Batman: Arkham Asylum
It’s understandable to be a little sceptical coming into Batman: Arkham Asylum. Whenever developers Rocksteady have shown trailers, gameplay and screenshots, the game has looked fantastic; but that uncontrollable doubt is always lingering in the back of the mind purely because it’s a licensed comic book videogame. For that reason alone, Arkham Asylum is the surprise game of the year. It might not be difficult to exceed such minimal expectations, but the Dark Knight has gone so far above and beyond that it can be safely placed in the same bracket as a Portal or a Dead Space as the surprise hit of its respected year.
If you’re up on your Batman lore then you’ll know that Arkham Asylum is a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. The Joker is a regular occupant and escapee, and the beginning of Batman: Arkham Asylum sees the Caped Crusader capture and return him to the madhouse with surprising ease. Obviously things aren’t as they seem and The Joker is soon free of the guards and causing havoc across the whole Asylum with a little help from his goons. What begins as a simple premise of stopping the Clown Prince of Crime, quickly takes a turn for the worse as the story reaches a much grander scale. The narrative moves along at a brisk pace with plenty of plot twists, surprises and returning friends and foes as Batman tackles the longest night of his life in this gritty story.
“The dead bodies of guards litter the hallways, often maligned with The Joker’s own twisted touch”In keeping with the recent success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Arkham Asylum is a very dark Batman game. The dead bodies of guards litter the hallways, often maligned with The Joker’s own twisted touch, and there’s even a few instances of bad language. However, most of Arkham Asylum’s dark tones come from its characters. The Joker is just as unpredictable as you would expect, seemingly joking about killing someone’s family only to change his tone and become quite serious. Even The Riddler adds his own sick, twisted touch to proceedings, telling gruesome riddles about the dismembering of a baby that comes completely out of the blue. The best sections are saved for Scarecrow, though. Using his hallucinogenic toxins to delve into the mind of the Bat, he raises his biggest fears to the surface with sections that Hideo Kojima would be proud of. I’d be committing a grave offence if I gave any more away so you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
Of course, if Batman is going to put a stop to these miscreants he’ll need his wits about him. Hand-to-hand combat is first on the agenda, and - although basic - is pretty exhilarating. Arkham Asylum uses a simple two-button fighting system that’s based around group combat and counter moves. All you have to do is aim at an enemy and press the attack button to begin the assault. It’s free flowing so moving around between enemies is the best way to succeed, counter-attacking when necessary and eventually dodging when faced with some of the tougher enemies. You’re essentially just hammering the one button trying to string together big combos, but the animation is so sublime that each fight looks and feels fantastic despite its simplicity. It can get repetitive in the latter stages and it is a bit easy, but there are enough new ideas thrown into the mix to keep things relatively fresh, and the difficulty is definitely upped by the end.
“ It’s easy enough to sneak up behind an unsuspecting guard and take him out with a silent kill, but there’s an overabundance of ways to tackle each situation.”Arkham Asylum isn’t just a mindless brawler, however. A multitude of Batman games beforehand have gone down this route, but there’s plenty more attributes the character possesses that are put to good use here. When up against some gun-toting goons, hand-to-hand combat is out of the question. Batman’s just a regular guy – albeit one with the intellect and strength to better anyone – so a few bullets is going to knock him down for the count. To avoid this, stealth is your best ally and your enemy’s worst nightmare. Luckily the Asylum has an unhealthy obsession with gargoyles, allowing the Dark Knight to sit above his foes and scout the area below. Detective Vision is the best gadget at your disposal; it pinpoints where each enemy is – even if they’re behind objects – and uncovers particular environmental objects, such as vents or structural weaknesses. Once you know where everything is it’s time to begin planning your carefully measured attack. It’s easy enough to sneak up behind an unsuspecting guard and take him out with a silent kill, but there’s an overabundance of ways to tackle each situation. Planting explosives on structural weaknesses is a favourite, but if you wanted you could perform an inverted takedown on a guard, leaving him hanging upside down, and then wait for his friends to show up before throwing a Batarang to cut the rope, knocking him down on top of them. There’s plenty of room for experimentation, especially later on when you unlock some of Batman’s other gadgets.
And these gadgets make up another portion of Batman: Arkham Asylum. From the start you’ll have a basic Batarang and grappling hook, but as you progress through the game zip lines, remote-control Batarangs and all sorts of other wacky gadgets will be added to Bats’ repertoire. It uses a Metroid style set-up as you’ll often find impossible-to-reach places whilst exploring the island of Arkham. Eventually, as you collect more gadgets, you’ll be able to go back and explore these previously inaccessible areas, often uncovering one of the 240 riddles The Riddler has left for you.
You see, aside from the main game there’s also room for exploration and collectables. The Riddler has left a plethora of different items all over the island, ranging from trophies to sound recordings and actual riddles themselves. They’re quirky and a lot of fun to look for, especially when you consider the bonus unlockables you’ll receive for completing them. While Arkham Asylum features some of Batman’s most memorable villains, including Killer Croc, Bane and Poison Ivy, there are also myriad references to other characters within the gargantuan Batman universe – most of whom you’ll never have heard of unless you’re a diehard fan. Finding their references within the game will unlock their character bios, so there’s a lot to read up on, hopefully opening up the universe to new fans. I’m normally not one for collectables but I actually went for the whole 100% here.
“The exceptional art style is complemented by some excellent lighting effects and texture work”However this does lead me to a gripe I have with the Detective Vision. Normally you’ll only use it during the stealth sections, but if you’re looking for the riddles then it’s essential to keep it on for the majority of the game. It looks good - almost like blue night vision - but it can’t match up to the rest of the games visuals. Batman: Arkham Asylum looks sublime. The exceptional art style is complemented by some excellent lighting effects and texture work, and the character designs are fantastic. The only problems come from the Unreal Engine texture pop-in, and some presentational issues. Character animations are really stiff in in-game cutscenes, and a lot of minor characters will have big bug eyes and dodgy facial expressions. These may only be minor issues but they do detract from the overall immersion in the experience.
Luckily the sound design matches the quality of the visuals. Batman The Animated Series veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker respectively. Hamill is brilliant as The Joker although Conroy is a little disappointing as the Dark Knight. Sometimes he’s fine, conveying the Batman character perfectly, while other times he’s completely wooden and uninteresting. It’s strange that it can vary from one spectrum to the next in the space of two cutscenes, but on the whole the cast do an admirable job, and the music sits nicely in the background.
Once you’re done with the main game and solving all the riddles you can move on to the challenge rooms. Most of these are sections ripped straight from the single player, putting you in a combat or stealth situation. Combat is based around a points system; you’ll be thrown in a room with a bunch of thugs and must defeat them all to move onto the next round. Avoiding damage or using a variety of moves will give you extra points, and the whole idea is to challenge your friends or randomers in the leaderboards. The stealth challenge rooms are similar; you just have to take out all the enemies in the area to set a fast time, with bonuses offered for completing certain tasks. The challenges can get repetitive since you’re usually replaying sections from the main game, but it does add some longevity and competing with your friends adds a competitive side to proceedings.
“Just when you think things are beginning to drain they’ll throw something new at you to shake things up”In the end, Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best superhero game to date. It captures everything that makes Batman who he is with some fluent yet brutal combat and clever stealth action. The detective side of things leaves a lot to be desired with its basic follow tasks, but the rest of the elements come together to create a cohesive romp through the madhouse. Just when you think things are beginning to drain they’ll throw something new at you to shake things up, so you’re always on your heels and experiencing new changes to the gameplay. Whether you’re a Batman fan or not this is a game you surprisingly need to play.
Nine out of ten