Rice Krispies are terrible at being food. They’re devoid of meaningful nutritional value, so of course you need to down the bushel of fruit, glass of orange juice, and toast that made up the rest of the “complete breakfast” that used to show up in old cereal commercials. Rice Krispies are at best filler, the texture completing a marshmallow treat. Sometimes, though, a big bowl of noisy, almost flavorless toasted rice and sugar bubbles are exactly what you want. They don’t enrich or nourish, but they satisfy, even after they disintegrate into a milky mush at the bottom of the bowl. They’re familiar, pleasant, and even filling. Batman: Arkham Origins is the video game equivalent—it’s not enriching, but it gets the job done in an agreeable enough way.
There are even similarities between how this Dark Knight tale from WB Games Montreal—Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City developer Rocksteady sat this one out—and the breakfast cereal approach character. Like good old Snap, Crackle, and Pop, Batman is more of a mascot than a person here. The story in this prequel is colorful and amusing, but it reduces the 74-year-old character and his supporting cast to brand essentials. Batman fights crime supported by his trusty butler Alfred. He fights the Joker, the Penguin, Bane, and others. Law enforcement officer Jim Gordon backs him up—yadda yadda yadda. Even Arkham Origins’ premise as a prequel, with Batman still hunted by a corrupt Gotham City Police force, is well trod territory. By the time Batman gets drugged—of course he gets drugged—and starts hallucinating disapproving parental figures in the middle of a crime scene, Arkham Origins fully feels like a bullet-pointed product pitch rather than a story.
What’s surprising is that this isn’t a detriment to Arkham Origins. The overwhelming familiarity of everything in the game, cribbed from movies, comics, cartoons, and especially the previous Arkham titles, makes it much easier to just slide into Arkham Origins. Part of what made the sprawling Arkham City so disappointing as a follow-up to the more constrained Arkham Asylum was that its stakes felt almost too high. The ridiculous burning city run by psychos, the super-villain plot to swap out the blood supply of Gotham hospitals with The Joker’s terminal disease-infected blood—the crime fighting billionaire in a cape is already pretty over the top. Arkham City’s theatrics finally made the whole fantasy too top heavy to hold up.
By contrast, Arkham Origins feels pretty staid. After failing to stop the crime lord Black Mask from escaping Gotham’s Black Gate prison, Batman hits the streets on Christmas Eve to try and catch him. A winter storm is the excuse for those streets being deserted save for hundreds of armed thugs looking for a fight. The snow never stops falling while you play, and while it doesn’t pile up into the sorts of drifts that would cripple a city, it does make for a more hushed scene while you gleefully grappling hook from building to building, gliding between boroughs to do one of the game’s many side quests on the way to the big benchmark missions.
The initial threat facing Batman is the bounty placed on his head by Black Mask, which draws out eight super assassins intent on collecting. This evolves into a citywide threat, but most of the time with Origins is spent outside the game’s main arc. Glide here to disarm a high-tech weapons shipment. Glide there to save a kidnapping victim from the Mad Hatter—beating up scores upon scores of ne’er-do-wells along the way. WB Games Montreal kept the meaty fisticuffs of the previous games intact. Batman still flips around racking up combos while fighting crowds of thugs, and the key to success is to avoid taking damage by countering attacks at precise moments. The longer you go without getting hit, the more acrobatic and brutal your moves become. It’s still great, and it’s even benefited from the mildest tweaks. Batman feels a bit faster on his feet, and there are some foes that force you to dip into the dim edges of his expansive martial arts arsenal. The changes aren’t dramatic, but they’re also not unwelcome.
All these aspects, from the quiet winter storm-stricken city to the fact that nothing in the main storyline feels more urgent than any of the secondary tasks you’ll come across, give Arkham Origins a flavor distinct from City and Asylum. The whole game just feels like another day in the life of Batman, like he’s just out there taking care of business. Ninja ladies have kidnapped a police officer and strung him up in a devious death trap at a mall? Penguin’s dealing weapons out of a derelict battleship? Here we go again! And on Christmas no less.
There’s an object lesson in Arkham Origins for video game studios caught inside of ceaseless sequel machines, like those churning out Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, or other games released on an annual or bi-annual basis: Blandness can be a virtue. It doesn’t mean the game can’t be quality. WB Games Montreal may have inherited this series, but it does a yeoman’s job. Everything in Origins just works, for better or worse. It doesn’t have much flavor and it won’t help with that vitamin deficiency, but it’s a satisfying bowl of something pleasant and familiar.