can’t take sustained gunfire, so you have to be a bit stealthier in dealing with armed criminals.

The various bat-gadgets used in Arkham Asylum return new and improved. You can throw batarangs to stun enemies or hit distant switches, and use your grapple gun to reach distant ledges. This time around, you can also use it to propel yourself into the sky for sustained gliding, a welcome addition to the mechanic that was absent in the first game. Hacking computers, analyzing crime scenes and reverse-engineering enemy equipment round out Batman’s technical arsenal, and comprise an outstanding achievement in fun gameplay.

The gameplay in Arkham City is even more refined than that of its predecessor, and allows much freedom in how you move about Arkham City and deal with threats.

The gameplay in Arkham City is even more refined than that of its predecessor, and allows much freedom in how you move about Arkham City and deal with threats.

In an unexpected twist, Batman receives some help from Catwoman, who’s in Arkham City for her own reasons, and you get to play as the famed cat burglar on several missions. Catwoman plays differently than Batman; though she utilizes stealth, you have to climb up buildings and use your whip to swing around. She’s no less adept at combat than her hulking counterpart, but you’ll use caltrops, gas bombs and the whip in place of batarangs and thunder-punching.

Unfortunately for Catwoman, her visage in Arkham City is a shining example of gamedom’s rampant sexualization of female characters. Everything from French-kissing bad guys, to BDSM overtones, to just her outfit makes it difficult to take her character seriously. Her own self-contained story within Arkham City‘s narrative is fun to play, but Rocksteady went completely overboard on sexualizing her character.

Snort.

Snort.

With such stellar gameplay on Arkham City‘s roster, the game’s plot is reinforced by the feeling that you really are the powerful Batman. By the same token, though, Rocksteady stripped out Batman’s snobbish demeanor from Arkham Asylum and left caution in its place. Batman is still fully confident in his capabilities, but this time he’s less of a show-off about the danger he is up against.

Batman’s investigation into Protocol 10 puts him into some tight spots, and the character finally demonstrates some of that uncertainty, that doubt, that makes the character so much easier to connect to as a human being. He has exceptional willpower, and that willpower is tested and nearly broken throughout the course of the game.

Arkham City delves into Batman's psyche and the reasons behind why he is who he is. This scene, taken from an intense hallucination, is an exemplar of his spiritual journey.

Arkham City delves into Batman’s psyche and the reasons behind why he is who he is. This scene, taken from an intense hallucination, exemplifies his journey.

The other thing I like about the Arkham games that is most evident in Arkham City is how very human the characters are. Nothing is black-and-white in the world of Batman, and neither are the divides between the Dark Knight and his greatest enemies. The Joker is, as always, many shades of grey (as well as God knows how many other colors). Mr. Freeze, who makes his Arkham debut in this game, is motivated by the tragic cause to save his comatose wife. Everyone can be related to on one level or another.

It’s not a matter of good and evil, it’s a matter of a bunch of very interesting, very messed up people put into a few square miles of slums. That should’ve been the game’s tagline, but more importantly, it gives the player reasons to care about the villains (more their origins and reasoning than their actions).

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The Riddler, who returns in Arkham City along with his roster of trophy and riddle collectibles, is one of the most tragic Batman villains out there.

Arkham City‘s main storyline is about 12 hours of mayhem and broken bones, and comprises face-offs with Joker, Harley Quinn, Victor Zsasz (did I spell that right?) and a few other characters returning from Arkham Asylum. Arkham City also debuts this series’s renditions of The Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Deadshot, and the Mad Hatter, to name a few.

All of them are crazy, all of them hate Batman, and the ones not inserted into the main storyline are scattered around Arkham City in a series of side missions. The ratio of side missions to main story is thin, but you’ll encounter some real psychos, many of whom I didn’t list, out there in the frozen slums. The Game of the Year edition includes a small DLC called Harley Quinn’s Revenge that lets you play as both Batman and Robin, but it doesn’t really advance Harley’s character or include any new gameplay. The bulk of the fun is to be found in the main game.

...Bruce Wayne? What the hell?

…Bruce Wayne? What the hell?

Last but certainly not least: the artistic assets that bring this dark world to life. Similarly to the last game, Rocksteady’s artists expertly created a world that’s jam-packed with visual anachronisms. You’ll see old-style cars next to super-sexy security cameras, and other visuals that all carry the same air of dystopia. The score, written by returning composer Ron Fish, contains the same sweeping horns and jumpy strings present in the past game. It sounds similar to the biggest tracks from the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and they make an acceptable reference point if you haven’t played this game yet.

Arkham Asylum carried a hint of dystopia in its artwork and atmosphere. In Arkham City, that hint has expanded to saturate every goddamn locale within this terrible prison. It’s a weight that you’ll carry in your gut throughout the game, and coats the entire production in a simmering dread. Plus, with half of the slums drowning in winter waters or left to rust in the dark, it feels post-apocalyptic. Absolutely brilliant.

