Game: Batman: Arkham Asylum
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Genre: Third person action and stealth
Game Version: 1.1
Holy button mashing, Batman! It’s a Batman game that isn’t mind bogglingly awful! I’ve been waiting for one of these for ages. Well, actually I’ve never really thought about it, but when I heard they were making one I realised I would have wanted one for ages if I ever had actually thought about it, which is close enough. Arkham Asylum not only succeeds in being a good Batman game, but also in being a good game in general. The people who will be most attracted to it are obviously the Batman fans, but the game holds up well enough in its own right to be enjoyable for everyone else as well.
Back in 1989, Grant Morrison wrote the Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Helped along with brilliant artwork by Dave McKean, it remains one of the must-read books for Batman fans. It’s a surrealistic psychological nightmare of a story. Despite the title, this game is nothing to do with that book. Or rather, it’s not directly related to the book. It clearly takes some inspiration from it, if only in the basic idea of the plot. That being: the lunatics have taken over the asylum. The storyline isn’t complex but it’s decent and appropriate for a Batman game, involving the Joker’s plot to take over Arkham and the subsequent defeat of the various unleashed villains by Batman. It’s aided by some superb voice acting including several of the cast of the animated series reprising their roles. Most notable amongst these are Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returning as the definitive Batman and Joker respectively. Mark Hamill in particular excels even more than he did in the cartoon show, playing a darker version of the Joker. In fact, the Joker we get here is pretty much the Joker from the comics, simultaneously funny, scary and completely psychotic. (The Killing Joke springs to mind especially with certain comments during the game.)
Batman: Arkham Asylum (which I will refrain from abbreviating to BAA for fear of sounding like a sheep) combines several different elements into the game, and surprisingly manages to do them all well. Being set in the asylum, there’s obviously going to be plenty of psychopaths to beat up, so the combat is pretty important, and thankfully Batman is one of the most accomplished fighting games around. The controls are simple but effective. There’s no separate button for each type of attack. You simply have three combat buttons, attack, counter and stun, along with the ability to dodge. Attack and some sort of combat AI works out which type of attack would be the most effective. Or more likely, which will look the best. And it does look impressive. The combat is extremely fast paced as Batman zips around between enemies punching, kicking and generally causing large amounts of pain to any henchmen in the area. (But never killing of course.) When someone is about to attack, an exclamation mark appears over their head and you can hit a button to counter attack. Just like real life! The early encounters can be beaten just by hammering the mouse button to attack, but later fights need you to get into a flow, building up a combo by attacking the right target and countering at just the right time to avoid being hit. It almost feels like you’re directing the combat while an AI choreographer makes everything look spectacular, but it’s always fun.
At other times, you’ll have to forgo fighting in favour of stealth. Fortunately, this is much better than the stealth sequences that are usually included in action games. After all, since Batman doesn’t carry a gun and some of the thugs in the game do, it’s not going to be much use charging in there with his fists. While it’s not going to be challenging Thief for the title of best stealth game, Arkham Asylum does its own thing very well. In fitting with this being a Batman game, this isn’t so much about sneaking around buildings as it is about being placed in a large room full of criminals and terrorising them, picking them off one by one as the remaining villains hunt around in panic looking for you. You’re helped significantly by the fact that most of these rooms have gargoyles lining the walls. (What sort of architect puts gargoyles on the inside walls of a building? Was it designed by one of the inmates?) Perching on one of these makes Batman effectively invisible as long as no-one is already firing on him as he swings up there. It’s these stealth sections that allow you to make the best use of all the gadgets that Batman has. As well as his grappling hook to get to high places, he also has his Batarangs which can be thrown at enemies to briefly stun them. Later, you can unlock multiple Batarangs at once, sonic Batarangs that can be used to make noise to distract enemies, and even a remote controlled Batarang you can fly around. On top of that he has a Batclaw that can pull people over in combat amongst other things, and explosive gel which can blow people up. It’s amazing how Batman can detonate explosives right next to someone, sometimes even bringing a wall down on top of them, and still not kill them. Oh, and he can also spread his cape to glide around, allowing him to swoop down on enemies, knocking them out, before quickly grappling back out of the way again.
