Batman: Arkham Asylum
System: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1
Genre: Action :: Released: 25 August 2009
By Aaron Robinson
06 November 2009 — It took me a long time to warm up to the idea of Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the months leading to its release the buzz grew and grew, but I did my best to ignore all of it. I guess I just couldn't fathom a game about Batman being worth all the attention. Great games based on superheroes tend to be few and far between, and the screenshots of a gritty, over-muscled Batman didn't exactly pique my interest. But even though I wasn't excited, it seemed like everyone else was. When it was finally released, and the praise for the game kept coming strong, I started to rethink my plans and gave the game a shot.
Let me just say how glad I was to be proven wrong; I'm genuinely amazed by how much stuff there is for fans of the character. Over the course of the game you'll face several members of Batman's rogues gallery, do a bit of exploring, and find references to dozens of lesser-known DC characters. This also sees the return of a few notable voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series; both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and the Joker, respectively. They even brought on Paul Dini (a writer for BTAS and various Batman comics) as the head writer. The whole thing feels like a love letter to the character, which seems unusual for such a big-budget game. Having said all that, I don't think you have to be a fan of the character to enjoy what's offered here. The way the game handles combat, stealth, and exploration is fantastic. It really is one of the most polished games I've played in recent memory.
Surprisingly, Batman doesn't explode right out of the gate with a frantic chase scene or a vicious brawl, but eases you into the world. After a lengthy title sequence, where you control Batman as he leads The Joker back to his cell at Arkham, you're slowly introduced to the basics of gameplay. It takes a while to open up, but once it does you're pretty much free to explore. The asylum itself isn't one building, but five, spread across a fairly large island, and there's stuff hidden in almost every nook and cranny. The caveat is that you won't be able to progress to certain areas until you've obtained the necessary gadgets to reach them. If you have any familiarity with the Metroid franchise, you'll have a good idea of what to expect, as it's pretty clear that Arkham Asylum is heavily influenced by that series.
Earning new gadgets is done in two ways: some will be given to you when the story dictates, but you can improve those tools to gain new weapons via the experience you earn from combat and exploration. Combat experience is simple enough: the longer you fight through enemies without wasting moves or getting hurt, the better your experience will be. Exploration experience is a little more interesting; early in the game The Riddler delightfully hacks into your radio communicator, and spends his time taunting you, setting up riddles and challenges that you can complete at your leisure. Solving his riddles will net you experience, and occasionally unlock challenge rooms that you can access outside of the game. The whole concept feels a little silly, but it's a clever way of rewarding you for exploring the asylum, and it gives you something to do after the main game has ended.
Combat in Arkham Asylum is handled via the four face buttons. There's the standard attack, a wider-reaching stun attack, a counterattack, and a dodge maneuver. Generally, most fights boil down to using regular attacks and counters. It's only when specific enemy types pop up that countering and dodging become a necessity. Rather than involving complicated button presses, fighting is mainly based around timing. The general idea is to move freely from attack to attack. If you can keep Batman constantly fending off baddies without wasting motion or getting hit, your attacks will grow stronger, and you'll be given additional moves that you can pull off. Because of how crucial countering and dodging are, you're always given a clear indication of incoming attacks, with plenty of time to react. The attacks and counters Batman executes change depending on the position of the enemy and how well you're doing, so you'll find yourself pulling off some impressive moves without too much input.
When you come across a room of armed henchmen, you'll find that taking them head-on will result in a quick and messy death. Yep, Batman doesn't fare too well against guns, so certain areas will require you to use stealth to come out victorious. Of course, Batman doesn't have any guns of his own, so you'll need to use the environment and Batman's array of gadgets to take out the enemies one at a time. Maybe you'll take out one guy by planting explosives on a structurally weak wall, setting them off as he comes by. Or maybe you'll take out another by hiding in the grates he occasionally walks past, sneaking up behind him. It's a game that practically demands creativity, and you'll need to be creative when the enemies start wising up to what you're doing.
The thing I really liked about the stealth aspect was how the enemy AI reacted to my presence. As the game goes on, it's practically impossible to take someone out without eventually alerting his fellow henchmen, but if you have the tools, you can use them to your advantage. Once the enemies have figured out you're there, they'll start grouping together, cautiously looking around while calling out for a fight. This makes it a lot harder to take them out, but if you can set something up to target several enemies at once, you can quickly turn the tide in your favor. It's one of the few times in a stealth game that I've felt empowered, since enemies are genuinely afraid of you. If I have one complaint about the stealth sections, it's the use of stone gargoyles; their placement in the rafters acts as both a high vantage point and a quick means of escape. If an enemy spots you, just grapple onto them and keep moving around, until they eventually lose track of you. It's a gameplay mechanic that works, but it feels incredibly goofy, since there just happens to be gigantic stone gargoyles on the inside of this medical facility. I wish they could have thought of a more clever way of getting out of sight.
Of course, there's more to Batman than just knocking out bad guys. Platforming actually plays a pretty big part, since you'll need to do a lot of climbing to get to certain places within the asylum. Even though the camera and controls feel better suited to combat than exploring, they get the job done, and platforming is rarely a major challenge. At the very least it gives you a chance to utilize all the gadgets you've gained. If you ever get lost you can always turn on Detective Mode, which gives the game a sort of cel-shaded look and highlights items of importance. It even goes as far as allowing you to see enemies through walls. The only real problem with using it is that it makes it hard to tell perspective. Enemies that look like they're right around the corner might actually be much further away. Otherwise you'll be hard-pressed to find many reasons to turn it off, other than to get a clean look at the world around you.
I flip back and forth on whether or not I like the way Arkham Asylum looks. I'll say right now that the world itself is great. I had a wonderful time exploring everything, and I thought some of the building designs were fantastic. But the characters? Let's say I'm not a fan. Everyone in Arkham Asylum is ugly. For some people that works really well. For others? Not so much. There's clearly a problem when I don't want to look at Harley Quinn — who doesn't have much of a Harlequin motif going on. I think I could deal with it if the majority of the enemies weren't grossly muscled. Even Batman looks like he'd struggle to climb a flight of stairs, what with all the additional muscle mass he's carrying around. And that's a shame since I like his design otherwise, especially the costume. They even show Batman getting worn-down as the game progresses; every now and again you'll see another scratch on his suit or tear in his cape. It's a fantastic little detail they didn't need to add, but I'm glad they did.
With Paul Dini as the lead writer, I was expecting a lot from the story. But despite an awesome concept, and some really clever ideas sprinkled throughout, I thought the overall execution was a little lacking. It's hard to explain without spoiling specific details, but there's more to The Joker's takeover than meets the eye, as a mystery involving a scientist and a secret formula emerge early on. I appreciate that they gave Batman a reason to do some investigating, but I could never really get interested in it. I did enjoy Batman's interactions with the few remaining members of his rogues gallery, particularly Scarecrow. Again, it's hard to explain without spoiling things, but let's just say the Scarecrow's fear toxin is designed to mess with you as much as it is Batman. It's just a shame that the actual fights with Batman's famous foes don't quite live up to expectations. Scarecrow aside, most boss battles felt kind of uninspired and too similar.
If you couldn't tell from the mostly constant gushing, I very much enjoyed Arkham Asylum. It's one of the best single player-experiences I've had all year. It manages to balance its gameplay styles in a way that's both unique and fun, whilst still being a loving ode to the character it's designed around. If you're still unsure about picking it up, rest assured that it's a game that's earned all the praise it's been given.
Final Grade: 9/10