Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, BATMAN! Who doesn’t know the Caped Crusader? The World’s Greatest Detective? The Dark Knight? Batman is arguably the most popular and well known superhero in the civilized world. With various comic books, toys, TV shows, and of course, movies, it was obvious that the character would make its way into the realm of video games. Some of them are pretty good, such as Batman: The Videogame, Batman Returns, and LEGO Batman. However, most of them are terrible, such as Batman Forever, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and Batman Vengeance. So expectations were not high for Batman: Arkham Asylum when it was announced. Thankfully, not only does Arkham Asylum surpass expectations, it reinvents them.
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC (reviewed), Mac
Release Date: 2009-08-25 (PS3, 360), 2009-09-15 (PC), 2011-11-03 (Mac)
When Arkham Asylum was first released, I didn’t think anything of it. I heard the buzz about the game and decided to try the demo on the Xbox 360. I was unimpressed and moved on, forgetting about it until a couple of years later when I picked it up on PC during a Steam sale. Sitting down and actually giving it a fair try found me completely engrossed in the game and I played it throughout the night and into the morning. Even after I tried to go to bed, I ended up getting up and playing it more until I finally passed out. I’ve returned and played the game numerous times on the PC and now the PlayStation 3 and I never, ever get tired of it. Everything from the presentation to the gameplay to the feel of the game is immaculate.
To start with, the story is simple to understand while remaining true to the Batman lore and having details that fans of the Dark Knight can appreciate. After escaping from Arkham Asylum several weeks earlier, the game begins with Batman bringing the Joker back into custody after a failed attack on Gotham City Hall. Since Joker has been on the loose, there has also been a mysterious fire at Blackgate Penitentiary that resulted in many of Joker’s incarcerated henchmen being transferred over to Arkham Asylum. Batman, suspicious of Joker’s intentions since he barely put up a fight at City Hall, decides to accompany Joker and the guards at Arkham Asylum to make sure he is properly detained.
Batman’s suspicions are realized when Joker breaks free and with the help of Harley Quinn, who has infiltrated the asylum, releases all his henchmen to help him take over the asylum and the other facilities on the island. It soon becomes clear that Joker has been planning this trap for the Dark Knight since before he escaped Arkham Asylum originally. Batman now needs to regain control of the island, save any employees of the asylum he can, and discover what Joker’s true intensions are and stop him. As the story progresses, Joker will spring new challenges and foes on Batman, some of which are other inmates in Arkham Asylum as well as other well known villains in Batman’s rogues gallery.
Written by acclaimed Batman writer Paul Dini, Arkham Asylum’s story is more on the dark side of the Caped Crusader’s lore, though I would say that it’s more lighthearted than the Christopher Nolan films. Guards and doctors die, though we never graphically see their deaths, and characters will occasionally throw out ‘bitch’ and ‘hell’ into their dialogue. However, there are obvious unrealistic plot points and some faux scientific elements that keep the story from feeling completely serious. The dialogue is also relatively fun, with little dramatic gravitas to it, even in the game’s more cerebral sections. That’s not to say that the dialogue is bad or campy. All the voice acting is engaging to listen to and you can tell the actors had fun with the material. They have great chemistry together, which isn’t surprising as the voice actors for Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn previously worked together on Batman: The Animated Series.
The plot progresses much like any Batman story would with typical superhero story beats and grandiose revelations. This makes the overall story easy to follow for someone who is not acclimated to The Dark Knight. The inmates are now in control of the asylum and you, as the good guy, need to stop them. However, fans of the character will be delighted by details sprinkled throughout, such as the backstories told in interview reels strewn across the island, various items that references previous stories, and the familiarity the characters have with each other. The story unfolds at a brisk but even pace, never overwhelming you or leaving you with droughts of information and always keeping you engrossed with new objectives to complete. Only the ending unfortunately winds up feeling abrupt and a bit unoriginal, though it is nevertheless entertaining and sensible.
All of this is presented with a complementary dark macabre look that makes use of muted shades of blues and greens. Arkham Island feels oppressive and bleak while also having a gothic and matured beauty to it, especially in the pale moonlight that showers the asylum grounds. Even the technology present around the island is displayed with dull grays, and non-florescent colors, making it feel natural to its venerable home. Character models are beautifully created to suit each personality, from Batman’s stern determination to Joker’s depraved but comical demeanor. They all feel designed to complement the world around them. Batman feels strangely in home with his black and grey suit while Joker feels unnatural, with his bright green hair and purple suit clashing with his surroundings.
