Batman is something of an enigma. He works really well in comic book form, but generally when his world is brought to life in other mediums it is, at best, hit or miss. The campy 60s television show, the later Tim Burton films, the god awful Joel Schumacher films, the successful animated series, all the way up to the recent feature films of The Dark Knight series all highlight that point.
Interspersed within this roller coaster of success and question marks, video games have cemented themselves as Batman’s greatest enemy. None of the games based on the animated series or the feature films have ever captured the meaning of being Batman. Most of the time, they only tried to cash in on whatever successful video game trend was happening. It’s been a long time coming for Batman to have a video game that is even remotely enjoyable. After all, Spider-Man has a couple, so why not The Dark Knight?
The story of Arkham Asylum won’t turn over any new leaves in the world of Batman; however, this is part of the magic and skill Paul Dini brings to writing The Caped Crusader. As most know, Dini is one of the creative forces behind the Batman: The Animated Series from the 90s. Thanks to him and several others, we were able to wash the bad taste of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin out of our mouths. At least Batman was good on television. This is no different.
The premise is simple: The Joker is causing trouble, and Batman captures him without much of a struggle. But once he’s back at Arkham Asylum, all hell breaks loose – Joker style. With the help of Harley Quinn and a few of Arkham’s finest resident rogues, the fabled Asylum is overrun by the inmates. It’s up to Batman to bring The Joker down and put everyone back where they belong. The basic plot doesn’t really stray too far from that. What happens in between the main arc is where the art of story-telling really takes shape. For instance, you’ll learn more about the characters you are facing and their “reasons for madness” unlike you have before in this medium.
One of the ways this is excellently conveyed is by the voice talent in the game. Kevin Conroy has been Batman longer than anyone else in Tinseltown, and it is preserved here. He brings back the graveled-voiced Batman, rather than sticking to the throat cancer growling that has become associated with Batman since his portrayal in the recent feature films. You can understand everything he has to say, and it makes the story and banter between he and The Joker that much better. Speaking of The Joker, Mark Hamill reprises his role as The Clown Prince to perfection. It’s been a while since people have heard Mark’s Joker, but no one can deny that his portrayal is the best by far from any actor to every portray him (sorry Mr. Ledger). The maniacal laughter alone should win him an Oscar. The voice work is superb from everyone involved, and having a few of the animated series actors and actresses, most notably Arleen Sorkin for Harley Quinn, return to their roles adds a certain fandom layer to the dialogue of the game. Additionally, the creepy themes established by the score fit the atmosphere and action nicely.
Just like the mood set by the orchestral track in the background drives home the eerie presentation of Arkham Asylum, the visuals are also amazing. This game is a beautiful. The character models standout out as the comic book characters we have come to know and love, but they never reach past the fourth wall of unbelievable (well except for maybe Batman’s arms, which are bigger than the Governator’s, but you can dismiss that). While I have been on the fence more than once with how a couple of the characters look in this game compared to how they normally look, their redesign seems to fit in better with the surrounding Arkham, especially Harley Quinn. When her new costume was first revealed, I doubted the reasoning in her redesign. But once you are in the world of Arkham Asylum, it makes sense.
None of the story, graphics, or voice talent would matter if the gameplay was not there. Thankfully, my doubts about the gameplay are no longer present. Arkham Asylum has one of the best combat systems I have ever played. Rocksteady named it FreeFlow, and that is exactly what it does. The simplistic approach to the way you fight just flows naturally. It doesn’t try to over complicate things, and it allows you to really feel like Batman fighting about twenty enemies at once, taking them all out with elegant ease. This is a great reminder that Bruce Wayne may be the World’s Greatest Detective, but he’s no slouch in combat either, he did spend years refining martial arts and various other fighting techniques after all. While you will be able to mash the buttons and get satisfying results in the takedowns animations, there’s also a little more to the combat system than just the mashing.
Once you get a little deeper in the game and enemies start changing things up, you have to change the way you approach fighting them. This is an area where the combat system may become a little bothersome. I’m not saying they become insanely difficult, it’s just that you’ll have to refine your own way of playing to go beyond the mashing.
