Batman: Arkham Asylum
Release Date: 08/25/09
Batman generally doesn’t translate well to video games, and I don’t really know why. It doesn’t seem so hard, y’know? He’s got a ton of awesome tools at his disposal, he’s one of the best martial artists in the world, and he has plenty of fantastic vehicles to drive around in. None of this seems as though it’d be especially complex to implement into the gaming medium, but judging by the results we’ve been given over the years, apparently it’s a lot harder than one would think. Depending on your personal tastes, the last “good” Batman game was either Batman Returns for the Genesis, Batman Returns for the SNES, or Batman for the NES, as everything afterward has been mediocre at best and abhorrent at worst. Anyone remember Batman: Dark Tomorrow? Holy guano, Batman, that was a harsh one. So, you might be forgiven for assuming that Batman: Arkham Asylum wasn’t going to be especially grand; despite some amazing stills and the acknowledgement that the majority of the cast from the animated series was doing the voice work, Batman games have become something of a colossal disappointment in the past decade or so, and there was no real indication that this one was going to be any better, aside from pure hope.
Turns out, we were right to hope.
The story of Batman: Arkham Asylum follows the Bruce Wayne version of Batman (and I will never get used to typing that), who, at the beginning of the tale, has just apprehended the Joker. Batman brings the Joker back to Arkham to lock him away, as usual, but it turns out Joker was actively hoping for this thing and ends up taking control of Arkham by force. With Batman being the only person in the immediate vicinity who can do anything to stop the Joker, our hero heads into what is most assuredly a death trap: a facility full of a whole mess of people who hate his guts. Interestingly enough, however, Joker’s plans involve more than simply trapping Batman on the island and trying to kill him, as apparently Joker has interest in a Doctor Young who works there, and it’s up to Batman to put together the pieces and save as many civilians as possible while attempting to stop the Joker… and anyone else who stands in your way.
The story for Batman: Arkham Asylum was written by Paul Dini, and it shows, as the characterization is outstanding and the story is exceptional. Batman comes across as calculating and driven, while the Joker is written as a cunning psychopath, and the dialogue of the two, both individually and when playing off of each other, is stupendous. There are several other members of Batman’s rogues gallery you encounter through your travels around the asylum, including Joker’s psychotic henchwoman Harley Quinn, the violent mutant Killer Croc, the manipulative and demented Scarecrow and the botanically obsessed Poison Ivy, among others, and each of the villains you encounter feels consistent with their comic book characters, which keeps the story feeling accurate. The plot occasionally feels like a game of evolving Deus Ex Machina twists between Batman and Joker as each tries to out-do the other, and while it’s believable that the characters WOULD be prepared for dealing with each other to absurd extents, it doesn’t make it less absurd at times. Also, I’ve seen this concept before in Batman stories like Knightfall and Hush, only without the Joker as the starring villain and without the character motivation of wanting to do something OTHER than hurt Batman, and while that doesn’t hurt the story, you might feel a little familiarity here.
Visually, Batman: Arkham Asylum is stunning in every measurable respect. Batman and his opponents are rendered very nicely and animate fluidly at all points, and both simple actions and complex battles look visually stunning in motion. The asylum itself is presented as a sort of gothic industrial play ground, which is fitting when one considers both the city it is located in and the residents of the facility, and it looks especially impressive and creepy. The light sourcing and special effects are top-notch, the art style and ambience of the visuals are outstanding, and in general, the visuals are outright fantastic. Aurally, the music consists mostly of swelling orchestral compositions reminiscent of a Danny Elfman score, and they fit the product perfectly. The sound effects are satisfying and powerful, from the simplest strikes to the grandest effects, and they all work together well. The voice acting… well, come on now. The voice actors are almost entirely hold-overs from the original animated series, which had some incredibly slick voice acting, so yeah, the voice work here is absolutely outstanding, period.
The gameplay in Batman: Arkham Asylum is a surprisingly strong mesh of stealth mechanics and hand-to-hand combat, with some interesting tools and concepts thrown in to really cement the Batman experience. You move around with the left stick and rotate the camera with the right stick, and Batman moves fluidly and responds well as you move. Moving around the environment can be done normally or stealthily, depending on your needs at the moment. You can hold down the A button to make Batman run if you want to clear ground in a hurry, and he’ll jump across any gaps he comes across while running and deploy his cape to glide if he jumps off of something. The right trigger can be used to crouch, and you can move around while crouched to hide behind low obstacles or move through small enclosures. Most areas can be grappled to by pointing the camera at the area to grapple and pressing the right bumper, allowing for quick transit from place to place, though Batman can also hang from ledges and shimmy around as needed if you’re hiding from a target. The asylum offers numerous places for a stealthy character to hide, from grates in the floor to gargoyles on the walls, which affords Batman numerous places to stalk his foes from the shadows or to escape to when enemies have found him, and he can move around from these locales with ease to trick enemies or avoid detection.
