The Dark Knight returns
As far as comic book characters go, Batman has been treated better by videogame developers than say Superman. Nonetheless most people would say he hasn't enjoyed a good game since the original Batman game on the NES. That changes dramatically with Arkham Asylum which is not only a fantastic Batman game, it's an original and solid title all in it's own right.
Arkham Asylum's atmosphere is unmatched and sets the perfect tone throughout. It feels suitably gritty as most people want their Batman to be, but at the same time it feels enough like it's comic book roots to avoid becoming dull or pretentious. The environment's feel cohesive and fit together well enough that you believe you're still in one location, but they're varied enough that you never become bored of the same place. Indeed the Asylum itself begins to feel like a character in it's own right, it even gradually deteriorates as it is slowly taken over by The Joker.
Arkham Asylum also treats the Batman characters with a strong respect, but they still always feel like they belong in a comic book. Batman himself is closest to the Batman from the animated series, with a slightly grittier edge to him and Kevin Conroy provides the perfect voice. The Joker is a mix between the version in the Dark Knight and the Animated series Joker, he has an air of both complete cartoonish insanity, but also shows many moments of being a cold blooded psychotic, once again Mark Hamill provides the voice and is also perfect.
A well chosen selection from Batman's vast gallery of villains rounds out the cast and are all well developed in their own right. Most of the villains that make an appearance in the game serve as much more than an excuse to have Batman beat something up. Genuine effort is made to develop their characters, then pit them in a showdown with Batman when the time feels right. The villains also for the most part aren't just normal boss characters, the Scarecrow for example takes you to a nightmare plain of Batman's imagination to toy with Batman's mind before forcing you to hide from him while you make your way to a point where you can destroy his illusion. Some boss fights are standard, but a lot of them are presented with their own little quirks, related to the character.
Most games that try to achieve something similar to Arkham Asylum often manage to create a certain level of atmosphere but then fall short on gameplay. Arkham Asylum plays perfect, making you feel like Batman in every way and then being just plain fun to play. The free flow combat looks great and feels finely tuned, though it can also feel a little easy that's almost the point, you're Batman, you're supposed to be able to take down large groups of thugs without breaking a sweat. Sections where you need to take down a group of enemies using stealth are probably the most satisfying. Enemies behave surprisingly realistic and won't just return to their regular patrols when they find that you're stalking them. Most of the time enemies will start to try and stick together to avoid getting picked off and later when they become terrified, will start to jump at noises in the environment. It's immensely satisfying to see the terror you can inflict as the Dark Knight and features somewhat into the gameplay aswell as terrified thugs become a little harder to stalk as they become much more jumpy.
Batman wouldn't be the same without his vast array of gadgets and Arkham Asylum throws in a nice selection including his classic grappling hook and batarangs and some fun things like the bat claw and explosive gel. The gadgets can be used both to interact with the environment in a way that feels slightly similar to Metroid or Castlevania and in combat to customise the way you fight somewhat. It's always fun when you get a new gadget, trying it out on enemies and locations in the environment. It's also a lot of fun to explore the island using your gadgets, it helps the game feel that much more like you're playing as Batman.
Secrets are in plentiful supply around the island, mostly thanks to the Riddler who has hidden trophies and given you various riddles to solve, mostly to do with the environment or classic Batman characters. The secrets aren't overly hard to find, but it still makes you feel good to find them anyway. The riddles also aren't all that hard to solve, but they're presented in a way that feels fun and often reward you with a character bio which are fun to collect and interesting to read, especially if you aren't too caught up on your Batman fiction. If nothing else it's a lot of fun to hear the Riddler get more and more angry as you come closer and closer to solving all of his challenges.
Speaking of challenges, it's at least worth mentioning the challenge maps. They aren't too special in their own right, but they are good if you just kind of want to just into some fighting or sneaking action and be rated on your performance. Medals are awarded for certain levels of performance and the game features online leaderboards to keep things interesting. The PS3 also includes challenge maps for the Joker, they don't add much but the Joker does play slightly different to Batman, mostly he's harder to play as. It feels suitably enough like playing as the Joker, mostly because of his animations (his silent takedown involves kicking people in the balls from behind), it's an amusing diversion, but 360 owners needn't feel like they're missing out on much.
If there can be anything bad about Arkham Asylum it just leaves you longing for more of it, it makes you want to escape the boundries of Arkham and head into Gotham city, which you can always see taunting you across the river. The Asylum feels big but everything is certainly within walking (or gliding) distance, which is good since you never hop into any of Batman's classic vehicles, which is fine because that would just feel like a gimmick.
In the end you don't have to be criminally insane to enjoy this superhero game, it's almost perfect in every single way and it's the perfect compliment to Batman's rising status in the film industry. The Dark Knight has been through some rough times, but he has truly returned in top form, this may not be the game we deserve, but it's certainly the game we need right now.