One of the ways this is done is timing your attacks. With your combo count climbing towards eight, you’ll gain access to special attacks that will make things easier against certain enemies. These can be upgraded, and then there are a few that you will be able to purchase with your experience points in the game. Trust me; when you go to get ready to do the 40 hit combo, you’ll need the upgrades. In addition to the takedowns, upgrades, and purchases, you can also use your experience points to extend Batman’s health gauge and to improve various other weapons in the game. Yes, Batman has an assortment of his fabled “toys” for us to play with, each with its own rewarding purpose. You will also be able to strengthen the Batarang as well. Aside from the Batarang, players will be able to play with the Batclaw, explosive gel, a sonar resonator, and the grappling lines.
To me, the best part of the gameplay is the “Invisible Predator” aspect. Striking from the shadows in a stealth manner reminds me of another old dog of war, Solid Snake. Granted, Snake has never hung upside down to take out enemies, but the stealth element is there. You are rewarded for your stealth in a couple of ways. One is when The Joker comes over the intercom system and berates the enemies in a room, or even pays Batman a compliment – well a Joker compliment anyway. The other way you are rewarded is by the animations of the enemies. Say there are six enemies in a room, you start silently taking out each one, by the time you get to the last two, if you have made them aware of their buddies being taken out, they start shooting at random noises and screaming for you to leave them alone. While I could easily say the combat system lets you feel empowered like Batman, it is the “Invisible Predator” moments when you are truly Batman.
Unfortunately, I do have one small complaint about the “Invisible Predator” aspect. While there are several gargoyles conveniently placed throughout Arkham, this is a concern. I know the enemies may be less than smart, but after awhile they might start looking upwards to those gargoyles. More than once I took out an enemy that was right next to others – did they look up to see me? No. Did they try to survey anything higher than eye level? No. Only after I had dropped down, ran around a little bit, and then sprang back up to the gargoyles did they remember to point upwards. This is more of a minor complaint than a serious one, but it’s glaring at times. Thankfully, as you increase difficulty levels, it does level out a little more; not a lot, but a little.
Outside the main story of the game, you have a few challenges to work through, the Challenge Rooms being one of them. Inside these Challenge Rooms you will be in certain parts of the game with a specific objective. Remember that 40 hit combo I mentioned earlier? This is where you will achieve that. In a sense, you’ll be replaying certain levels of the game which allows you to experience them again without restarting your save file. Your cleared saved data will just pick up at the end fight. In addition to the Challenge Rooms, there are 240 Riddler challenges you’ll be able to explore throughout Arkham. These challenges are great for the Detective Mode of the game. You’ll actually have to figure out The Riddler’s clues in order to complete the challenge. Plus, finding The Riddler’s trophies tucked away can be rewarding as well.
Speaking of the Detective aspect of the game, for those that like to play through a game and really explore every nook and cranny, Arkham Asylum delivers in spades. Using top notch technology to do everything from a simple finger print scan to DNA analysis to pheromone tracking, the Detective Mode may seem like a trivial aspect of the game to some, but Rocksteady actually made it one of the most intriguing. It really shows the level of commitment the developers have to capturing and delivering the truest Batman video game experience ever.
I can say with confidence and cannot stress enough, Batman: Arkham Asylum is, without a doubt, the best Batman game ever created. It does more than give you the Batman game you want, it gives you a video game that you could play repeatedly, even if it didn’t have the caped and cowled Dark Knight in it. With a massive world to search, an easy to adjust combat system, stealth action, audio logs to find, and challenges galore, Batman has finally come into his own in this medium. There are so many extra things and enjoyable moments in Arkham Asylum for fans and newcomers alike, you’ll be glad you are a fan of Batman and video games.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
Simply amazing; Arkham has never looked better. Batman and his roguish adversaries all impress visually. 4.4 Control
The FreeFlow combat is near perfect with its simplicity and approachable controls. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Excellent score and superb voice acting by the men and women who made the characters come to life in the early nineties. 4.5 Play Value
The combat system alone will keep you coming back to the game! Throw in the various other goodies and you’ll find it hard to not want to visit the Asylum repeatedly. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.