Inevitably, of course, sometimes stealth won’t be able to get you past a location and a firm reprimand just won’t be enough to deal with the thugs you’ll encounter, so Batman will inevitably have to throw down. Fortunately, he’s incredibly well equipped to do so, and it’s easy enough to do. The X button allows you to attack enemies, and pressing it multiple times allows you to chain attacks together in combos. Pressing the left stick in a direction will direct Batman to attack whatever enemy is in that direction at the time, which allows you to basically aim from enemy to enemy, chaining attacks through a group, which is all about awesome. Of course, enemies can fight back, but Batman, being a superb martial artist, can easily deflect attacks with a press of the Y button. He’ll counter the incoming attack and, if an opponent is armed, disarm them, and them beat their face in before returning to a ready position for more punishment. Some armed enemies will block your attacks, of course, but you can press B to use your cape to stun them, which opens them up to attacks. At first, the combat seems more like it’d be conducive to simple button-mashing, but to really maximize your combinations you’ll want to really plot out your attacks, aim for enemies and pay attention to what’s going on to keep your combo going and avoid damage. As you progress, Batman will also learn additional combat abilities, such as an unblockable throw or the ability to toss out a Batarang as part of a combo, which are incredibly useful and help to keep the combat in-depth as you go. You can also tap in a direction and double-tap A to make him dodge out of the way of an attack, dive from high locations and use the element of surprise to kick an enemy in the chest, drop down from high locations and take enemies out in silence, sneak up on enemies and knock them out silently, and other fun things, depending on the objectives of the mission and your own preferences.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Batman game without all sorts of awesome gadgets, and you get some neat things to play with as you go. In the beginning, you only come equipped with the Batarangs, which can be thrown at enemies to deal damage and to enable or disable certain electronic devices, and a regular grappling hook for climbing and hanging from things. As you go on, however, you’ll find explosive gel, which can blow open weak walls and stun enemies in the blast, the Bathook, which attaches to the grappling hook and allows you to pull enemies in or rip out grates, a Remote-controlled Batarang that you can guide to targets, and other interesting gadgets that you can use to make your life easier. Some of these items can be obtained throughout the game, while others are unlocked by upgrading Batman. As you accomplish tasks and defeat enemies, you’ll earn experience points, and when you raise a level, you’ll be able to invest that level in an upgrade. Upgrades can improve your Batarangs, improve your life meter, unlock new attacks, improve your current attacks, and do other useful things, which gives you an incentive to lump up every bad guy you find, as you’ll want to be prepared for all of the bosses you’ll face. Speaking of the bosses, they are primarily composed of members of Batman’s rogues gallery, such as Zsasz, Joker (of course), Bane and Poison Ivy, among others, and while some will fight you straight up, others, like Scarecrow, require more pattern recognition and thinking than standard brawling, which helps keep things interesting.
Of course, Batman’s called the World’s Greatest Detective for a reason, and Batman: Arkham Asylum allows you to experience that by shifting into Detective Mode as needed. Detective Mode is essentially a vision filter that allows you to spot interesting and useful things you’d otherwise miss. You’ll see interesting interactive elements stand out in orange, to indicate a place to go or a wall to blow up, and enemies pop up in different colors to indicate that they exist and how they’re armed, even through walls. The major lure of Detective Mode, however, pops up when you need to track someone or thing down. Batman will find a location he’ll need to analyze in order to find some sort of clue about where to go next, which puts you in a little forensics bit where you have to look around a zone for a specific object. Upon finding it, Batman will analyze its chemical composition, then begin tracking it through Detective Mode, allowing you to follow the trail of the thing you’re searching for to your next objective. The trails are easy enough to follow, but it’s an interesting enough gimmick that works and is in no way offensive.
The core campaign takes around ten or so hours to complete, but there are so many things to do with the game in addition to simply completing the story that you’ll have plenty of reason to come back for more over and over again. For one, there’s the Riddler Challenges. See, Mister Nigma has decided that, while he’s no longer a heel in the strictest sense of the word, he IS still a jerk, and he has spread various riddles, hidden icons, and question mark paintings around the island of Arkham, and it’s your job to find them. Finding these items, as well as patient interviews, notes from the founder of Arkham, and other things will earn experience points and eventually unlock character bios and Challenge Maps, among other unlockables. The Challenge Maps are essentially locations from the game with an overarching goal, IE “silently take out everyone as fast as possible”Â or “beat everyone up without dying”Â, and you’ll be given a score based on how well you do. These scores are uploaded to the Leaderboards, so you can compete with friends and strangers for the best possible scores, and playing through the Challenge Maps is also a lot of fun, as it strips away all of the extra gameplay and simply lets you obliterate enemies, which really never gets old. With the promise of DLC on the way, as well as multiple difficulty levels to plow through on top of everything else, Batman: Arkham Asylum is an in-depth game with lots to see and do, and it’ll probably spend a large amount of time in your system simply because of how much you can do with it.