Just like last time, the entire game takes place at night, to reinforce the air of conspiracy and darkness.

Just like the Deus Ex series, the entire game takes place at night to reinforce the sense of gloom and uncertainty.

Arkham City has a few problems that, while minor, are still problems. The game has several interesting bugs, the most persistent of which was enemy thugs spinning in little circles during the stealth sections. I’d look down from my perch atop an old gargoyle and see what looked like a man forced into lockstep with a bugged Michael Jackson music video. This wasn’t anything game-breaking, but it didn’t do wonders for the game’s tone or functionality. Apparently this game was chock-full of bugs during its debut, but most of these have been fixed in the Game of the Year Edition.

The other thing wrong with Arkham City is its boss fights. Nearly all of them are grindy, rinse-and-repeat affairs that didn’t flow the same way the other gameplay elements did. You’ll fight several massive bosses, and Rocksteady did not do a great job with taming the wonky cameras or providing variety in what you’re up against. It feels jarringly out of place in comparison to the smooth gliding and hand-to-hand combat with regular-sized foes.

The boss fights were interesting in a lore sense, but sub-par in a gameplay sense.

The boss fights were interesting in a lore sense, but sub-par in a gameplay sense.

But, luckily for Arkham City, its gameplay woes are confined to a few short encounters, leaving it still a great game in the grand scheme of things. I highly recommend this title. The only version of Arkham City available on Steam is the Game of the Year edition, which includes a few bits of DLC, including a post-Arkham City story called Harle

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You can buy Batman: Arkham City here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

A

Stop a gallery of Batman’s greatest villains from taking over the madhouse.

PC Release: August 25th, 2009

By Ian Coppock

Hey everyone,

With Batman: Arkham Knight coming out exactly twenty days from this evening, I checked through the Art as Games portfolio and made the shocking discovery that I’ve not yet reviewed the Batman: Arkham games. Because Arkham Knight comes out in less than three weeks, and because I believe every sane person should be prepared to at least try it, we’re going to take the next few weeks and just hammer through the Arkham catalog. This period will also encompass my latest attempt at consistent blogging, and with any luck, I can keep real life at bay this time.

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Like most video games that borrow their licenses from film and comic books, the Batman property just sort of lagged in the interactivity department. It wasn’t until the release of this game that the property received serious attention as a video game medium, and with damn good reason, because it’s a damn good game. Arkham Asylum lets players step into the boots of the Dark Knight himself, and opens with him having just captured the Joker.

Um, what?

B

Wait, we caught him already? Alright, looks like we can call it a night!

But, as one might expect, this is all part of an elaborate Joker scheme. He turns the tables on a routine deposit into the looney bin, and Batman quickly finds himself on the wrong end of the asylum’s security systems. With a certified maniac running the madhouse and letting the entirety of Batman’s rogue’s gallery steal into the night, the Caped Crusader steels himself for what will surely be a crazy, crazy evening. As Batman, players will have to utilize all of the character’s tools, tricks, and his keen intelligence in order to survive.

The first thing that makes Arkham Asylum so likeable is its fealty to the source material. Arkham Asylum establishes itself in the long-running comic book mythos, and draws from that rich body of fiction in its portrayal of locations and characters. Developer Rocksteady created a vibrant world that strikes that rare balance between doing its own thing and giving respect to the media from whence it came. The studio had the opportunity to work with veteran Batman writer Paul Dini in creating the game, which further explains its adherence to the comics. Because of its proximity to the release of The Dark Knight, I initially feared that this was another mediocre movie tie-in. Not so.

B1

The game takes place in the asylum made famous by the works of Grant Morrison, and is every bit as creepy.

If a licensed game actually manages to not defecate all over its source material, then of course the sword it will fall on is its gameplay? Again, not true here. Batman is controlled from a third-person perspective, and smoother third-person gameplay is hard to find. Arkham Asylum emphasizes stealth over brute force, though as the world’s foremost martial arts expert, you’ll be executing plenty of brute force. The one caveat with Batman’s movement mechanics is that you have to hold down a button to run; why not just tilt the joystick a bit to run so that you could use that button for another maneuver?

Arkham Asylum introduces the free-flow combat system, a melee combat mechanic that is the stuff of Arkham legend, and it has since been copied by many other games, including Sleeping Dogs and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. In Arkham Asylum, Batman finds himself up against armies of angry crazies, and this system allows you to effortlessly switch between different baddies and string up huge combos. I don’t really care about combos. Or at least I didn’t, until I played this game. You can smoothly beat the living crap out of one guy, dodge another’s kick, and smash the third guy’s baseball bat right into his ugly face.

YOU WANT SOME OF THIS???

YOU WANT SOME OF THIS?

The other type of gameplay Batman will engage in is a room-sized challenge in which you have to silently dispatch of armed thugs. Not even Batman’s suit can stand up to heavy gunfire, so you have to sneak around, swing between beams, and silently take down your foes. If you’re a hardcore stealth fanatic like me, these sequences will speak to you on a fundamental level. Even if they do get a bit repetitive, there’s something deeply satisfying about taking out one guy at a time, until only a single, terrified enemy remains.

