After two decades of largely mediocre games, fans of the Dark Knight can finally rejoice as Arkham Asylum has arrived and not only does justice to the character, but is a well-crafted game in its own right. Far too many Batman games have either been one-dimensional or tried a lot of things, but didn’t do any of them well. Arkham Asylum tries many things and executes them all wonderfully.
There’s a lot of variety to the gameplay, something’s been sorely lacking in most other Batman games. If you want to beat up a lot of thugs with brute force, you can. If you’d prefer to take a stealthy approach and avoid violent confrontations whenever possible, that option is there too - and it’s a wise one early on when you don’t have many gadgets or armor upgrades. Batman’s role as a top-shelf martial artist is covered well here, as is his role as the “world’s greatest detective”, which hasn’t really been explored in a game, but is here.
The free-flowing combat system makes hand-to-hand combat a breeze, and is a joy to behold visually since it allows you to attack, seamlessly counter, then strike either the foe you countered or leap across the screen and attack someone else. It’s all quite beautiful in motion. There’s also a stun cape to distract enemies and leave them open for attack. You can also mix things up and use gadgets along with your fighting skills - so if you want to imitate Scorpion and make an enemy COME OVER HERE via the bathook and then slug him right in the face, you can.
However, fans yearning for a more cerebral approach to combat will be pleased as well. If you’d prefer to take a more stealthy route to vanquish foes, you’ve got a plethora of options available there. You can hide and just do stealth takedowns on them one-by-one, hide in crawl spaces and spring up behind enemies, hang from the many gargoyle statues in Arkham and pick up, then drop enemies, or pull them down from a high place with the battclaw. No Batman game before this has tried to do so many things and actually succeeded.
Players wanting to make use of Batman’s detective skills, something that’s never really been done to any great degree before, will be very happy. With the click press of a shoulder button, you can enter “detective mode” and search the environment for exits, hidden goodies, or items you need to progress, scope out an area to separate armed enemies from unarmed ones and better plan out your battles, and even track down people based on forensic trails like tobacco remnants or fingerprints- enabling you to find some friends or foes that you couldn’t otherwise find. It’s integrated smoothly into the game and definitely adds to the experience.
Part of AA’s game design is clearly influenced by the Metroid series - you can scan items and enemies much like the Primes, while the series’ trademark of keeping parts of the environment locked up until you acquire Item X later in the game to open it up is also there, and implemented fairly well. However, the backtracking part of that design doesn’t hold up as well since there isn’t an on-screen map during normal play - you have to bring it up manually in a separate menu, so you might get lost more here than you would in those games. Otherwise though, the Metroid-style stuff is executed wonderfully.
There’s also a bit of platforming thrown into the mix thanks to the Scarecrow’s sections, which are my favorite parts of the game because they’re so bizarre (and memorable) visually and have excellent platforming/stealth hybrid stages where you have to quickly move from object-to-object while avoiding his gave. If you fail, he’ll grab you and kill you easily since he’s about a billion feet tall in these sections and you appear to be action figure-sized by comparison. There were some of the hardest parts of the game, but also the most fun and featured some of the darkest material in the game as well. So much so that I’m surprised at just how much they got away with given its T rating.
The controls are incredibly responsive, and pretty smooth overall, but there are some minor issues with it that deserve to be addressed. Fighting is easy to do with the face buttons, although they would be a little easier if there was a targeting system in place for hand-to-hand combat. There’s one for long-range weapons, but not having one in fistfights makes them a little harder than they should be and does result in taking needless damage. Aside from that, selecting gadgets can be a bit confusing as they’re plentiful in number later on, and given their own slot on the d-pad. This doesn’t pose a problem early on when you’ve only got a few items to keep track of, but later on when you’ve got seven or eight item slots filled and need to pick a single item out to solve a problem, it becomes an issue. Other than those issues, which don’t hurt the game much overall, the controls are very responsive and will allow you to do what needs to be done with ease.
AA’s dark, often-times disturbing storyline is fantastic and easily the best one featured in a Batman game to date. I’m not too surprised by that because it was penned by Paul Dini - one of the top writers for the legendary ‘90s animated series. The story begins with the Joker being captured a bit too easily, and taking over Arkham Asylum while leading Batman on a wild goose chase to find him and resulting in Batman running across a handful of enemies - like Poison Ivy, Bane, Killer Croc, the Scarecrow, and Harley Quinn before finally doing battle with the maniacal Joker. Batman’s legendary rogues’ gallery is used wonderfully in Arkham Asylum, and it’s partly due to the addition by subtraction - instead of just trying to shoehorn in every villain on-screen for the sake of doing it, Rocksteady only put in ones that were needed for the storyline, and as a result, they’re all used really well and don’t feel squandered. The Riddler is used wonderfully off-screen as someone who antagonizes Batman and gives him optional riddles to solve and trophies to collect, while others like Two-Face and Penguin are only seen in the form of posters on the walls of some cells, which worked for me because they were nice little Easter eggs to find.
Visually, this is an amazing game in a lot of ways. The character models are incredibly detailed, wonderfully-animated, and the environments are among the creepiest I’ve seen in a game. Given that the tone of the game is so dark, it’s fitting that the world would be, and it really adds a lot of suspense to the proceedings. Nearly everything about the environment seems run down in some way, from the crumbling underground areas to the dirty and stained walls and floors of the asylum area itself. The world of Arkham Asylum comes alive due to details like that, and it makes the adventure that much more captivating.
AA’s audio is another one of its strengths. The soundtrack is a blend of orchestral and rock music that works perfectly and really adds a lot of ambiance to the game. The score is definitely feature film-quality, and would be right at home in any of the Nolan-directed Batman films, or the aforementioned ‘90s animated series. The voice acting is top-shelf and features Kevin Conroy, Mark Hammill, and Arleen Sorkin reprising their Batman: TAS roles as Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn, respectively, and just like there, they do amazing work here as well. They enhance anything they’re a part of and have fantastic chemistry together, and thankfully, they have a lot of interplay as a group in the game.
If you’ve got both the 360 and PS3 and are wondering which version is the one to get, I’d recommend the PS3 version. While this is a top-notch game no matter which system you have, the PS3 version features the Joker as a playable character in 8 challenge rooms via DLC, has a Batcave area for the PlayStation Home, gives players a slightly more zoomed-out view which makes combat easier, and has DVD-esque special features in the form of creator interviews. So while you’re not going to get a bad game on either system, your money will go a little further if you get the PS3 version.
Between the Riddler’s many puzzles, hidden question marks, freeplay mode after beating the game, and challenge modes, Arkham Asylum is a very replayable game. Certainly moreso than many third-person action/adventures. However, it is hurt a bit by the lack of a cutscene replay mode - I’ve seen them in plenty of games that really didn’t deserve having their stories told once, let alone multiple times, so it’s disappointing to see the game lack this feature. Hopefully they’re thrown in as extras on a future Batman DVD of some kind so players who want to see them again can easily do so.
While it’s slightly hurt by a few minor problems, Batman: Arkham Asylum rises above them to provide an unforgettable experience. Part of it is due to the well-crafted storyline, but it’s also due to the well-made gameplay that makes most things easy to do and certainly more than any Batman game released in the last 15 years. If you’ve been seeking a game that did justice to the character in nearly every way, this is the game for you. Even if you aren’t a fan of the character, this is still a really good third-person action/adventure in its own right, and even if you don’t get the little references thrown in, you’ll be able to recognize how good the core game is.