Not the most eloquent thought, but there it was in all its unshakable glory as it kept racing through my head while I was playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. Rocksteady’s take on the Caped Crusader not only faithfully emulates and represents its subject matter — it practically bleeds it. Many hero games promise to “immerse” you in a character’s world, but this is one of the few that actually pulls it off.
One of the reasons Batman stands apart from so many other superheroes is because we think he is one of us. He wasn’t blessed with the ability to fly, or with claws coming out of his hands — his defining trait is a tragic memory which he has used as the driving force behind everything he does. He’s trained his body and his mind to their absolute peak, and the result is, really, our very own American ninja.
Devout fans of the comic mythos already know this, but for the masses who know Batman though mostly movies, games and television shows over the years, you can find more than a few mixed signals. That’s led to confusion, and the result is a range of work that paints Batman with various brushes: He was a campy detective (the early ’60s show), a brooding, silent crimefighter fighting a circus of crime (the Tim Burton movies) and in the best examples, the ultimate badass with a brain. He would be noble enough to support wholeheartedly, but also have enough edge to satisfy any darker needs we have for our heroes. In other words, Batman has way of making us feel that a simple beatdown of a serial rapist and killer is enough.
To me, the bodies of work that best emulate the ideal are Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And now, I want to add Batman: Arkham Asylum to the list.
The animated series featured a spirit of fantasy and creativity, featuring the entire spectrum of enemies in the Batman universe. On the other hand, the Christian Bale movies focused more on the power of the characters, along with cutting viewers with the kind of edginess one needs to feel to relate to some of the dark places Batman/Bruce Wayne visits in his own head.
Batman: Arkham Asylum felt like a fusion of Batman’s best, providing room for the fantastic while letting its inherently dark nature shield the experience from the pitfalls of other hero games. It’s a powerful, chilling trek through a piece of Batman lore, one that both fans and neophytes should appreciate.
The story isn’t too complicated. Batman brings his longtime nemesis, The Joker, back to Arkham Asylum. However, Batman’s a little worried that he caught Joker a little too easily, so he sticks around to see he gets locked up. Of course, the Joker manages to break free, take control of Arkham (and its plethora of freaks), and start Batman on yet another quest to stop him. It’s a quest that takes him to every facet of the island the asylum rests upon, and it’s in the exploration where most of the magic occurs.
This is an Unreal engine-powered game, which opens the door for some scary good artistic work. Rocksteady (the developers), have turned Arkham into a place with a twisted life of its own, warped by years of housing not only the nuttiest of nutballs, but also some of the people assigned to try and keep them in line – for example, you’ll find out that Amadeus Arkham, the guy who built the place, wasn’t right in the head himself. The island features a mansion, an intensive treatment facility, botanical gardens, a medical facility and a penitentiary. These are all places that have a kind of foreboding, evil charm to them, and the whole asylum feels more like a prison colony than a place of care.
Much of the credit should go to the level design. The island features a nexus point in the middle of the island where a player can freely travel from area to area to explore or find clues. Each place has its own atmosphere. Some can be quite beautiful and flush with color and detail, like the botanical gardens, which are littered with statues. Other places are a little frightening, such as the penitentiary, which features – among other things – electrical floors designed to neutralize wayward inmates. And if you don’t think those come into play at some point in the game — well, you probably haven’t played enough games. Also stunning was the lair of Killer Croc, whose prison is actually an old sewer system separated from the rest of the facility.
Speaking of wayward inmates, the game gives artistic nods to many of the characters you don’t actually get to encounter in Arkham. There’s an empty cell littered with calendar dates, in reference to the lesser-known Calendar Man. There’s also a more elaborate closed chamber elsewhere in the asylum that’s teeming with ice and large icicles, no doubt the place where Mr. Freeze resides. In many ways, the game functions as a Batman Hall of Fame, as you’ll see allusions to characters ranging from The Penguin (a stack of umbrellas encased in glass) to Catwoman (clawed gloves and cat-like specs also in a glass case).
The denizens you do encounter are interesting enough. Aside from the always-entertaining Joker, you’ll also run into Harley Quinn, Bane, Poison Ivy and Killer Croc. The stellar design of the character models helps the game to forge its own identity in the Batman universe. Batman’s suit, with its seams, holes and hints of armor gives you the impression that he’s long past wearing cloth. This being the game world, you’ll also notice much sexier versions of Harley and Ivy than you might be used to, especially if you’ve only watched the animated series. Adding to the visual dimensions of the characters are their voices, done by the same actors who did the work for the animated series. That means yes, Mark Hamill is voicing The Joker. He’s especially good in this game, as if he had some residual energy left over from the animated series and was waiting for a place to spill it.
