Ooooooh, an unexpected double feature! Yeah, I'm doing two games at once, something that I plan to do again in the future, as some games on my love list are from the same franchise.
This isn't the case here, I know, but I'm still gonna do these two back to back, as they actually do have a lot in common, to the point where it would be very difficult for me to do a separate blog for both without constantly repeating myself.
Firstly, I'd like to point out that I've yet to play Arkham Asylum. I should probably look into changing that at some point. There's Arkham Origins too, which I think has already been released in some parts of the world, so that's nice. What matters is that I've played Arkham City (the middle point in the series), and that it reminded me a lot of the beloved 2003 game Beyond Good & Evil.
Clearly though, the big question here is: how are these games so similar? The answer lies below...
Second of all, nobody seems to ever mention these two games together, but everybody should totally do that all the time! The elements that make these two games so good are pretty much exactly the same once you come down to it. It is of course understandable that people don't compare them, seeing as, when it comes to style and narrative, they are completely different. One is about a planet being under attack by aliens, in which you play as a freelance reporter and photographer who gets involved in what appears to be a huge conspiracy. The other is about the goddamn Batman who gets thrown in prison but he doesn't even care because he's Batman, he's just there to punch some criminals and solve some mysteries. One looks like French animation, the other looks more like a gritty comic book brought to life (which is kind of is). But there's much more to video games than simply style and narrative, and both these games have a special kind of appeal to them in the way that they work.
The first similarity is the fact that they are in the same genre. They are both Zelda-likes, which is what I'd like to simply call action adventure games, but everything gets called that these days, so let's call them traditional
action adventure games. What I'm talking about is the kind of game in which you are given an open world to explore, and the objective is to go to different locations ("dungeons") of the world in order to solve a series of puzzles. This is then spiced up with some action, usually in the form of combat. It's similar in some ways to a sandbox game, but significantly tighter and more restricted in its nature, which might seem like a negative, but it makes for a much more polished experience.
In my honest opinion, we seriously need more games likes these. They are brilliant! The concept behind them just works so well, and it makes for some fantastic games. Besides, you can do anything with it games like these, which is exactly why we have two similar games right here that still manage to take on completely different themes. I hunger for more games like these, no joke, if you got any recommendations, feel free to share. I only know of a few that I've yet to play.
Okay then, back to Beyond Good & Batman. See, outside of genre, these two also share something that I consider to be WAY too rare, which is a good sense of flow. This is the main advantage that the two have over Zelda. See, Link doesn't have any flow in the way he moves. He has to awkwardly line himself up whenever he wants to open a chest or pick up something. He has to clumsily climb his horse when he wants to go for a ride. In combat, he either swings his sword wildly around with no direction, or relies on a stiff targeting system. Zelda games always have these little breaks in gameplay which, while hardly ruining them (I really do like Zelda games), does tend to make them seem a little slow and awkward at times.
But AC and BGE have none of this stuff. You never have to line up to do anything, you never need to wait through long animations, and there is no such thing as targeting, as it isn't at all necessary. These games never feel awkward, even in cases where you fuck something up, which is pretty remarkable in itself. I'll be using the word 'flow' a lot, because it's the best word to describe the way that these games work.
Okay then, time to talk about the combat. In Beyond Good & Evil, you fight with a staff. You can use this staff to attack in every direction, and you will automatically attack the nearest enemy within this direction. You can quickly chain attacks together, and moving the analog stick (on consoles, of course) will make you do a combo. There's a dodge button too, should you need it. This combat system absolutely blew me away when I first played this game, and I'm so glad that Arkham City took this exact system and built upon it, adding counters, stunning moves, and more complex ways of dodging attacks. Indeed, the combat system in AC is pretty fucking good, you didn't need me to tell you this.
My theory for why this kind of system works so well is that, while it admittedly does some of the work for you, it only cuts out the busywork, the running around, the non-fighting. You still get to deliver all the blows, and you still have control over the situation, so you still get all the freedom you need when it comes to approaching your fight. Furthermore, it takes a lot of skill to master as well, since you now have to quickly make a wise decision when it comes to who you take down first, as even a small misstep will likely result in you taking a hit. On top of that, there's a wonderful sense of elegance to it, as you move quickly from enemy to enemy, rather than having to target each individual one. It's incredibly satisfying, and it's easy to see why it has pretty much become the new standard for games that have you fight against large crowds, even if it's not everyone who gets it right.
The only significant difference in the combat system is that BGE gives you a partner, who you can work with to perform launch attacks. AC, meanwhile, has all of Batman's gadgets being usable in battle, including Batarangs and a grappling hook. Both do a lot to spice up the fights.
