Stop a gallery of Batman’s greatest villains from taking over the madhouse.
PC Release: August 25th, 2009
By Ian Coppock
With Batman: Arkham Knight coming out exactly twenty days from this evening, I checked through the Art as Games portfolio and made the shocking discovery that I’ve not yet reviewed the Batman: Arkham games. Because Arkham Knight comes out in less than three weeks, and because I believe every sane person should be prepared to at least try it, we’re going to take the next few weeks and just hammer through the Arkham catalog. This period will also encompass my latest attempt at consistent blogging, and with any luck, I can keep real life at bay this time.
Like most video games that borrow their licenses from film and comic books, the Batman property just sort of lagged in the interactivity department. It wasn’t until the release of this game that the property received serious attention as a video game medium, and with damn good reason, because it’s a damn good game. Arkham Asylum lets players step into the boots of the Dark Knight himself, and opens with him having just captured the Joker.
But, as one might expect, this is all part of an elaborate Joker scheme. He turns the tables on a routine deposit into the looney bin, and Batman quickly finds himself on the wrong end of the asylum’s security systems. With a certified maniac running the madhouse and letting the entirety of Batman’s rogue’s gallery steal into the night, the Caped Crusader steels himself for what will surely be a crazy, crazy evening. As Batman, players will have to utilize all of the character’s tools, tricks, and his keen intelligence in order to survive.
The first thing that makes Arkham Asylum so likeable is its fealty to the source material. Arkham Asylum establishes itself in the long-running comic book mythos, and draws from that rich body of fiction in its portrayal of locations and characters. Developer Rocksteady created a vibrant world that strikes that rare balance between doing its own thing and giving respect to the media from whence it came. The studio had the opportunity to work with veteran Batman writer Paul Dini in creating the game, which further explains its adherence to the comics. Because of its proximity to the release of The Dark Knight, I initially feared that this was another mediocre movie tie-in. Not so.
If a licensed game actually manages to not defecate all over its source material, then of course the sword it will fall on is its gameplay? Again, not true here. Batman is controlled from a third-person perspective, and smoother third-person gameplay is hard to find. Arkham Asylum emphasizes stealth over brute force, though as the world’s foremost martial arts expert, you’ll be executing plenty of brute force. The one caveat with Batman’s movement mechanics is that you have to hold down a button to run; why not just tilt the joystick a bit to run so that you could use that button for another maneuver?
Arkham Asylum introduces the free-flow combat system, a melee combat mechanic that is the stuff of Arkham legend, and it has since been copied by many other games, including Sleeping Dogs and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. In Arkham Asylum, Batman finds himself up against armies of angry crazies, and this system allows you to effortlessly switch between different baddies and string up huge combos. I don’t really care about combos. Or at least I didn’t, until I played this game. You can smoothly beat the living crap out of one guy, dodge another’s kick, and smash the third guy’s baseball bat right into his ugly face.
The other type of gameplay Batman will engage in is a room-sized challenge in which you have to silently dispatch of armed thugs. Not even Batman’s suit can stand up to heavy gunfire, so you have to sneak around, swing between beams, and silently take down your foes. If you’re a hardcore stealth fanatic like me, these sequences will speak to you on a fundamental level. Even if they do get a bit repetitive, there’s something deeply satisfying about taking out one guy at a time, until only a single, terrified enemy remains.
Between mopping the floor with maniacs and taking them down from above, the game includes mechanics alluding to Batman’s background as a detective. Players will set up crime scenes, isolate forensic trails and conduct other investigations all over the island. This stops Arkham Asylum from being completely focused on combat, and adds more varied gameplay to keep things interesting. Some of your gadgets, like the decryption device, reflect Batman’s nickname of The World’s Greatest Detective.
Arkham Asylum has passed the first license test by not being shit with its source material, and the second by including decent game mechanics. No bugs so far, either. What, then, of the plot? Does this game pack a story worthy of the Golden Age, of Alan Moore, of the great writers who’ve had the privilege of writing in the DC world? Well, yes, it does. Not in a problem-free manner, but yes it does.
To reinforce the atmosphere in the game, Rocksteady brought legendary voice artists Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill aboard to voice Batman and Joker, respectively. Both actors voiced those characters in the Batman animated series from the 1990s. Bringing in such big-name voice talent means that the game largely avoids the pain of bad voice acting, but the writing is occasionally cliche, like on I AM THE KNIGHT levels.
The basic gist of the story, aside from Batman being trapped inside the Asylum, is that the Joker is up to something pretty damn nasty. And in the process, he’s either released or recruited a number of famous Batman villains. You’ll find yourself going up against the brutal Killer Croc, the psychotic Harley Quinn, the terrifying Scarecrow, and several others scattered about the asylum’s island. Though the encounters are mostly linear in their sequence, each one plays by vastly different rules. Scarecrow’s encounters deal with navigating terrifying hallucinations, while success against Croc is pinned on your stealth abilities. This is no list of boss fights, and each one packs as much backstory as bite. It also changes the gameplay up constantly, which keeps the game interesting.
As is often the case with the Batman property, the most boring character in the production is Batman himself. There’s very little character development or deviation from anything other than “I’m a smart, sexy, unstoppable bat-person”, and that gets old pretty quickly. Batman is even condescending toward his allies, at times, seemingly saying “well, duh”, to certain situations. I guess that’s part of the character’s style, but only a few times do we see the Dark Knight anything other than completely calm and self-assured.
Mark Hamill provides a chilling and hilarious portrait of the Joker, since that’s what he spent a good chunk of the 90s doing. Other characters follow an interesting if somewhat routine formula of harboring a grudge against Batman, and then acting upon those grudges with murderous zeal. One of my favorite parts of the game’s writing was the Joker’s surreal PSAs, which contain everything from fire advice to threats against under-performing “employees”. The Dark Knight trilogy-esque music rounds out this atmosphere.
As I mentioned up top, the artwork is noteworthy for its fealty to Batman and in its own right as a dark environment. Arkham Asylum is meticulously detailed to feel absolutely miserable, and even the natural parts of the island give off a sickly vibe. Rocksteady’s artists also managed to juxtapose props and design elements from many different eras. It’s impossible to tell if this game took place twenty years ago or twenty years into the future. You’ll navigate cold morgues, bloodstained surgical theaters, and other sights that still haunt me a little bit.
I feel compelled to do little more than add to the chorus of voices cheering what an amazing game this is, but even a game this solid has its problems. The main mechanical issue is that Detective Mode can be used to make Arkham Asylum too easy. It allows you to see into far distances and measure the precise location of every person in every environment at all times. You can play the entire game without turning it off once (except maybe in the Scarecrow bits) and the game will be much easier for it.
The other stuff deals mostly with character issues and sexualization, particularly that of Poison Ivy. You have to fight her toward the end of the game, and her audio for that encounter is ridiculous. You could put the audio from that boss fight right next to the audio from an adult movie and not be able to tell the difference. Except for hopefully the squelching sounds.
As with every Batman property, Arkham Asylum has a theme: don’t go as batshit nuts as your enemies. Batman constantly has to resist taking the easy way out of a situation or going literally mad himself in order to survive the events of this game. Arkham Asylum takes place in a single night, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to do outside of the story. You can traverse the island searching for the Riddler’s hidden trophies (yawn) or unlock dozens of references to Batman villains and other lore (ooooh!).
In short, it’s a satisfying game. It doesn’t hit every note, but it hits enough of them to make an enjoyable production. Gamers will appreciate its dark narrative and innovative combat, and the feeling that you are the Batman. Pick it up next time you’re on Steam.
You can buy Batman: Arkham Asylum here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.