Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Superhero fans are a fickle bunch and they are well within their rights to be. They have seen their favourite heroes treated very badly in the past with games such as Spiderman: Friend or Foe, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and of course the infamous Superman 64 giving them cause to weep and be sceptical of anyone coming within three hundred metres of making a superhero game. Of course there are exceptions to this theme but the cash-ins vastly outnumber the good games. Because of this I approached Batman: Arkham Asylum warily, I dutifully watched the trailers and looked at the screenshots all the while hoping Batman would be treated well while preparing for another Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
On one level, of course, I knew these fears would be unfounded. Mark Hamill (yes, Luke – I’m a Jedi – Skywalker) voices The Joker, just as he has in various cartoons and even the wonderfully geeky Robot Chicken. Kevin Conroy, again a steadfast in the Batman world, voices Batman and Paul Dini wrote the story. A superhero game, especially one so character centric as Batman, can live or die by its plot and character depictions. That the developers secured people with history with Batman speaks volumes about their dedication to the project.
The main villain of the piece is obviously The Joker. The game opens with Batman tearing through Gotham City in his Batmobile at well over 100mph with Joker sitting lucidly in the passenger seat. Batman takes him to Arkham Asylum and, somewhat humorously, knocks him out with a swift punch to the face when he gets too talkative. This dark humour is present throughout the game using Joker as the vessel for delivery. Of course one villain is fine for a film which needs to give two or three hours of entertainment but Joker would be stretched far too thin for a game which needs to last at least ten hours and so upon reaching Arkham, Joker breaks out of his restraints and begins his finely tuned plan to turn the asylum into his playground. This plan involves several villains of the Batman universe and their personalities are woven into the game. In a very nice touch there are riddles dotted around the island left by none other than The Riddler and many of them give access to the bios of villains that didn’t make it into the game.
Now, The Joker is the main villain of the piece but don’t let the latest Batman film cloud your vision. Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker is fantastic but this Joker is the classic version of the comics and cartoons with his vibrant purple suits, nuclear green hair and ragged white skin with a genuine (rather than lipstick created) crazy smile. Some (including myself) may prefer Heath’s interpretation but that just wouldn’t work in this game and Mark Hamill does no wrong here. The Joker is a manic sociopath full of dark jokes, crazy schemes and evil intentions. He is charismatic to those open to it (see Harley Quinn) and downright creepy to anyone sane enough to see him for what he is. He has always been the favourite enigmatic villain to Batman’s stoic hero and is the perfect choice here.
The graphics are, quite simply, astonishing. Arkham is depicted with a beautifully gritty realism; the island is ugly in the best way with its debilitated environments, destructible walls and never ending dismal weather. When Batman is outside the skyline of Gotham can be seen in the distance with Wayne Tower easily discernible. Shadows are realistically cast and all the characters, especially Batman, are wonderfully rendered. Inmates’ cells and public areas are decorated with small touches that really set the atmosphere such as concentric circles in Amadeus Arkham’s former digs, small calendar pages covering the room of The Calendar Man and frenzied handprints left in what appears to be desperation to escape in various rooms. Batman is incredibly detailed down to the gruff shadow across his face. His cape flaps as he runs and turns and even bends around obstructions as he’s gliding rather than passing straight through. He also sustains damage through the game which persists until the end.
Batman is an agile fellow with an array of moves open to him. There is no jump button but this is rarely restrictive as he can jump when in context sensitive positions. He can evade by rolling, use his grapnel to scale extreme heights, glide large distances, fall from any height (using a quick parachute effect of his cape to slow larger falls) and of course kick the ass of anyone. Fighting is deceptively complex; there are, in reality, three things Batman can do: attack, counter and stun. These three things can extend into 40+ combo chains and leave a room full of men crying on the floor. Batman can lunge across rooms to batter the next guy and once you have the timing down you only really need to worry about guys wielding knives or stun batons or some of the latter bad guys.
The game is essentially broken up into stealth, action and puzzle solving sections. The stealth is done surprisingly well, allowing the player to use Batman to pick off enemies one by one until they become terrified and shoot at random noises. A nice touch is the Detective Mode which turns the view blue and views people as skeletons. In this way it is like viewing X-rays but solid objects remain solid and important items are picked out in a sort of golden colour. Characters’ skeletons can be seen through walls and armed enemies are viewed as red (with everyone else being blue. Detective Mode obviously comes in handy for all aspects of the game. It makes stealth much easier when you know where all enemies are and where they’re looking and gives Batman an advantage when facing opponents with access to firearms as their colour changes to red when they pick one up, giving you a chance to focus on them. It is really invaluable when tackling the optional Riddler challenges as it makes weak walls obvious and colours important objects gold. The problem with Detective Mode is that it’s too useful. There’s no time limit on it so the player can easily find himself going through the whole game surrounded by the blue tinge of X-ray and missing all the beautiful visuals Arkham has to offer.
The good points of Batman: Arkham Asylum are plain to see. Beautiful graphics, fluid fighting, enjoyable stealth, challenging puzzles, great voice acting, deep characters and a very good plot are all there. But the game does have its negatives too: considering you play the one and only Dark Knight you do an awful lot of skulking around in vents and, although this is down to personal preference, some might say the Oracle in Batman’s ear only serves to give him an anchor where the absence of one would submerge him so much more in the horror of Arkham. The worst part about the game is its longevity or rather, lack thereof. The main story can be completed easily in ten hours with a few more hours on top of that to get the Riddler’s puzzles. What really can add life to the game after the completion of the story is Challenge Mode. This mode pits Batman against Joker’s henchmen in two types of match. The first is a straight forward brawl with bonus points given for not taking damage and for kicking all asses in one fluent combo. The second challenges Batman to stealthily take out all thugs in the area within a certain time limit. These challenges are not hard to complete but are very hard if you want to get a decent score. Getting 100% may take some time.
Along the way there are various twists and turns and of course Batman gets some of his gadgets to play with and the Scarecrow sections are worth playing the game for on their own. Batman: Arkham Asylum manages to be creepy, funny, slightly scary and a wonderful insight into the major and minor characters of the Batman universe. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Batman product you owe it to yourself to try this game.