Technically, the game looks impressive, even six years after its release. Even the game’s cutscenes only look marginally better than the actual game engine. Textures are for the most part detailed, and animations are fluid, save for some odd transitions during combat that pop up at times. Lip syncing, however, is not well done, with character mouths frequently being completely off with the dialogue and only occasionally looking accurate. The game looks even better on PC, which can run at a higher resolution than on PlayStation 3 and at 60 frames per second or more. PC graphic options are also fairly robust, allowing for a lot of customization for various rigs. However, I did occasionally suffer from frame drops on PC where I didn’t on PS3 and I’m running an i3 2105 with a GeForce GTX 550 Ti and 8GB of DDR3 RAM. The PC port is the best version of the game, but the PS3 version is still a comparable release.
Audio is arguably the weakest aspect of Arkham Asylum, not because it’s subpar but because it isn’t stellar compared to the rest of the game. The game’s soundtrack is used sparingly and while the compositions are well done, there’s nothing memorable to speak of. It serves its purpose as background music and nothing more. Sound effects are a bit hit and miss, as landing critical hits in battle sounds bone-crushing and effective while normal hits sound like the Caped Crusader is slapping foes instead of punching them. Elsewhere, tech effects such as Batman’s detective mode or the various barricades in the game have appropriate sounds as do other more natural sounds but like the music fade into the background.
There have been a lot of Batman video games over the years. However, none of these games truly depict The Dark Knight in an accurate way, instead choosing to mold him to various popular video game genres such as Brawlers, Platformers, and even Fighting games. Arkham Asylum changes that by incorporating The Caped Crusader’s numerous gadgets, detective skills, stealth capabilities, and hand-to-hand combat prowess, making it the first real game that truly has you play as Batman. And that’s no exaggeration either. The Dark Knight controls like you imagine a big man like him would. He commits to all of his actions and, as a result, sometimes feel stiff on foot. There will be times you wish he were a bit more fluid but that’s not to say that controls aren’t responsive. They are; they just take a bit to get used to. Batman does feel more nimble when you’re crouch walking and the camera pans out when you do so you might find yourself getting around like this a lot.
To the point of getting around, Arkham Island is fairly expansive with numerous buildings to explore as well as the asylum grounds themselves. They vary from medical facilities and holding cells to greenhouses and sprawling mansions. While there is no fast travel to get around the island, backtracking is kept to a minimum in the story and it’s not so big that it takes too long to get from point A to B. Gadgets, like your grapple gun and, later on, line launcher, also help make getting around quicker.
Speaking of gadgets, you’ll unlock new gadgets as you go through the story. Each time you unlock one, it typically will allow you to explore a previously inaccessible portion of the island. However, with a few exceptions, many of the gadgets can also be used in combat, preventing them from being purely situational. Using Batman’s various gadgets on the fly quickly becomes second nature, thanks to the quick gadget menu and the shortcut inputs for Batarangs and the Batclaw. The gadgets really make exploring Arkham Island a blast, and you’ll soon be pulling down vents, blasting walls, and zipping around with ease.
But why would you explore the island? For the optional 240 Riddler challenges littered around the island, the game’s sole side mission. They include trophies, maps, and the aforementioned interview reels to collect, visual riddles and stone tablets to scan, and Joker teeth to destroy. You’ll really have to look around and think to find and solve these riddles but they are never prohibitively difficult. There’s a real feeling of accomplishment as you complete challenges, especially the riddles. It’s especially rewarding to hear the Riddler, who at the start mocked you for taking so long to solve the challenges, starts to become more angry as you go.
The way you scan riddles and tablets is with Batman’s detective vision. This visual filter allows you to see enemies through walls, highlight items of interest, search for clues and more. This is to replicate Batman’s detective prowess and it definitely gives you an advantage over the various thugs you encounter and situations you’ll be in. In fact, it’s so powerful that it could be argued that it’s too powerful and makes the game too easy. To an extent, that’s true. The actual detective sections of the game are fairly basic and, though enjoyable, doesn’t really require any deductive skill on your part. Arkham Asylum is not a difficult game (on standard difficulty) and it can mostly be attributed to the detective vision. However, it never detracted from my enjoyment of the game because the game is more based on options rather than challenge. It’s not about adapting to a situation due to a lack of information but having all the information and then planning how to tackle the situation with the options present.
