For as long as I can remember, Batman has always been my favorite comic-book character. Ever since reading some of Frank Miller’s work, I have been positively enraptured in the Batman mythos – the only problem is that there has never been a definitive Batman game. There have been a few scattered games worth playing on a rainy day but nothing that truly captures the character. In the beginning, I was hesitant with Arkham Asylum due to mediocre games that came before it. I can happily say that this hesitation was completely misplaced.
It all starts with the Caped Crusader bringing the Joker back to Arkham after a recent attack on the mayor’s office. Shortly after Joker is brought back in and returned to his cell, it is revealed that everything has been meticulously planned by the Joker. He springs from the cell and with the help of his henchmen and other escaped arch-criminals (Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, Victor Zsasz and Bane) gains control of the asylum. From here, Batman must put an end to the prison break and restore some sort of peace and civility.
While the story may not win any awards, it’s essentially perfect with regards to the comic-to-game medium which is no surprise since the story was written by Paul Dini, the Emmy-Award-Winning writer of Batman: The Animated Series. It does exactly what it needs to do – furthers the plot, then leads the player into the next area and gives incentive to keep progressing. What makes the story all the more interesting are the little details that are included such as the death of Batman’s parents among his other great fears that either give newcomers some back-story and veteran readers the wonderful aroma of nostalgia.
When it comes to combat, Arkham Asylum feels about as great as any game starring Batman should feel, as the “freeflow” combat system is incredibly intuitive. While it’s easy to button-mash your way through the hordes of baddies early on, you’ll have to adopt new strategies in the later levels. There’s a rhythm to it, and mastering that rhythm is the key to success. There are attack, stun and counter buttons and utilizing all of these effectively and in-tandem will help create a chain of attacks which will help gain more experience which you can use to upgrade one of the Dark Knight’s many gadgets.
Speaking of gadgets, it just wouldn’t be a proper Batman game without them. All of the main Bat-gadgets are present such as a zip-line, Batclaw, bat-a-rang and a few new editions such as an explosive gel and even an electronic code sequencer (i.e. hacking tool). The downside is that you don’t get all of these items from the start. As you traverse the asylum and enter new areas, you will uncover the rest of the weapons over the course of the game as you explore new areas.
Perhaps the most interesting tool in Batman’s arsenal is the ability to enter ‘Detective Mode’. With this on, you will be able to see the number of enemies in the area, as well as what they are armed with. Outside of combat, it also is used to figure out where the next objective is while giving you clues such as footprints or even dropped tobacco. It’s such a useful tool, though you may find yourself using it more often than not, which can cause you to miss some of the detail in the scenery.
Even though Arkham Asylum takes place primarily within the building’s grounds, that doesn’t mean that levels will get bland and repetitive. Each area of the asylum is quite different than the rest, making sure that things never get tiring or frustrating. At the end of each section, there is a boss-fight that offers a change of pace from the normal beat-em-up style of combat. While the boss fights aren’t on the level of God of War, they are a welcome addition to the level design.
Outside of the main story (which will last anywhere between six to ten hours), there are many more things to do within the asylum grounds. There are clues that The Riddler has left for you to solve, vocal recordings from many of the inmates at Arkham under psychiatric evaluation, hidden trophies and other areas of interest that are just begging to be explored. Once the main story has been completed, you can then opt to test your combat prowess and compete in Arkham Asylum’s Challenge Rooms which are a nice bonus for the veteran players that want to rack up the highest score possible.
The visual style certainly fits the Batman mythos, as every character (even ones that received a revamp) looks just gorgeous. Every level of the asylum grounds looks different and especially gloomy and dreary. This is mainly due to the history of the asylum being taken from the graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
The level of detail that is included is really where Arkham Asylum shines through. In one of my favorite details, throughout the game, Batman gets pretty roughed up and every scar and wound he receives in these cutscenes lasts until the end of the game. What started out as a very shiny and new costume looks rather beaten by the end of the day and it shows just how much Bruce really sacrifices for his role.
One of the riskier decisions that Paul Dini took was crafting this world of Batman as much a much darker portrayal than that of most Batman stories. There aren’t any sympathetic villains in this tale, as all of them are in a mental institution for the criminally insane for good reason. It’s a risk that could alienate some of the younger fans, but in the end, the risk pays off. It creates a much more mature atmosphere which increases the level of doubt that not everything will work out in the end.
Paul Dini isn’t the only person from the 1990′s animated show to make it over to Arkham Asylum. Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arlee Sorkin also return to voice their iconic characters of Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn respectively. Each of these actors seems to fit right back into their role as if the series had never ended. Thankfully, it’s not just the stars that do a good job but almost every voice is accurate and believable based on their character.
While Dini has taken a few risks with the presentation, it’s more than obvious that he has handled the source material with care. There are small tidbits hidden all over the asylum, such as Clayface trying to mimic Commissioner Gordon within his cell, or if you lose the fight with Bane, he will break Batman’s back in the same pose he did in the iconic Knightfall saga from the 1990′s. What makes this all the better is that even if you don’t full understand the details, you won’t feel left out. The references will go over your head and you’ll just continue.
Whether or not you know who Edward Nygma or Jonathan Crane are, this is simply a game that should satisfy even the most novice fans of Batman while completely winning over the fanboys.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was released on August 25th, 2009 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. This review was written retroactively based on the PS3 version.