I’m of two minds about Batman: Arkham Origins (out now, FREE). On the one hand, NetherRealm’s game is repetitive, uninspired, and ruled by a rather short free-to-play energy timer. On the other hand, it looks nice, hands out virtual currency at a surprisingly fair pace, and is actually quite fun. Let’s grab our utility belt and Bat-Clooney nipple suit and dive in!

screen480x480In Arkham Origins (not to be confused with it’s console big brother of the same name) you take on the role of Batman as you fight tons of bad dudes Infinity Blade-style. Combat works like this: A shifty lookin’ fellow shows up on screen and all you have to do is tap anywhere to hit him. Tap three times and you’ll do a little combo. You can also block by pressing an on-screen button (as is the default) or simply tapping anywhere with two fingers (as is my preference). Eventually you’ll gain special skills like a powerful kick or summoning a bat swarm, which usually involve tapping or swiping really fast. If the whole game was just randomly assaulting the screen with your fingers, however, that’d get old pretty fast. Thankfully there is a very welcome bit of strategy in the form of stances.

You have two stances: Assault Stance and Guarded Stance, which you can switch between by pressing an on-screen button (as is the default) or simply swiping vertically on the screen (as is my preference). In Assault Stance your basic tap-tap-tap attack is much stronger and more useful, while in Guarded Stance the attacks are weaker but your block is nearly impenetrable. They each also have a different set of special moves which can only be accessed when you are in a particular stance. Once you get the hang of this system and unlock all the special moves it can be a blast to expertly switch back and forth between stances in the heat of battle while executing perfectly timed jabs and blocks. It doesn’t quite reach Infinity Blade‘s finely honed parry/block/dodge/attack setup, but it’s good fun nonetheless.

screen480x480Unfortunately, unlike Infinity Blade the combat is pretty much all you do. There are no beautifully rendered in-game cutscenes advancing an epic story (the closest you get is a quick shot of the Batwing flying through the rain over and over), there are no bags of gold or potions to collect in the world, and there are no other locations to fight in other than a few different rooms and the top of a building which you’ll see repeated throughout the game.

Other than this fairly shallow campaign, there is luckily a pretty lengthy upgrade system. You can upgrade both of your stances to make the attacks and blocks stronger (along with upgrading each’s respective special moves) and upgrade your basic skills as well, which include passive abilities like Tailor-Made which makes each batsuit more powerful. Finally, you can always buy better batsuits which have a pretty significant impact on how tough you are (and/or how silly you look).

This being a free-to-play game and all, you’re probably assuming all of these things cost an arm and a leg in the hopes of pushing you to pay real money, but I’m happy to report that that’s not at all the case. You actually earn a huge amount of cash from fights, especially later in the game, which makes buying batsuits and upgrading things actually fun. You know, like a game! If I said there was no grinding at all, however, I’d be a liar; but it’s far, far less than what I was expecting. I’ve been playing off and on for the past week and have had no problems earning enough through regular fights to buy the best suit in each tier (including the final suit, Injustice, which rings in at just under a million).

screen480x480Speaking of playing off-and-on, it’s time we addressed the bat in the room: the ugly, no good, ever-present stamina bar. It sits evilly at the top of the main menu, daring to lock you out of this perfectly decent little game should you have the audacity to play it too much. The bar itself is divided into 10 smaller bars which refill in five minute increments (though when the game first launched they each took 10 minutes. Shudder). That’s not so bad, then, right? 10 bars means 10 fights. Who needs to play more than 10 fights at a time? Except 10 bars does not mean 10 fights. Each fight actually costs 2 bars. And then 3 bars. And then 4 and 5. The later you get in the game, the more bars a fight costs to play. You will literally reach a point where you can only play two fights before needing to shut it down and wait. (Or pay the much rarer gold currency, of course.)

Batman: Arkham Origins is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a corporate, free-to-play spin off of a console game designed to extract money from the impatient. However, it’s actually… fun. Quite fun. And you’ll never feel pressured to buy anything with real money  (provided you don’t mind playing something else while waiting for the stamina bar to fill up). It’s a pretty small step in the right direction, but I’ll take it.

Verdict

NetherRealm’s Batman: Arkham Origins is a surprisingly fun free-to-play game with a combat system loosely inspired — rather than lifted — from the Infinity Blade series. It works really well and even manages to inject a small amount of strategy with the neat stance-switching mechanic. Unfortunately, the campaign gets kind of same-y after a while with a small stable of locations and villains repeating over and over. Even worse, there’s a pretty restrictive stamina timer that really gets in the way of the fun later in the game. Still, you could do much worse for free.