Between the various set piece battles and stealth segments, you get to play detective to find your way around. Batman is supposed to be the World’s Greatest Detective after all. You don’t really have to do anything to show yourself worthy of that title though. Most of these sections involve following trails of evidence to the next set-piece, whether it be a trail of fingerprints or DNA. You follow this by switching into Detective Mode. This basically tints your screen blue and highlights evidence and items you can interact with. It also shows all enemies as skeletons, even when they’re behind walls. Which is handy. It’s not a huge part of the game but it’s a nice way of linking objectives and making sure you always know where to go next without having to aimlessly wander.
In addition to the main storyline, there are additional things to do around the levels in the form of the Riddler’s challenges. While the Riddler doesn’t make an appearance in the game himself, he communicates with Batman through his radio to offer various riddles. His challenges come in various forms, the most interesting being the actual riddles, which involve taking photos of the answer to the cryptic hint he gives you, usually relating to one of the characters that doesn’t make an appearance in the game. Your reward for these is a character biography describing the character. In addition to these, there’s various Riddler trophies scattered around the levels for you to find and chattering teeth to smash. Better than those are the patient interview tapes, which allow you to listen to well written interviews with famous Batman villains, and the Spirit of Arkham locations, which give the story of the founder of the asylum. Or start to. There’s a twist in the tale as it goes along that make it more interesting. Collectible items in games aren’t a new idea, but usually they’re rather pointless and boring. Batman: Arkham Asylum has taken the tradition and made the collectibles something that you’ll actually want to find. And anyway, the Riddler is far too smug to let him get away with beating you. In a move that more games should consider, you can also carry on exploring the environment to complete the Riddler’s challenges even after you have completed the main game.
The few instances of disappointment come with the boss battles, which are annoyingly generic. For example, Bane, a genius in the comics, is defeated here by repeatedly fooling him with the same simple tactic over and over again as you make him charge headfirst into walls. Even worse, in the low point of the game, the battle against Killer Croc takes place in a sewer (yes, even here we can’t get away from the bloody sewer levels) with Croc popping up from the water every few seconds, only to be vanquished by a single hit from a Batarang. On the other hand, various hallucinatory sequences triggered by Scarecrow are highlights of the game, and go a long way towards making up for the disappointing battles against the rest of the super-villains. The ending of the game is also a bit over the top, but is still fun.
The PC version of Arkham Asylum can be enhanced with PhysX features, but you’ll need a high end Nvidia graphics card to take advantage of the option. If you can turn it on, then you get a whole bunch of extra effects with realistic fog and smoke, debris falling and papers fluttering. It adds to an already immersive game, but if you don’t have the equipment to make the most of it, you’re not missing too much by leaving it off. There’s nothing that actually affects the gameplay.
All of this makes Batman: Arkham Asylum one of the best superhero games ever made. It’s a game full of atmosphere, with a good story, and the fact that it isn’t focused on realism means they’re never afraid to put in a game mechanic to make the gameplay better. For example, having to hit someone with a stun attack before being able to take them down if they have a knife might not make any real logical sense, but it adds some tactical variety to the combat, and so it’s put in the game. If you’re a fan of Batman, then this game comes highly recommended. If you’re not a fan of Batman, then it comes highly recommended anyway, since the gameplay means you should still enjoy it.
Save System Review: The game uses a system of automatic saves, but thankfully it saves very regularly. Every time you move from one room or area to the next, the game autosaves, so you’re never stuck doing big sections of game again.
Graphics: The graphics are of an high standard throughout. The art design is superb throughout, making the game surprisingly immersive.
Sound: Good soundtrack, and perfect voice acting.
Bugs: No bugs that I found.
Gameplay: Brilliant combat, fun stealth sequences, and collectables that aren’t boring to find. The mediocre boss battles are a minor blemish.
Storyline: Nothing too complex, but a decent Batman plot helped along by well written dialogue and some interesting extra details.
Arbitrary Final Score:
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