Eidos and Rocksteady deliver the authentic Dark Knight experience
Despite it being the sole, innate desire of the male species upon our eve of birth, none of us will never actually become Batman. Most of us lack either the means to possess a subterranean abode littered with hi-tech equipment, or the motivation to hone such perfected skills in martial arts and gadgetry. Neither of these setbacks in this unpractical ambition suppress the desire however, and so we are collectively drawn to rapidly flowing images of Michael Keaton and Christian Bale gallivanting about in rubber tights instead.
It's been since the hyped-to-lackluster release of Dark Tomorrow all the way back 2003 that both Dark Knight aficionados and gamers alike have been waiting for the authentic interactive crime fighting experience, and now it's finally here. Eidos and Warner Brothers have really been pushing Batman: Arkham Asylum on the masses with a robust, video-centric marketing strategy, and though I can neither confirm nor deny its effectiveness, I can most certainly tell you that it has indeed been warranted.
Batman: Arkham Asylum sets up an unfortunate, but not all that unimaginable of a scenario in which the Joker has taken hold of the reigns of Gotham's infamous mental institution and transformed the island and its inhabitants into his own personal playthings. This, of course, includes the Caped Crusader himself, who just happens to be primary reason for most of the presiding criminals' being incarcerated. What follows is a string of vicious encounters and intricate conundrums that leads either to the downfall of the Joker, or the Clown Prince of Crime's jovial last laugh.
It'd be practically impossible to define Arkham Asylum by only one of its numerous and diverse gameplay mechanics. Each one brings something to the table that remains essential to the experience to the finish line. Where the game seems to excel most, however, is during the aptly named Freeflow Combat. During these frequent encounters, Batman controls fluidly, flowing -- freely, one might say -- from each enemy to the next in an awesome spectacle of combat expertise. The whole setup hardly even calls for any sort of explanation, the simple mechanics only giving way to slightly less facile maneuvers in the form of two-button combos and a quick button press to counter enemy movements.
This honestly wouldn't be faithful to the faithful to the source material if all Batman were capable of doing was storming headlong into crowds of goons and beating the tar out of them. Naturally, there are quite a number of stealth sequences scattered throughout, all of them simple, entertaining and oftentimes frustrating in their execution. Generally, they involve waiting patiently atop gargoyle statues before swooping down on unsuspecting foes, rendering them unconscious before returning to said stone beast and observing as panic sweeps over the remaining thugs.
As the game progresses, these stealth portions become both more mechanically interesting and increasingly hectic. The featured upgrade system allowing players to periodically select new abilities and gizmos for Batman to play with comes into play drastically here. The Sonic Batarang, for example, can be placed just below a gargoyle statue to alert a nearby guard, allowing Batman to swoop down and leave him suspended from the air. Unfortunately, these sequences also suffer from the trial-and-error method of gameplay so often found in stealth oriented titles. You'll often find yourself repeating these stages multiple times, getting just far enough to realize what next step you're supposed to take before meeting an untimely end. Luckily, these segments don't make up a radical portion of the overall experience, and are usually short enough that any onset of frustration will likely dry up pretty quickly.
Along with the fluid action and the somewhat lacking stealth aspects, a good percentage of the game is spent hunting down various trophies, tape recordings and riddles hidden throughout the asylum by none other than the Riddler. These are all entirely optional to locate, but feel impressively like a game in and of themselves. The riddles are often tricky, but not overly complicated to solve, and the various collectibles are at times cleverly hidden and satisfying to retrieve.
The most captivating thing about Arkham Asylum is by far its atmosphere. The dark, damp corridors of Arkham Island give off a truly chaotic feel, one that feels a bit reminiscent of BioShock's underwater City of Rapture. Appearances with several of the Dark Knight's more iconic adversaries generally serve to strengthen this ethereal immersion, with a few exceptions. Sporadic encounters with the Scarecrow portray Batman from a human angle, something that's difficult to achieve with countless other superheroes. The arid insanity of villains such as Harley Quinn, Killer Croc and most especially the Joker is made well and clear, and Batman's unbreakable resolve to restore order to Gotham City is made both believable and admirable.
There's hardly anything to complain about in regard to Batman: Arkham Asylum. Many of the pieces to the puzzle are very different, yet they fit together almost flawlessly to create a product that's accessible and involved. As far as licensed video games are concerned, especially one featuring the image of a superhero, this is by far one of the best I've encountered in my long history with video games, and despite having already restored order throughout Arkham Island, I've more than ready to jump back in and give it another go.