Franchises tend to follow a somewhat depressing arc. Be it movies or video games or books, they have a habit of going through three distinct phases (especially if it’s a trilogy). The first, if it’s worth sparking a series at all, is usually full of surprise and life. It’s like a low-key discovery of fire, like holy shit we made something.
The second stage is when all the ideas that were too big or too ambitious make it in, hopefully with the creators’ ability to manufacture their desires keeping pace with their heads in the clouds. This means producers learn how to produce better and developers learn how to use their tools better while directors aim for big set pieces and game designers throw in gem after gem they had to throw in the trash the last time around.
It takes a mild step down, however, at the third part. It’s not quite a too-comfortable situation, but it’s close. All the gold got mined out of the brains for the second bit, and now they’re running on empty. They’re trying to paint bags of rocks rather than digging like they had for years before, pining for this project to be made. It’s more competent than ever, but the spark is gone.
You’ll probably want to argue that last one—and rightly so—but the crux of it is true: it’s a step down. Take a look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Or what about SCE Santa Monica’s God of War or BioWare’s Mass Effect or Naughty Dog’s Uncharted?
With the exception of The Godfather, the third installment was still quite good and worthy in closing out a trilogy, but they also felt…sterile. Like a sigh of deliberating how to get through this. They’ve done it before at quite a remarkable level, so the blueprint is right there. Now they just need to get it done as opposed to wanting to get it done. (True or not, that’s how it feels playing or watching those things.)
The reason I bring this up is because of the Batman: Arkham series, the latest entry of which came out this week. It’s been doing quite well with review scores (we’ll have one up shortly), but it has been begging the question with a lot of writers and fans alike: was this game necessary?
Perhaps not for any of us outside of Rocksteady Studios, the developers behind the franchise, but for them, it sure seems like it. The interesting thing is that while there have been four main releases in the Arkham lineup, the third one was actually made by Warner Bros. Games Montreal and is the only one not directed by Sefton Hill.
Before that, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City certainly fit the mold. Asylum was a tight little package that flowed well within itself, telling a taut story with an impeccable (and revolutionary) set of mechanics and gameplay. And then City blew it wide open by turning an island into a full-blown city and taking much of what players loved from before to another level.
And then Origins was, well, just kind of okay. It kind of just made the city bigger and added perhaps the single most unnecessary multiplayer component ever conceived. It wasn’t the usual third step down because the series runners ran out of steam or got complacent or whatever; it was because the reins were thrown into hands that had never ridden this horse before.
This is where I begin to believe that yes, Knight is necessary. It breaks so hard from the typical franchise quality arc that that single-handedly makes it noteworthy. It’s not developers diving back in for a fourth go-around as they figure out what new IP to cultivate and iterate on but is instead a studio reclaiming their title of steward to Batman.
I’ll get into more detail in the review, but Knight is both a refinement and an expansion on what we liked and didn’t like from City that Origins just seemed to miss, neglect, or actually exacerbate. The story is deft and drums up legitimate drama. Combat has new layers of complexity but streamlines it into a speedy little missile of rewarding, buzzing thinking of the frantic variety.
This is just as the stealth sections have entirely new wrinkles that make sneaking around vantage points and floor grates come across as simultaneously reengineered and reinvented. And they way they are presented to you through various framing devices, they actually affect how you tool around with it all. The encounter design, specifically, shames Origins as that game seemed to support pugilism even in the midst of choking someone out.
And that’s even while Rocksteady saw fit to add an entirely new and substantial thing to the game: the Batmobile. There are dexterity-demanding races and navigational puzzles and tank combat and bits that mesh Batman and the vehicle together as separate entities in the same environment for race-puzzle-combat scenarios. There are a lot of design concessions to fit the narrative and vice versa and the reception for its sections will be divided, but my goodness is it ambitious.
That is the quality that seems to always lack after a series goes past the second entry. It lacks the punch—that swing at a weight class far higher than its own—that makes the first two so potent. Rocksteady, however, didn’t get a third one and instead had to go for the fourth. While no artistic endeavor may ever be necessary from the viewing side, it seems that it can be for the artist. They’ve still got more to say.