Not to be overshadowed, of course, is Batman himself, who serves as the epicenter for a lot of outstanding gameplay elements.
The first is his combat, which essentially breaks down into two buttons. One strikes, and the other counters. Aesthetically, Batman’s an extremely efficient and powerful fighter, and fighting groups of 15 to 20 guys is reminiscent of the old-school beat-em-ups of the ’80s. The game supplies plenty of food for Batman’s fists, as the Joker had an army of goons from Blackgate Prison imported into the asylum.
Especially fun to watch is how Batman counters an opponent’s strikes. Instead of herky-jerky, repetitive animations, Batman is able to counter almost any blow from almost any body position. It’s seamless, and it just seems right that Batman would be able to fight this way. Once again, so Batman.
However, a lot of these thugs are packing heat, so Batman also needs to utilize his considerable skills of stealth. The games asks Batman to essentially hunt down everyone in the room, and it gives him plenty of options to do so. The most obvious way would be to perch on an array of stone gargoyles, read where the guards are going, and figure out how to take them out one-by-one. You can snatch one up as he passes underneath. If you’re on top of a glass ceiling and some unfortunate sap is below you, Batman can get the literal drop on him. You can blow up walls next to certain guards, use the Batarang to knock someone down and create a distraction, or you can “glide kick” an isolated enemy who has his back turned.
This system of fighting deftly turns each room full of armed guards into a puzzle of its own. It also enables the player to get a little creative, as he or she can use ventilation shafts and passageways under floors to move unseen. Adding to the fun is that the guards get more freaked out when they start realizing their numbers are dropping. They’ll start firing blindly, yelling for Batman to show himself, or pair up with each other and move back-to-back. This is a different dimension of stealth gameplay that what we’ve seen out of other games such as Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid. The guards have a tangible fear of the unknown, something that adds a sense of empowerment to a hiding player. It’s like Sean Connery’s line in the movie “Rising Sun” — you’re not running, you’re eluding.
Batman’s gadgets do a fun job of making sure there are few things the Dark Knight can’t figure out. His cowl is loaded with goodies, such as the “detective mode” vision, which puts the screen in a blue haze and highlights anything interesting in the room, such as vent shafts, gargoyles or power boxes that can be shut down. Batman also uses the cowl to detect traces left behind by people of interest, such as fingerprints, blood or tobacco fumes. It’s a very smart nod to Batman’s rep as the world’s greatest detective, and the game is rife with chances for him to flex his mental muscles.
He’s also got a lot of other upgradable goodies in addition to his trusty grappling hook and Batarangs. He’s got explosive gel, which he can plant and remotely detonate. He’s also got a Batclaw, which can be used to grab anything from bad guys to breakable walls. He’s also got a gadget that shoots out a portable zipline, which he can use to zoom across large chasms. The Batmobile and Batwing also make their appearance, along with something else that I dare not spoil here. I’ll tell you this … it made me shake my head and think, “Of course, Batman would think to do this.”
However, Batman probably also would have imagined more confrontations with some of his deadliest enemies. There’s not much in the way of boss fights, though the mind-bending confrontations with The Scarecrow are brilliant. He is legitimately scary, and the game is pitch perfect in playing on Batman’s fears as well as just fear imagery in general. Without spoiling too much, the Scarecrow brings Batman into his own personal hell, and it’s up to Batman to fight his way out of insanity.
The other confrontations are a bit lacking, with a couple of them consisting of beating up a small army of thugs while the villain of the hour watches and taunts. That’s fun in its own way, but also a little bit of a buzzkill. Actual fights with the supervillains proved to be a little easy on normal difficulty settings.
Other issues I had with the game involve a overwhelming sense of convenience. Anytime I was stuck, there always seemed to be the perfect vent shaft that led right to where I wanted to go. I’m not saying Arkham needed to be a sudden madhouse of puzzles and keys like Resident Evil, but a changeup now and then wouldn’t have hurt.
Some might also have the problem that you don’t get to drive the Batmobile in the game. My initial reaction was disappointment, but think about this … he’s on a small island. Where’s he going to go? Also, do we really need ANOTHER Batmobile driving scene where you fire missiles at a fleet of criminal-loaded cars? I didn’t, so I’m glad it wasn’t forced on us.
This is by far my favorite Batman game of all time, and easily the best one we’ve seen on contemporary consoles. It’s got everything you would want as a fan, and it’s the most faithful representation of the character I’ve seen on the gaming front. Put simply … it’s Batman.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Rocksteady/Eidos/Warner Bros. Interactive
Rated T for Teen
PS3, Xbox 360