Summer Book Club Review: The Art of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City & Arkham Knight

Welcome to VGBlogger’s Summer Book Club! All summer long, we will be providing weekly book reviews across a wide range of geek favorite categories, including art, comics/graphic novels, fantasy, gaming, and sci-fi. So whether you’re heading out for a road trip, going on vacation, lounging beach/poolside on a nice sunny day, relaxing inside away from the summer heat, or simply searching for a good read to fill your free time, follow our Summer Book Club for our top picks of what you should be reading during these hot summertime doldrums.

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What’s better than an art book dedicated to this summer’s hottest video game blockbuster, Batman: Arkham Knight? An art book for the complete Arkham trilogy, that’s what.

From Abrams Books comes The Art of Rocksteady’s Batman, a hardcover Batguide stuffed with concepts, sketches, renders, screenshots, and developer commentary spanning arguably the greatest superhero video game series ever.

Naturally, the book is divided into three main chapters, each dedicated to one of the three main series games: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight. Having all three games covered in a single art book is great because you get to follow the progression of the creative process over the course of nearly eight years, from the inception of Rocksteady’s “Arkhamverse” when the studio began development on the series back in 2007 through to this year’s trilogy-closer. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the Rocksteady team went from making its first game, the underappreciated Urban Chaos: Riot Response (it’s a rough but fun FPS with a lot of neat ideas), directly into what has become one of the most iconic video game franchise of modern times.

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As documented over 304 pages, the Arkham series evolved a lot from game to game, beginning inside the more intimate (and insane) setting of Arkham Asylum and literally quintupling in size from Arkham Asylum to Arkham City, and again from Arkham City to Arkham Knight as the confined island locale became increasingly large and immersive open-world Gotham City playgrounds. In this book you also get to see the technological advancements of Batman’s Batsuit and other Bat-gear, and you get to see how the art team tweaked the Rogues Gallery character designs to reflect events in the story arc.

Even though the games became larger and more elaborate every step of the way, Rocksteady stayed committed to a motif of hyper realistic stylization, bringing a unique artistic style to the Batman universe by marrying larger-than-life comic book proportions and aesthetics with materials, skin textures, lighting effects, and other details that grounded the experience in the realm of believability. As it is described in the book at one point, the style is like reality twisted by exaggeration.

The Arkham Asylum chapter is the most in-depth, in total page count as well as overall behind-the-scenes information, which makes sense since it was Rocksteady’s first crack at establishing its creative vision for Batman. Personally, I think there was much more pure artistry in the original game to begin with as there was more visual storytelling involved with bringing Arkham Asylum to life. More so than its open-world successors, in Arkham Asylum there is a tangible sense of history and place, and the environment is as much a character in the story as Batman, Joker, or anyone else. That’s why Arkham Asylum remains my favorite game in the series.

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Perhaps a better title for The Art of Rocksteady’s Batman would have been The Making of Rocksteady’s Batman, because the book goes far beyond skin-deep art direction, and digs into other aspects of the development process. Developer interviews shed light on the work that went into AI, animation, programming, and even the soundtracks, reminding us that all facets of game design are forms of art, not just the pretty visual stuff that makes us ooh and ahh when we see it on a hi-def TV. A particularly interesting section outlines the various combat systems Rocksteady conceptualized before ultimately coming up with the Freeflow system that has since become a template that other games with third-person melee combat try to mimic. An earlier battle system concept consisted of beat-matching mechanics and timing attacks to the background music with comic panels that would flash on the screen. At one point a prototype was even made for an overhead 2D combat system emphasizing Batman’s crowd control abilities. Yeah, I’m glad they made Freeflow happen.

For an art book, the abundance of in-game screenshots is the lone disappointment here. Having some screenshots intermixed with artwork is important to provide a sort of visual before and after transition from concept to final result, but this book does go a little overboard with spreads that are gameplay stills rather than art pieces. This is primarily an issue in the Arkham Knight chapter. Even though the book officially published two weeks after the game’s launch, it feels like the editors were restricted in what they could show in order to avoid spoilers for the latest installment. For example, the pages dedicated to the Batmobile as well as the titular Arkham Knight character are almost entirely screenshots rather than concept art. These being two of the major additions to the gameplay and story, the lack of robust coverage on both subjects is a let down. Surely the Arkham Knight must’ve gone through an iterative design process, but where are the concepts and costume studies to show it? And the same goes for the Batmobile–no blueprints, no sketches, no mechanical diagrams showing the vehicle’s weapon systems and mode transitions, no nothing. Just a few pages of screenshots. Lame. (But hey, the Batmobile is universally regarded as the game’s weak point, so I guess it’s appropriate that the same goes for the companion art book.)

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So the Arkham Knight section isn’t as revealing as I would have hoped for, but overall The Art of Rocksteady’s Batman provides a fascinating and deeply insightful look at all aspects of the Arkham trilogy’s creation. Ideally there should be less screenshots, but the artwork still reigns supreme here. If you’re a Batman fan, you’ll no doubt love poring over combat flow diagrams, environmental paintings and blueprints, and concept illustrations for the Joker, Harley Quinn, Penguin, Riddler, and the rest of the supervillain crew–not to mention countless images of the Dark Knight himself. The book is of the highest quality, with heavy duty paper stock (I own a lot of art books, and this one has a heftier, sturdier feel than most) and awesome cover art underneath the dust jacket. The dust jacket looks good on its own, but once you get a look at what’s underneath–Batman looming out of the darkness on the front, Joker grinning manically on the back–you probably won’t slip it back on.

The Art of Rocksteady’s Batman by Abrams Books is now available from Amazon.com and other book stores at a list price of $40 (though it’s already on sale for much cheaper than that now).

Disclosure: VGBlogger.com received a review copy of The Art of Rocksteady’s Batman from Abrams Books.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!