Batman: Arkham Asylum

batman-arkham-asylum
9.5 Overall Score

Amazing setting, storyline and voice acting | Combat blends seamlessly with stealth | Tons of replay value, thanks to Riddler’s 240 challenges

Tempting to play through the entire game in “Detective Mode” | Some enemy encounters adopt monster closet mentality | Last boss battle feels out place and out of character

He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider, entrusted with a magic ring or FedEx-ed from a doomed planet, and yet Batman is arguably the biggest badass to ever don form-fitting spandex. True, he doesn’t have any superpowers, but he’s by no means powerless, his stealth, martial arts training, master detective skills and high-tech gadgets making him feared even amongst the most fearsome supervillians. And yet despite his awesomeness, every videogame based on Batman has been a crushing disappointment. There have been more than 19 Batman-inspired videogames released since 1986, and not one of them has managed to live up to the source material, the game makers unwilling or unable to capture the caped crusader in all his dark complexity. That is, until publisher Edios and developer Rocksteady took up the cape and cowl, creating in Batman: Arkham Asylum the best licensed game ever made, the best superhero game ever made, and certainly the best Batman game ever made. Period.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is the closest thing to a true Batman simulator, capturing everything that has made the character, and the gothic world he inhabits, so great and cramming it into a single interactive showcase. The story opens with Batman racing toward Arkham Asylum, Gotham City’s Alcatraz for the criminally insane, to return the recently recaptured Joker. It won’t be spoiling any surprises to tell you that the Crown Prince of Crime breaks free shortly after arrival, his return part of an elaborate plan to take over the island and destroy both Gotham and her pointy-eared protector. Of course, just because he knows it’s a trap doesn’t mean he’s walking away from it, and so begins the best Batman adventure since Christian Bale last shimmied into the Batsuit.

You are launched immediately into action, facing off against a handful of the Joker’s goons with only the basic attack and counter commands at your disposal. Button mashing will get the job done early in the game, but the beauty of Batman: Arkham Asylum’s free-flowing combat becomes apparent when you link your moves into a seamless, senseless beating—twirling and spinning from enemy to enemy like the star of some bad-ass ballet. Using just two buttons, Batman can perform a wide variety of combos, earning experience points that can be spent on new gadgets, upgrades and abilities that add leaping, stunning and batarang tossing to his repertoire of superbly animated moves.

It’s an elegant system that makes taking down a room full of heavily armed thugs look easy, without actually being easy. Individually, they’d pose no challenge, but these thugs tend to travel in increasingly larger packs, some carrying knives and cattle prods into battle. This forces you to trade the button mashing mentality for a more strategic approach, as you are required to stun them with your cape or leap over their heads before bringing the beatdown. The unarmed goons also up their game as the story progresses, pulling pipes off the wall, throwing boxes and retrieving weapons dropped by downed enemies. Although the steps remain the same, the rhythm of your deadly dance is constantly changing. Even when facing off against the exact same group of thugs, as in the stand-alone Challenge Maps unlocked during the story mode, no fight ever feels exactly the same.

The overall effect is to make you feel that even though you’re sure to be the last one standing, you’re still going to have to give it your all the way a true superhero should. And, like a true superhero, look damn cool doing it. As long as you time your shots carefully, avoiding and countering attacks with practiced precision, your combo meter will keep climbing, not only earning you more experience points to spend on upgrades but allowing you to perform specialized throws and takedowns. Batman may not kill his enemies, but he has no qualms about a well-placed elbow to the face or knee to the groin.

But what truly elevates Batman: Arkham Asylum from the rank and file of typical action games is how brilliantly it balances the brawn with the brain—the World’s Greatest Detective earns his nickname by readily employing the greatest weapon in his arsenal, his cunning intellect. There will be numerous times Batman finds himself in a room filled with armed goons, and since bullets don’t mix well with even the toughest lycra weave, he will need to take a more cerebral approach to fighting. This means sticking to the shadows, crawling through vents and swinging from gargoyles to survey the area with “Detective Mode,” high tech x-ray goggles which let you see enemies through walls, monitor their heart rates and identify their weapons as well as highlighting environmental clues, like places you where you can tear down walls with your claw, spray explosive gel or smash through weak glass.