Now, that all said… yes, there are downsides, put down the tomatoes and hear me out. Okay, the biggest thing one can hold against Batman: Arkham Asylum is that the Detective Mode is the only notably “original”Â concept, as it were, in the game. Now, the way the game comes together is certainly interesting and different, let’s be fair, but a vast majority of the concepts are borrowed from or similar to other games. The whole “super hero taking on villains in an open world environment”Â was somewhat different when Spider-Man 2 did it, but Batman: Arkham Asylum is years removed from that, and the environment is a good bit smaller. The stealth mechanics are borrowed in equal parts from Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu, and while they work beautifully, they’ve been done before. The game also feels like something of a missed opportunity at points, as despite the fact that you’re smack in the middle of a nuthouse filled with Batman’s most heinous rogues, you actually only encounter a handful of them, and while they DO need to leave something open for the sequel, a few more Batman rogues would have done wonders. Finally, while Detective Vision is neat, the game forces you to spend a not insignificant amount of time in it, between hunting for objectives and looking for destructible environments and such, and that’s not even including the amount of time you’ll spend in it while hunting for Riddler Challenges. Now, Detective Vision is pretty cool, sure, but it essentially washes out the visuals of the game when its enabled, and the fact that you’ll be spending a large amount of time using the mode instead of looking at the pretty environments and enjoying watching Batman put a hurting on enemies is annoying. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have included Detective Vision, but a little more balance regarding how frequently you NEEDED to use it would have been prudent.
Also, would it have killed someone at Microsoft to bribe someone at Eidos to make some exclusive content for the 360 version? I mean come on. Gimme Batgirl or Nightwing or Robin or something, I don’t even care at this point. Just saying.
Look, the bottom line is that unless you are somehow morally opposed to owning a game with Batman in it, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game you NEED to own. Period. The story is outstanding, the presentation is fantastic, and the gameplay is simply RIGHT for the subject matter. The combat feels satisfying and tight, the stealth mechanics are excellent and not at all forced, the Batman gimmicks are all a blast to play around with, upgrading Batman is satisfying and allows the game to stay fresh throughout, and elements like Detective Vision and forensics studies and such make the game feel like a full Batman experience. There’s a lot of content built-in to the game, between the multiple difficulties, the Riddler Challenges and the Challenge Maps, and you’ll easily get your money’s worth from the experience, no questions asked. No, the game isn’t wholly original, yes, it’s kind of depressing that there aren’t more Batman villains in the game, and yes, it feels like you spend too often poking around in Detective Vision, but if these are the worst complaints you can make about a game, it’s pretty much a winner. No matter which of the two next-gen consoles you own, you NEED to own Batman: Arkham Asylum, as it’s a fun, involved, in-depth experience that is a blast to play and is stuffed full of content.
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary:
Batman: Arkham Asylum is pretty much the Batman game that fans have been waiting for, as it’s a game that’s so fantastic that fans will explode from the pure joy of it all and even non-fans can play the game and come away impressed. Between the strong script of Paul Dini, the fantastic visuals, the awesome sound composition and the stellar voice acting, the presentation of the game is absolutely stunning. The gameplay is also quite fantastic, as the combat controls are intuitive yet in-depth, the stealth mechanics are entertaining and function well, Batman’s tools are all cool and fun to play with, upgrading Batman is outstanding, and the focus on detective elements adds something to the game that it really needed to feel like a Batman game. Thanks to the multiple difficulty levels, Riddler Challenges, and Challenge Maps, one play through of the game won’t be enough to sate your urge to play, and you’ll spend a good amount of time with the game, making it well worth the investment. However, the game borrows a lot of elements from other games, the rogues gallery is surprisingly small considering how many rogues Batman actually HAS, and you’ll find that you have to spend a decent amount of time in Detective Vision instead of enjoying the visuals, but these complaints are minor and ultimately don’t detract from the experience in any notable way. The fact is that Batman: Arkham Asylum is worth its asking price, period, and anyone who likes Batman, third person action/stealth games, or having fun should pretty much run out and buy it as soon as possible.