Writer's notes: this is the first of a series of articles in which I look back on a video game when there is a sequel coming out in the very near future. I was inspired by someone on another website when he suggested that it would be interesting to see the contrast between Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 3 just before BF3 is released. It got me thinking that since this industry revolves mainly around sequels that I could turn this into a regular thing. This is not exactly a review, but I will be replaying the game in its entirety before the sequel is released. These are more my thoughts on the game presented similar to a review, but with a focus on what stood out to me on my playthrough, and how the game stands up today.
So, in its debut, here is a look back at Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is being followed up by Batman: Arkham City next Tuesday, the 18th of October.
Also, I may talk openly about all parts of this game including story, be warned.
I still remember hearing very little about Arkham Asylum prior to its release. I gave it no attention and why should I have? Here was a game, a Batman game at that, being developed by some British studio that had made one bad game for the Xbox and PS2. But I was a fan of Batman, thanks almost entirely to Christopher Nolan and his dark, mesmerizing vision of the caped crusader, yet I had it stuck in my head that there was little that could be done to make a good Batman video game. So Batman slipped from my gaze until nearly a year after it was released. It was then that I came across Arkham Asylum and came to terms with what the crazy Brits Rocksteady had created, and what they had created was nothing short of mesmerizing.
Fast forward another year, having just finished off playing through the game for my second time; the first was on the 360, the second time on my PC, and I can’t help but feel ashamed of myself for having pushed aside Arkham Asylum when it was released. But what is it exactly that makes Batman’s dark, gothic adventure so good?
Immediately upon jumping back into Arkham Asylum, I was reminded of how visually striking the game is. I don’t just mean the fidelity of the graphics, which are pretty impressive; it’s the unmistakable style that AA exudes. From the characters to the environment and even down to the dialogue, the whole game somehow manages to be very comic bookie, yet simultaneously serious, dark, and at times genuinely funny. The characters have a wonderful bulk to them that doesn’t stand out as being strange, which is something I always took issue with in Gears of War, and the environments are exceedingly Goth without being overbearing.
I was also reminded at how well Rocksteady handled this semi-open world concept. Arkham Island is, essentially, entirely open to you, yet this area is decidedly small, and combined with the fairly linear story missions, I never felt overwhelmed, nor did I ever feel bored. Rocksteady manages to refresh this open world right when it is starting to get a little aesthetically tiring and they do it in a way that most other open world games wouldn’t have been able to do. Thanks to Poison Ivy’s little PMSing, the whole of the island is overrun by giant plants that cause you to have to traverse the familiar environs in ways that you did not previously have to. I paid little attention to it my first time through, but I realized how welcome this mild change was. It came right in the middle and immediately made me want to go and see all of these areas all over again.
There is also some beautiful subtlety in the game that I failed to notice initially and they really add to making the game feel much more believable. The best example is how Batman’s cape slowly gets rips and tears in it as the game progresses. This reminds you that the game basically takes place entirely in real time, over one single 11 hour night. It struck me as being somewhat brilliant when I realized this as I have never really encountered this in a game.
Now I can’t discuss Arkham Asylum without mentioning the voice cast. I think I am comfortable in saying that AA has some of the better voice acting in a game in the last few years; it’s even more impressive that it’s a comic book video game. Mark Hamill, yeah Luke fucking Skywalker, steals, absolutely steals the entire game every time the Joker speaks. He’s been doing the Joker voice for more than a decade, and boy has he mastered it. The Joker manages to be utterly terrifying at times, hilarious at others, and downright insane most of the time. Thankfully the rest of the cast can hold their own, as the majority of the key voice actors have been voicing their prospective characters in the Batman cartoons for as long as Hamill has been voicing the Joker.
I was also really impressed by how creative, original, and frightening the Scarecrow sequences are. Sure, at their core, they are simply plat-forming sections but the aesthetic design of each of them along with the lead up, make for something that, I think, could only really have been done in a Batman game.
I also really love that Rocksteady decided to include, albeit subtly, the fact that Batman is fucking crazy. For the first few hours of the game Batman, appears, speaks out loud what he should do to complete the objective. I just took this as a simple game thing until I decided to spin the camera around only to see his mouth not moving and realize that he is thinking these things. Some will say it’s just a game thing and the developers didn’t bother to animate his mouth, but I get the feeling that Batman is a little bat shit crazy, and I love that thought. But in AA, you are Batman, and probably the truest Batman that there has been since the comics. You kick a ton of ass, humanely of course, do some fantastic crime solving, and do it so professionally, with such organization, that you can’t help but wish there was more of this version of Batman already out there in the entertainment world.
It was moderately surprising to me how varied the game manages to be. Some missions have you being a detective, some a ninja, some have you sneaking around on platforms trying not to make a peep, and some even have you doing science! It’s this mission design that really keeps things feeling fresh combined with constantly being exposed to new environments that kept me coming back, even a second time through.
The one thing that really bummed me out about Arkham Asylum was its final two boss fights. This whole game has been one great experience after another, until you are faced with Poison Ivy, who is a pain, and then almost immediately faced with Titan Joker, who is such an ass that the last twenty minutes of the game are spent in a near rage. Yet when I finished it I immediately wanted to go back and keep running around the world, finding Riddler trophies, and doing the various combat challenges included. It should also be noted; you are somewhat forced to use Detective Vision a lot in the game, for better or for worse. While helpful it is I really enjoy looking at the world and it’s a shame that Detective Vision gets rid of everything interesting to look at.
All I can say is that going back and playing Arkham Asylum once again was a joy. The game still manages to do things that other games have yet to do, and it does just about everything perfectly. The combat is fluid and so much more than a button masher, the characters are exciting, you feel genuinely educated in Batman lore when through, and it’s good, high quality fun, something a lot of game just aren’t anymore. If you are not excited for Arkham City, you really should be.