Between mopping the floor with maniacs and taking them down from above, the game includes mechanics alluding to Batman’s background as a detective. Players will set up crime scenes, isolate forensic trails and conduct other investigations all over the island. This stops Arkham Asylum from being completely focused on combat, and adds more varied gameplay to keep things interesting. Some of your gadgets, like the decryption device, reflect Batman’s nickname of The World’s Greatest Detective.

Detective mode can also be used in combat, to differentiate between different enemy types.

Detective mode can also be used in combat, to differentiate between different enemy types.

Arkham Asylum has passed the first license test by not being shit with its source material, and the second by including decent game mechanics. No bugs so far, either. What, then, of the plot? Does this game pack a story worthy of the Golden Age, of Alan Moore, of the great writers who’ve had the privilege of writing in the DC world? Well, yes, it does. Not in a problem-free manner, but yes it does.

To reinforce the atmosphere in the game, Rocksteady brought legendary voice artists Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill aboard to voice Batman and Joker, respectively. Both actors voiced those characters in the Batman animated series from the 1990s. Bringing in such big-name voice talent means that the game largely avoids the pain of bad voice acting, but the writing is occasionally cliche, like on I AM THE KNIGHT levels.

I watched the cartoon as a kid, so this was great to see.

I watched the cartoon as a kid, so this was great to see.

The basic gist of the story, aside from Batman being trapped inside the Asylum, is that the Joker is up to something pretty damn nasty. And in the process, he’s either released or recruited a number of famous Batman villains. You’ll find yourself going up against the brutal Killer Croc, the psychotic Harley Quinn, the terrifying Scarecrow, and several others scattered about the asylum’s island. Though the encounters are mostly linear in their sequence, each one plays by vastly different rules. Scarecrow’s encounters deal with navigating terrifying hallucinations, while success against Croc is pinned on your stealth abilities. This is no list of boss fights, and each one packs as much backstory as bite. It also changes the gameplay up constantly, which keeps the game interesting.

As is often the case with the Batman property, the most boring character in the production is Batman himself. There’s very little character development or deviation from anything other than “I’m a smart, sexy, unstoppable bat-person”, and that gets old pretty quickly. Batman is even condescending toward his allies, at times, seemingly saying “well, duh”, to certain situations. I guess that’s part of the character’s style, but only a few times do we see the Dark Knight anything other than completely calm and self-assured.

Batman's I'm-amazing-all-the-time attitude is sometimes laughable.

Batman’s “I’m-amazing-all-the-time” attitude is a bit pretentious.

Mark Hamill provides a chilling and hilarious portrait of the Joker, since that’s what he spent a good chunk of the 90s doing. Other characters follow an interesting if somewhat routine formula of harboring a grudge against Batman, and then acting upon those grudges with murderous zeal. One of my favorite parts of the game’s writing was the Joker’s surreal PSAs, which contain everything from fire advice to threats against under-performing “employees”. The Dark Knight trilogy-esque music rounds out this atmosphere.

As I mentioned up top, the artwork is noteworthy for its fealty to Batman and in its own right as a dark environment. Arkham Asylum is meticulously detailed to feel absolutely miserable, and even the natural parts of the island give off a sickly vibe. Rocksteady’s artists also managed to juxtapose props and design elements from many different eras. It’s impossible to tell if this game took place twenty years ago or twenty years into the future. You’ll navigate cold morgues, bloodstained surgical theaters, and other sights that still haunt me a little bit.

The character models are creepy too.

The character models are creepy too.

I feel compelled to do little more than add to the chorus of voices cheering what an amazing game this is, but even a game this solid has its problems. The main mechanical issue is that Detective Mode can be used to make Arkham Asylum too easy. It allows you to see into far distances and measure the precise location of every person in every environment at all times. You can play the entire game without turning it off once (except maybe in the Scarecrow bits) and the game will be much easier for it.

The other stuff deals mostly with character issues and sexualization, particularly that of Poison Ivy. You have to fight her toward the end of the game, and her audio for that encounter is ridiculous. You could put the audio from that boss fight right next to the audio from an adult movie and not be able to tell the difference. Except for hopefully the squelching sounds.

AA

Well, there ya go.

As with every Batman property, Arkham Asylum has a theme: don’t go as batshit nuts as your enemies. Batman constantly has to resist taking the easy way out of a situation or going literally mad himself in order to survive the events of this game. Arkham Asylum takes place in a single night, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to do outside of the story. You can traverse the island searching for the Riddler’s hidden trophies (yawn) or unlock dozens of references to Batman villains and other lore (ooooh!).

In short, it’s a satisfying game. It doesn’t hit every note, but it hits enough of them to make an enjoyable production. Gamers will appreciate its dark narrative and innovative combat, and the feeling that you are the Batman. Pick it up next time you’re on Steam.

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You can buy Batman: Arkham Asylum here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.