Rocksteady has laid out a buffet of cool moves and neat toys, and left it entirely up to the player how to stack their plate, allowing you to alternate between bites of action, stealth and exploration in the process of clearing a room. You can swing up to a gargoyle, grabbing an enemy as he passes beneath you in an inverted takedown, then swing to another gargoyle and cut him loose with a batarang to K.O. the first clueless thug drawn to his screams. Or you can yank him off the railing. Or swoop down for a glide kick. Or pop out from a floor grate. Or drop down from a vent. The freedom to experiment is the best part of the game—brute force is boring when you can set traps, blow things up, and employ all sorts of misdirection and distraction to thin the ranks, causing your enemies to become more visibly scared with every passing second as they lean around corners, press against walls and fire into shadows. Striking fear into the hearts of your enemies feels great, but Batman also uses his Batvision for less predatory purposes, like scanning the air for traces of alcohol, following a fingerprint trail or hunting down the game’s many collectibles like interviews with patients, recordings by Amadeus Arkham, and Riddler’s clues, which unlock character biographies, trophies and challenge maps.

It’s tempting to spend the entire game in “Detective Mode,” though doing so would deprive you of getting to experience the extraordinary level of detail Rocksteady has put into Arkham Island, which becomes another character in the story. From its clinical hospital hallways to its crumbling underground corridors, every dark and dingy detail of the Asylum helps to heighten the tension, to establish the mood and to propel the storyline. And what a storyline it is. Penned by Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series, the game is full of winks to the comic books and graphic novels, with numerous appearances or references to inmates that don’t actually appear in the game. Wandering through the dilapidated facility, you’ll stumble into Two Face’s cell, identified only by a Harvey Dent campaign poster plastered between the pristine and demolished halves of the tiny room. There are also references to Ra’s Al Ghul, Penguin, Clayface, Humpty Dumpty and the anti-Batman, Prometheus, among many others, waiting to be discovered by observant fans.

But even if you’re not a fan, Batman: Arkham Asylum does a great job of pulling you into its dark world, allowing you to delve as deep as you’re comfortable into the various characters’ back stories and motivations. That being said, most people will be familiar with the colorful cast of inmates set loose in the chaos, which I won’t list for fear of spoiling any of the game’s startling yet satisfying encounters. I will reveal however that of all the cleverly designed and brilliantly staged boss battles, the Scarecrow sequences in particular reach a level of mind-tripping, fourth wall-breaking brilliance that threatens to upstage the Joker. This is no mean feat, considering the Joker’s constant presence throughout the game, as he taunts the caped crusader via television monitors, loud speakers, and graffiti spray-painted walls.

There will be many times you’ll find yourself hunkered atop a perhaps too conveniently placed gargoyle, poised to strike an unwitting goon below, but reticent to interrupt the Joker’s inspired ranting. This game belongs to Mark Hamill, who delivers the best performance since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal, infusing every line with malevolent glee. An equally stunning voice cast joins him, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. There’re a few nameless security guards dragging down the curve, but for the most part the characters are so superbly written and acted, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Combined with a brooding orchestral score, the voice actors’ serious and studied portrayal of the asylum’s twisted inhabitants takes what could have been a campy story to dark places. Make no mistake—despite featuring many familiar voices from the cartoon, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a strictly adult affair, and all the more engaging and engrossing for it.

Batman: Arkham Asylum lets you do everything you’d want to do in a Batman game—take out a room full of goons with bone breaking efficiency, employ high tech gadgets to pull off impossible stunts, utilize keen detective skills to solve challenging puzzles, and face off against some of Gotham’s most dangerous, demented criminals in an adventure that genuinely feels like part of the Batman canon. Some dependence on the traditional boss battle structure keeps the game from being absolutely perfect, but the spot-on voice acting, sound design and fluid combat more than compensate for any shortcomings. Unless you’re a millionaire plagued by parental issues, driven to dispense your own brand of justice with the help of cutting edge tech, this is as close as you can hope to get to being Batman.

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Author: Kristen Spencer View all posts by

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