Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City (Game of the Year Ed.)

There have been a plethora of Batman games throughout the ages.  The character and the franchise lend themselves naturally to the video game mediums.  Batman's got gadgets (which in video games translates into upgrades like the fire flower in the Mario Bros. games), he's got a great rogues gallery of villains (which translates into sub-bosses and end-game bosses), and he's human, which means he can be killed with enough damage (something trickier to do with, say, Superman who's essentially invulnerable).  However, most Batman games, just like most licensed games, have tended to be crap.  The only halfway good Batman game I remember playing is Batman: Return of the Joker  back in the old NES days, and that may be mostly nostalgia speaking.

So I have no doubt it came as an orgasmic revelation to most gamers when Batman: Arkham Asylum  came out in 2009 and wasn't just a decent game but, lo and behold, an awesome experience that actually captured the essence of Batman and all the various elements of the character - the detective skills, the athleticism, the martial arts prowess, the broodiness and melancholy nature of the Dark Knight - as well as the the atmosphere of the comics - gothic, oppressive, dark, and at times almost horror-like in nature. The folks at Rocksteady also did well by hiring Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to voice Batman and The Joker (though Hamill's Joker is a bit too Saturday-morning cartoony for me), and Paul Dini to write the game's script.  Batman: Arkham Asylum  is an outstanding title, and one that is well-deserving of all the praise it's gotten.

So how does Arkham Asylum work? It's essentially structured as a 3D Metroid game.  Batman enters Arkham Asylum, which has been taken over by The Joker and turned into a gigantic deathtrap for the Dark Knight Detective and any police officer or Arkham guard unlucky enough to be trapped inside it.  The Asylum is in a large island and is divided into several sections, including a penitentiary, a mansion where the administrative employees work, the clinic, a botanical garden, and the maximum security area.  As Batman captures all the freed inmates (including memorable encounters with classic Batman villains such as Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Mr. Zsasz, Killer Croc, and Bane) he gains upgrades which allow him to access other parts of the asylum as well as solve mysteries and collect items left behind by The Riddler. 

I love how the asylum is designed, as each structure is different and immediately identifiable. The asylum has very, very high ceilings and lots of places to hide in (perching on gargoyles, or hiding in ventilation grates or behind corners), which allows Batman to surprise inmates.  This is the part of the game that sold me on the concept.  You can perch from a gargoyle, hang upside down, and then tie up any inmate that wanders too close.  The inmate's cries will draw his buddies to him, who will start freaking out when they realize that "the Bat" is in the room with them somewhere.  You can take them out one by one through stealth (advisable when they are armed), or just beat the crap out of them using the "FreeFlow" combat system devised for the game by Rocksteady (which is based around a series of strikes and counters).

The one thing I'm not a fan of in Arkham Asylum is the art direction.  Everyone either looks like they're on steroids (Batman, Commissioner Gordon), or they're massively ugly mutants (Killer Croc, Bane), or they're just gross-looking (Joker, Harley Quinn, Zsasz).  It's a grungy, ridiculously "dark" style in the way that I think only teenagers would find cool.  The game also gets a little bit TOO unrelentingly dark.  Everyone is a serial killer or a cannibal or a psychopath; even The Riddler has a meaner streak than he usually does in the comics.

A couple of years later, Batman: Arkham City  was released.  Rocksteady had a winning formula with the first game, and they decided to go bigger.  Way bigger.  Instead of Arkham Asylum, now you're playing in a section of Gotham City which has been sealed off and declared a super-prison.  At the beginning of the game, Bruce Wayne, who is protesting against the prison, is hauled off by Arkham City's guards and dumped in the prison, which is being run by Professor Hugo Strange, one of the older Batman villains from the comics.  Strange knows that Wayne is Batman and he plans to "take care of him" in the prison.  Wayne eventually gets all his Batman gear and starts exploring Arkham City,

Arkham City  takes everything that you liked inArkham Asylum  and figures you'd like more of it.  Did you like Riddler's puzzles?  Instead of over 200, now there's over 400.  Did you like the side missions? Well, now there's a dozen other side missions, too.  Did you like Batman's gadgets? Well, now he has twice as many.  And if you play the Game of the Year edition, like I did, there's even more stuff - including the ability to play as Catwoman through her story missions.  Perhaps my favorite part of the Game of the Year edition are the various "skins" you can outfit Batman with, my personal favorite being the classic '70s Batman, who is not the 'roided up version from the video games but is instead the athletic grey-and-blue-clad version probably made the most famous by Neal Adams (but who persisted into the '80s - my childhood version was the one drawn by Jim Aparo).

The "FreeFlow" system has also been improved.  Now you can counter two enemies at once, and there have been a bunch of moves added, some of them incorporating the new gadgets you can get.  And the boss fights each play very differently now.  While the originalArkham Asylum  really had only a couple of unique boss fights, all the boss fights inArkham City  play out very differently and have multiple segments.

So, with all of that...Arkham City  should be way better than Arkham Asylum , shouldn't it? actually prefer the original to the new one (except for the improved combat system).  Arkham City  feels overstuffed in some ways, lacking in others.  The main story may be a bit more original than the first one's, but it's poorly paced and not very user friendly to those of us who aren't familiar to more obscure characters like Hugo Strange..  The map, while bigger and allowing for more freedom of movement (gliding through city blocks is a piece of classic Batman imagery which just wasn't possible in Arkham Asylum ), seems more shallow than Arkham Asylum 's.  And Riddler's puzzles...there are just too many of them. I gave up on completing all of them about halfway through.  In many ways, the collect-a-thon aspect of Arkham City  overwhelms the rest of the game.  Arkham Asylum  was more disciplined, more deliberately paced.

