This could well be the Batman video game that we’ve all been waiting. It’s telling that one review called it a “Batman simulator.” The story opens with the Batman returning the Joker to Arkham after an incident at the Mayor’s Office, even then the Batman suspects that something isn’t right. We’re taken through the security at the rebuilt and re-engineered Arkham Asylum – this is a mental institution as a fortress. The game play proper takes over once the Joker springs his surprise for Batman, trapping him in an Asylum that has been taken over by the inmates. Your campaign focus on Batman’s efforts to regain control of the Asylum. He has to save the surviving staff and investigate the what, who, and why of how the Joker took control.
While the game isn’t in any one particular continuity there are strong links with Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS). The story is written by Paul Dini who worked on BTAS, created Harley Quinn, and now writes Gotham Sirens for DC Comics. Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin return from BTAS as the voices of Batman, the Joker, and Harly Quinn. The Joker’s scheme involves creating an army of monsters and along the way he ropes in Bane, Poison Ivy, and Killer Croc as inadvertent allies/pawns.
If you bought the collectors edition, as I did, you’ll get a book that contains brief character biographies of Batman’s various enemies, but it’s a mistake to think that every character in that book will be in the game. Many of them are just there to give texture to the game world. The Riddler in particular is only ever heard. He’s left riddles and trophies hidden through the island which serve as the in game mechanism for you to discover and unlock various extras. His riddles often refer to other unseen villains, e.g., Calender Man’s cell, Tweedledum and Tweedledee’s see-saw. There is a nice cameo by Clayface. If the game has a weakness it’s that you don’t get to fight more of these villains, but I suppose they’ve got to save something for the sequel.
Some games may have taken the route of having a very weak character at the beginning, but not this one. This Batman is The God-Damn Batman from the very start. The controls are fairly unspecific. You tell Batman to attack, evade, stun, or counter-attack and he’ll decide for himself exactly which martial arts move to use. Button mashing will only get you so far as a well timed counter can make or break a particular combat scenario. The game world is persistent so your progress is automatically saved and new maps are loaded in the background. The only time the reality of the world is broken is when you have to reload your last checkpoint. This works quite well, but there will a few battles involving armed henchmen where you’ll see the reloading sequence a lot.
Batman opens the game with his classic Batarang and Grapple, but even these allow you to perform many of the classic Batman stunts. The game relies on stealth as much as anything else. A large number of the set piece battles involve the Batman picking off the goons one by one. Our hero isn’t remotely bullet proof so the addition of even one or two armed guards turns each situation into a challenge. You must plan which goon your pick off in which order. Get spotted and they’ll come swarming to your location. Get it right and you can hear them panic. One of your signature moves is to swoop down from a gargoyle when a goon passes underneath and then leave him trussed up, handing from it afterwards. Some of these battles were rather frustrating as there is very little margin for error against the weight of numbers.
Later on in the game you’re given more gadgets to play with. These include an explosive gel which is used to demolish walls and an enhanced grapple with a claw. If you time it right you can explode or pull down walls on to your opponents. Do you remember the sequence in Batman the Movie, the Tim Burton version, where Batman rescues Vicky Vale from the museum using a gadget that fires bat-lines fore and aft to create a slide-line? It’s what prompts Jack’s Joker to utter the line about “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” Well that gadget, albeit slightly redesigned, is in this game. You an also use the claw and grapple to snare an opponent on a walk way and pull him over the edge.
What may surprise some people is the violence in the Batman: Arkham Asylum. Batman doesn’t kill, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll go lightly on you. A normal shooting game will leave bodies on the ground and possibly a bit of comic blood, but the action in Batman gets you up and close with your opponents. He smothers enemies unconscious or slams their heads into concrete floors. You’re literally battering your opponents senseless. It works in the game and with Batman’s persona, but its one of the reasons that this game won’t be suitable for every age bracket.
One assume that there is a finite block of money available to create a game like this. That means you can have a long game, but not much money spent on each second or, as nowadays seems normal, you have a shorter game, but spend a lot of money and effort on every single second. The developers of Arkham Asylum have definitely gone down the latter route. The game, like Ghostbusters, is surprisingly short, but there is some replay value. I found that I was only really becoming proficient with the gadgets as weapons towards the end of the game so replaying it would be a quite a different experience. There are also a Challenge Mode that recreates some of the fight scenes from the game with varying difficulties or time constraints.
Batman: Arkham Asylum looks absolutely gorgeous, too good in some parts – game designers seems to have a natural desire to make their character models as complex as possible. Batman’s costume particularly suffers from unnecessary detail. And the ears are wrong, a little detail perhaps, but the ears should be straight not curved in – it makes his head look pointed from some angles. At first I didn’t like that you could see Batman’s eyes, but the game designers have created an explanation for those white lenses Batman usually wears. You have two vision modes – normal where his eyes are visible and “detective” mode where the white lenses slide into place. The detective mode gives you a heads up display showing peoples heart beats, concealed opponents, breakable walls, and the various scent/chemical trails you may be following. It’s so useful you that can find yourself playing most of the game with it activated.
I think it’s telling how nitpicky I’ve had to be to find something bad to say about this game. Almost all reviews are giving it a 90% or equivalent and I’m going to agree with them. The only thing that stops it being a 10/10 or 100% is the length and maybe a little repetition in types of henchmen. I’ve gone on a bit about the Batman LEGO game recently and I gave that the same score (4.5/5) as this one, but for every different reasons. LEGO was a classic level based, collect them all game with a nice sense of humour. Arkham still has a wit to it, but it’s a more open ended and sophisticated Batman experience. I think its a strength of the Batman brand that is can support two very divergent, but very-high quality games.