The best example of this is the stealth sections in the game. The Dark Knight will go down pretty quickly if shot and Joker’s henchmen often carry guns so the best way to take them out is stealthily. Batman can hide under floor gates, up on gargoyle statues, in vents, on higher ground, in hidden areas and more. Using the detective vision allows you to see where the thugs are while hidden as well as other information allowing you to plan how to take them out. It’s usually a matter of taking one thug out and then escaping before the other thugs discover your location. This is the most enjoyable part of the game as each stealth area has multiple options for you to use. You could hang a thug from a gargoyle or blow up a wall by them or sneak up behind them and choke them out or dive kick them from above. What’s more, the enemy AI is smart enough to change movement patters and react to your actions. It’s invigorating, clever, and so much fun to clear a room without being discovered.
Of course, there will be times where you’ll need to fight and Arkham Asylum’s combat system allows for many options as well. In addition to punching and kicking, the Dark Knight can use Batarangs and the Batclaw to disable enemies, his cape to stun foes, dodging to evade attacks, vaulting over enemies to disposition them, and counters to stop attacks. Some gadgets can also be used as a trap during combat, though it’s not very practical. Enemies will sometimes have different weapons that will require you to use one of the aforementioned abilities above, preventing you from button mashing. Not that you would want to as synchronized attacks lead to critical hits which do more damage and counts as two hits on your combo meter. Speaking of which, as you hit enemies without being hit or without a break in inputting commands, a combo meter will build up. Building it up to eight allows you to use special hold attacks that do massive damage or instantly knock out a thug. Non-physical attacks, such as dodging or the Batclaw, won’t add to your combo but won’t drop it either.
All of this makes for a robust combat system that offers plenty of possibilities and enough variety so fights don’t become rudimentary. However, the combat is the one gameplay aspect of the game that has the most flaws. First off, you typically have so many enemies against you that it can sometimes be hard to see where Batman is. This is especially a problem on hard difficulty, as the indicator that Batman is being attacked is disabled. Secondly, while the camera is typically fine throughout the rest of the game, in combat it can get caught behind walls or tight corners at times, which can be frustrating. The biggest issue however is the overly long animations. Sometimes Batman will attack a foe with an overly long attack animation. If that enemy is already attacking, you will almost always get hit. There’s no way to pick between quick or long attacks and it can really piss you off when your combo is dropped because the Caped Crusader decided to get fancy.
At certain points in the game, you’ll have boss fights, typically against various super villains in Batman’s rogue gallery. Unfortunately, these often range from decent to middling as they often resemble normal fights, which is all the more apparent as you frequently have to deal with henchmen during the fight. However, what they lack in originality they make up for in consistency. They do resemble standard fights in the game but are never worse than them and I still had fun with all the boss encounters, especially with one towards the end of the game. It’s a testament to how enjoyable the combat system is, despite its issues.
As you play the game, you’ll earn experience points by completing Riddler challenges, taking out thugs stealthily, performing varied and high combos in combat or completing major story events. These experience points, when enough is accumulated, reward you with an upgrade of your choosing. These include more health, gadget improvements, additional optional gadgets, and more. A majority of these upgrades will be useful to you and some, like the inverted takedown, are essential. You’ll start to plan what upgrades you’ll get next according to how you like to play the game. However, others are pointless. I’ve played this game numerous times and I’ve never found a situation where the remote controlled Batarang is the best answer.
Well, actually, there is one time where it’s useful: the challenge maps. Outside of the game’s main story are challenge maps which has Batman (or Joker if you have the PS3 or PC version) go through combat and stealth challenge for rankings. Aside from achievements or trophies, these are optional tasks that do provide a good challenge. I really enjoyed the stealth as it emphasizes taking thugs out in a variety of ways. The combat challenges not so much. The combat challenges are point based but don’t reward you enough for variety. Instead, the best way to complete these challenges is to ground takedown everyone, as it gives you an more points than anything else. This is the hardest part of the game and I raged hard at a lot of them. It’s the one aspect of this game I actually genuinely dislike as variety is completely thrown out the window
Batman: Arkham Asylum is not a perfect game. With as much as I love this game, I can see the flaws that it has. However, most of them are nitpicking and never did it hamper my enjoyment of the game (except for the combat challenges). Clocking in at around 12 hours, more if you decide to complete the Riddler challenges, this game not only never under or overstays its welcome. If anything, it welcomes multiple playthroughs with polished and varied gameplay, a dark yet fun story, and beautiful and detailed visuals. Arkham Asylum is one of the greatest video games I’ve ever played and is definitely the greatest superhero game ever. I encourage everyone, whether you’re a fan of Batman or not, to give this game a chance. You won’t regret it.