Another big thing that these games have in common is that moving around the world is a ton of fun, and a big part of the experience. Both of them feel fast, and both flow directly into different aspects of the game, as with everything else. In BGE, when not on foot, you get around using your hovercraft, which controlled more or less like the player character, Jade. There's a button to attack/interact, a button to jump, a button to go faster, and a button to heal. It isn't exactly like Jade herself, who has a lot more functions, but it's similar enough that it doesn't feel like a completely different game once you step into the hovercraft, something which itself is done simply by walking towards it, automatically letting the game know what you want.
On the Batman side, you have the cape and the grapple hook. This must have been like a wet dream come true to a lot of hardcore Batfans, and the game makes great use of it, allowing you to use the hook from anywhere, letting you grab on to the nearest edge by the press of a single button, as well as allowing you to do a dive, which you can use to gain momentum. But the coolest part has got to be the fact that you can get into a fight whenever you want, choosing to glide kick any thug on the map. This is probably the best way to start a fight in any video game I have ever played, and it really helps making the game feel like a power trip, as no criminal is ever safe from you.
Then there are the "dungeons" of the games, the puzzle-solving locations, and the focus of the campaign in both games. There are four of these in BGE and that's technically the case too in AC, although you do visit one of them twice. Both games have a nice difficulty curve, and provide some interesting puzzles. Enemies are often fought between, and even during, these puzzles, with just enough combat to spice the gameplay up, while never becoming bothersome. I really appreciate the ability to balance out gameplay like this, because it makes a huge difference; too many enemies might make it stressful, while too few might instead make it a bit dull.
Aside from all that, both games have a stealth mechanic, to make the meal even spicier. BGE has you sneaking past guards, while AC has you taking out all the thugs in a room, scaring the shit out of them in the process. The contrast between the two is actually pretty interesting, as one has you crawling around on the floor, desperately avoiding attention, while the other has you on the absolute top, making sure that your enemies regret ever meeting you. The latter is much more of a power trip, yet both are very tense in their own way, as they both provide a really good challenge. They also do switch up the pacing of each game considerable, in a way that only seems to enhance the overall experience.
Aside from the ability to create flow, however, the biggest strength of either game has got to be the variety of hidden areas and side quests to be found, not to mention collectibles. Arkham City has the Riddler trophies and Beyond Good & Evil has the pearls, both can be found in spades, anywhere on the map, and give a good incentive to explore, as they come with rewards. The open worlds are very well designed, and interesting on their own, so filling them up with actual things to do was a great decision. Exploration is a damn good time in these games, and the little things are ones that make up the majority of the content in each one.
Here's the thing though: What you actually get to do between the story missions is actually pretty different in each game, and might be one of the main reasons that they are rarely compared. For one, AC has a deeper combat system, and enemies can appear almost anywhere in the overworld, so you can spend time on that alone. Then there's the Riddler trophies that have you solve a small puzzle, as well as the actual riddles, which require you to find a certain location or object based on a few given hints. It also has a challenge mode, allowing you to test your skills at different aspects of the gameplay.
In place of all this, Beyond Good & Evil has the more living and breathing world (seeing as it doesn't take place inside of a prison city), with stores, NPCs that you can talk to, minigames of different kinds, and the game-long side quest of taking pictures of the different creatures that you meet. It has a more relaxed, slow paced feel to it too, which goes along pretty well with these design choices.
To end this off I'd like to point out that the stories of these games are both worth a mention. Of course, there's no need to go on about the elements that makes the story of Batman work, we've all heard it a million times. Yet in spite of this, the performance of Mark Hamill as the Joker can never get too much praise. This has got to be a difficult character to pull off, and that makes it so much more impressive how Hamill nails it every time. The Joker wasn't even that big a part of the story itself, it had way more to do with Hugo Strange, but he still stole the entire show. His Joker performance here is probably one of his best ever, and it was definitely a high note for him to end on (which was exactly what he wanted).
On the other hand, the big show stealers of BGE would be Jade and her companion/uncle, the pig-man Pey'j. These two have a really good dynamic going between them, and they make for some of the most enjoyable conversations you'd ever hear in a game, mainly due to how casual and silly they are. I wouldn't have enjoyed the game's plot nearly as much if these two hadn't been so consistently likable, and it's a good example that endearing and entertaining characters can be much more valuable than groundbreaking storytelling and shocking twists. Jade herself is often used as an example of how to write a strong female character, but I find this to be pretty unfair. She is much too good to be used as a generic role model for gender specific character writing (which is something that shouldn't exist anyway, but that's a separate issue). I do hope that this will eventually change, and that Jade will be remembered as a really good character in her own right, rather than a wandering 'how to'-guide.
But yeah, these games are both pretty damn great, and this greatness comes down to their understanding of variety and flow, allowing them to cover a large number of gameplay styles, while never feeling too complex or cluttered. Hopefully, many more games in the future will learn from these two.
Next on the list is the original Doom, and why it has aged so well despite all of its technical limitations.
If you missed my last entry, in which I praise the fuck out of Ape Escape, click here
See you next time! :)