Having experienced the end of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Batman trilogy, it seems only fitting that we take a look at its closest peer, in terms of thematic accuracy and entertainment value: Rocksteady Studios’ Batman video game duology (thus far). And what other review could one start with but that of Arkham Asylum, the game that started all this fuss?
Arriving at a time when adaptations of comic books were at their lowest point, Arkham Asylum acted as a catharsis for the genre, setting the golden standard amidst a sea of mediocrity. It refined the conventions of action-adventure games while simultaneously translating its source material to the small screen with finesse, but what matters most is its production quality. Does it deserve the praise and comparisons to other mediums, or is its achievement blown out of proportion?
Arkham Asylum‘s story starts off as all Batman tales should: with the Caped Crusader himself escorting the captured Joker back to the infamous prison. Things soon go awry, though, as the Clown Prince of Crime breaks free once more and sends Arkham into chaos. As inmates roam freely and the Gotham City Police are overwhelmed, Batman must enter the asylum himself, fight off some of his greatest foes, and stop the Joker’s plot before time runs out.
On paper, it sounds like a traditional comic book story, but the way it plays out is actually quite exceptional. The writing is top-notch, the pacing is effective in keeping the story tight yet flowing, and the plot itself treats its audience with respect by never delving into material that it can’t handle and utilizing the six key rogues featured here in the best manner (classic characters like Bane, Poison Ivy, and Killer Croc certainly make an impression). Some mature themes, such as death and psychology, are explored in great depth here and there were certainly a few set-pieces that are quite poignant and build up suspense, such as a scene where Batman, under influence by Scarecrow’s hallucinogens, relives his most painful memories. Save for the somewhat lackluster finale, this tale definitely honours its source material with great ease.
Moving onto its gameplay, Arkham Asylum is an interesting creature. It draws from various contemporaries, most notably Castlevania and combo-based fighters, yet it mixes them together and stylizes them in a manner befitting of Batman’s legacy. There are elements of numerous genres in here, and for the most part, they blend well together.
Much of the game will be spent moving through different areas in the asylum. As you progress through the story, you will be able to access new wings of the prison, usually by means of a new gadget. Classic items, like the grappling hook and the Batarang, are accounted for, along with some new additions like Explosive Gel to expand Batman’s inventory and make him a formidable foe.
On that note, the combat is definitely a step in the right direction, honouring the Dark Knight’s code of non-lethal violence while being generally accessible. This system, referred to as “Freeflow” combat, consists of four buttons – attack, counter, stun and dodge – and while it seems simplistic and a little clunky during some fights, it can eventually be used to move from one enemy to the next seemlessly. Also, Batman utilizes numerous contextual takedown that are both brutal and amazing to witness.
Some occasions will pit Batman against firearm-wielding foes, leading to the excellent stealth portions of the gameplay. The player moves across closed, but highly interactive rooms, swinging from ledge to ledge, gliding with the cape, and using the aforementioned gadgets and takedown moves to neutralize enemies. Facing enemies head-on in these moments can lead to quick deaths, so as to emphasize strategic play, and this is a welcome feature.
An important aspect of Batman’s nature is his adept crime-solving abilities, and while not the focal point, the World’s Greatest Detective does get opportunities to flex his mental muscles. At various points in the story, Batman will be prompted to activate his suit’s “Detective Mode”, acting as an alternative form of vision that allows him to spot key environmental details. The only downside is that many interactive elements, including collectables, can only be spotted with Detective Mode on, so the player will likely spend large portions of the game using it.
Not that this is entirely bad, as the collectables provide much of the game’s depth. Acting as a side influence, special trophies and clever referential riddles (usually containing nods to the continuity or absent villains) have been hidden by the Riddler in every area and building, giving more reasons to backtrack. When found, these unlock various stealth and combat challenges that have set bonus objectives, score multipliers and online leaderboards for the sake of competition (PS3 owners can play some maps as the Joker, with his own set of gadgets and abilities), as well as character bios and statues in the main menu. In addition, Batman can find special taped recordings of his various adversaries, fleshing out the backstory to the game as well as providing insight into the villains themselves and amusing the player.
There is a lot of value packed into this title, and very little to criticize. The aforementioned necessity of the intrusive Detective Mode and the occasional hit-and-miss nature of the combat (no pun intended) aside, there seems to be little variety in enemy types and the boss battles are interesting in set-up but merely adequate in execution, with few clever uses of gadgets or Batman’s intuitive skills.
As a current generation game, Arkham Asylum is quite impressive in the visual department. Its environments are detailed and colourful, the character models equally so, and the atmosphere is appropriately dark and brooding, while still retaining the likeable nature of the comic books. There are instances of pop-in and blurriness, and characters seem a bit distorted when talking, but nothing truly detracts from the game.
Special praise is definitely warranted for the sound design, as it adds greatly to the experience. Though the soundtrack is quite contextual and subdued at times, it provides an extra amount of tension in certain story moments. The voice work is just as admirable, considering that many actors from Batman: The Animated Series returned to reprise their roles. The two standout performances came from Kevin Conroy, who perfectly channels Batman, and Mark Hamill as the charismatically psychotic Joker.
When all is said and done, this is the game that Batman fans have been waiting for. Is it better than the films? In some aspects, yes; this medium allows Rocksteady to do things with the franchise that Nolan cannot, and vice versa. That is not to say that it is not equal to the films, because Arkham Asylum truly stands as a tightly-packed and well-rounded package that is worth the purchase price. It is not a stretch to call this the greatest comic book game of all time – but then again, there is Arkham City…
To be continued…