Ultimately, both games are excellent and they both deserve to be played. My personal preference for the first game perhaps does not match the majority of reviewers, who seem to prefer the second.  Still, I think both games deserve their sterling reputations and I definitely plan to pick up the third game, which is supposed to have more of a Silver Age vibe (and I would be thrilled if they went with the Silver Age for their aesthetic inspiration, rather than the grungy look of the first two Arkham  games).


ニーア ゲシュタルト (Nier Gestalt/Nier, Square Enix, 2010)

Nier Gestalt is an action role-playing game created by now-defunct developer Cavia (the folks responsible for the Zegapain games on the XBox 360, as well as the Drakengardseries on PlayStation 2). This was, in fact, the last game by Cavia before it was disbanded, and thus serves as a sort of swan song for a company behind some of the quirkiest games of the past two generations. But Nier Gestalt(known in the US simply as Nier) is not just an object of interest because it was the last project by a minor studio with a small but avid fanbase. It is also an excellent game. I'm trying to moderate my praise here, but what I really want to say, what I really feel about Nier is that it's not simply one of the best games on 360, it's one of the absolute best games I've ever played in my long history as a gamer, and is absolutely worthy of standing on any list of classic RPGs next to all-time greats like Panzer Dragoon Saga, Chrono Trigger, and Persona 3.

Before I go any further and devolve into a quivering mass of praise, some quick background info regarding the development of Nier might be necessary. Nier began as a PlayStation 3 title whose protagonist was a young man in a post-Apocalyptic future (a lot of games seem to have that sort of setting recently) seeking a cure for a terminal illness killing his young sister. At some point early in its development, it was split off into two versions. The 360 one was created to target American gamers and the protagonist was changed to an older, much burlier man, protecting his daughter instead of his sister. Other than this change in protagonist, the two games are almost identical (one has to wonder why the developers didn't simply institute a character select at the beginning of the game, letting you choose between the older and younger protagonists). The PS3 version with the younger protagonist was released in Japan as Nier Replicant. The 360 version was titled Nier Gestalt. The other major differences are that the 360 version is entirely dubbed into English, even in its Japanese version (and if your language settings are set to English, you can play the game entirely in English form, which is how I played through it), while the PS3 version is dubbed into Japanese and has no English option. Confusing matters further, when it came time to give the game an international release, the international PS3 version replaced the young protagonist with the older male, with the idea that this character would be the more appealing archetype to Western audiences. As such, unlike the Japanese PS3 and 360 versions, the international editions all feature the older male as the lead playable hero. Thus, Nier Replicant really is a Japanese "exclusive" game in every sense of the word.

Onto the game itself. As an action RPG, Nier has been compared to everything from Zelda to God of War. What it most resembles, however, is a mix of traditional action RPG mechanics mixed with a bullet-hell shooter, especially in its boss fights, where you'll see boss characters spamming projectiles which you'll have to dodge, duck, and weave through. Nier himself fights with a sword (at the game's midpoint you also get access to two-handed weapons and spears) as well as magic he receives from a sentient grimoire, thus being able to do a bit of "bullet hell" magical projectile shooting himself. The game is a smorgasbord of pure gameplay. Some dungeon sections play like classic 2D vertical shooters, while other dungeons are set up to look like classic isometric platformers like Land Stalker. Through it all, Cavia's love for playing with video game tropes shine through (there's even a "haunted mansion" that's all fixed camera angles deliberately meant to echo Resident Evil, and even text-only portions of gameplay that remind one of ancient PC games such as Zork). These geeky, knowing winks and plays on genre and modes of play, all streamlined and perfectly executed by the very talented developers at Cavia was probably missed by the majority of reviewers who judged the game solely on its (serviceable) graphics and focused on the optional sidequests available early on in the game (which admittedly can drag the game down if you focus on solely doing sidequests for hours on end instead of actually playing through the game's main story).

I've focused so far on the gameplay, which is excellent (I have actually seen people point to games like Bayonetta and complain at how "limited" or "shallow" it is in comparison - thus absolutely missing the point as the games are two wholly different genres), but a special note also has to be made for the game's art design (which is suitably creepy and perfectly appropriate for the setting), music (easily the best music of any current-gen game other than possibly Mass Effect 2), and voice acting (in a word, perfect - perfect casting, perfect performances, and so good that it makes me cringe when I think of bigger-budgeted games such as Star Ocean 4 which feature such subpar voices that they actually manage to bump the game down several notches).

I haven't even started talking about the story yet, and for good reason. The way Nier's story unfolds (and you will want to watch it unfold and replay through the latter half to get the multiple endings) is a perfect example of storytelling discipline (giving players only the necessary information instead of inundating them with pointless encyclopedias of useless factoids that do nothing but distract). All you really need to know, all you really shouldknow, is that Nier is a father desperate to save his daughter's life. Let the story take you to its ultimate destination and marvel at the fantastic world Cavia created.

If you haven't already noticed, I love Nier, and I think, if you like video games at all, that you will love it too. One of the very best games of this generation. I give it my highest possible recommendation and hope you give it a try.