The Caped Crusader Punches His Way Into Our Hearts
Arkham Asylum opens with Batman capturing The Joker after a failed heist. After a long credit sequence in which players are introduced to the facilities, some characters, and the rest of the world that Rocksteady has crafted, Batman releases custody of The Joker over to the Arkham guards. As he watches from behind the reinforced glass that's designed to keep the crazies out, Batman voices his concern with Commissioner Gordon about how they whole situation didn't seem right. Immediately following, we learn that Batman's gut feeling is never wrong. The Joker runs into the belly of the Beast that is Arkham Asylum, with Batman chasing after, with a whirlwind of destruction and head bashing following him.
The first thing that's striking about Arkham Asylum is it's combat (pun!). You're never really given a tutorial about how combat works other than simple on screen prompts, and at the beginning it seems really simplistic and almost to the point of button mashing. Thankfully, however, this is not the case. Rocksteady has really designed an incredibly intuitive combat system that is as simple as it is complex. The four basic buttons that you ever really need to beat the game are the four buttons: punch, stun, dodge, and counter. By mashing on these four buttons, players can get through the majority of the game's fights, save for a few encounters with tougher henchmen. However, Batman also has an arsenal of tools at his disposal, which include his trademark Batarangs and grapple gun, that also can be used in the middle of combat.
Although the system is inherently simple, at its core it's incredibly complex: the dubbed “FreeFlow” combat experience is reliant on Batman fighting with his brains as much as his brawn. You can chain hits into larger combos, which in turn reward you with instant take-downs—moves that immediately take a regular henchmen out of the fight with brutal, bone breaking animations that never get old. The game does an amazing job at making you feel like the ultimate bad-ass as you clear out a room of bad guys in one long combo. Although some may criticize the simplicity of the combat, I think it's an inherent quality to the character: Batman is a lethally trained martial-artists! His fighting is based off of reflexes and technique—fighting comes easy to him.
Another big feature of the game are the stealth segments that again requires the player to focus on Batman's intellect rather than his brute strength. In these stealth scenarios, Batman infiltrates a room filled with bad guys with guns, forcing Batman to hide in the shadows to stay alive. To help him him coordinate his way around the room, Batman has access to is patented “Detective Vision”, a special visor in his cowl that helps him see in the dark, find weaknesses in walls, find grates and air ducts that he can travel through, as well as have enemies highlighted on the screen. Forced stealth segments in most games in general are usually poor and awkwardly cumbersome, but again the developers have really created a system that works wonderfully. In these segments, you really get the opportunity to use all of Batman's gadgets like a real tactician. You could grapple across the room to plant charges on the wall to blow the baddy to the other side, swoop down and string up enemies by their heels in a similar fashion to Batman Begins, or you can throw Batarangs to knock bad guys off ladders and ledges. Enemies begin in these rooms confident as they feel in control with their patrols and full room sweeps. As Batman takes out the enemies one by one, the remaining bad guys begin to freak out, acting more sporadically and randomly. This makes for a great atmosphere of predator vs. prey in which you really feel like you're “playing with your food,” so to speak.
The last key feature of the gameplay is the exploration and finding new gadgets. Arkham Asylum was built on a large island which is fully explorable. Throughout the game, Batman will be transmitted clues to solve some sometimes really tough riddles from the Riddler, as well as maps to help him collect all the trophies that are hidden on the map. These trophies aren't just for the collect-o-philes, but also have tangible benefits in the game, such as unlocking character bios and audio tapes that are really interest to read and listen to. In addition to the Riddler challenges, Batman also has the opportunity to find Arkham stones, which reveal more about the disturbing origins of the Asylum. As you progress in the game, Batman will also find or regain access to his gadgets, allowing him to explore even more of the island or more abilities to use against enemies,similar to systems found in other adventure games such as Zelda or Metroid. Also, by fighting enemies and progressing in the game, the player is given experience points that he can use to upgrade his fighting prowess and gadgets. This really creates an addicting experience as you find yourself trying to find just one more Riddler trophy.
All these systems combine together to create an incredibly engrossing experience in which you really feel like the Batman, a bonafide badass that can snap your forearm in half while solving a quantum physics problem in his head. This immersion is helped by the fact that that Rocksteady has created such an atmospheric world: Arkham is dirty, grimy place that reflects the corruption that is found within. The character models and designs look great, with Batman and the henchmen packing some serious meat on them bones. The voice-acting is also top-notch, with Mark Hamill really stealing the show as The Joker that's really as disturbing as he is disturbed.
There is no real multiplayer to speak of, other than the competition that inherently bred by online leaderboards that rank top scores from the game's extra modes that specialize in combat or stealth challenges. These challenge rooms are really fun to play and extend the life of the game past the main storyline, especially if you want to show the game off to friends...who are impressed by the snapping of necks. PS3 owners get a free, exclusive DLC that allows them to play as The Joker in both the combat and stealth challenge rooms. The Joker isn't merely a skin—it's a completely different character with a different fighting style and different gadgets. It was a fun experience, although in the end it wasn't as satisfying as playing as Batman. If you own both systems and are debating which version to get, ask yourself what's more important to you: a unique character to play as in the extra modes, or achievements? If I had to choose again, I'd probably choose to pick up the 360 version instead, both for the achievements and to be able to share with my friends that don't own a PS3.
As great as the game is, there are some minor issues. First of all, some parts of the game feel really “game-y”. That is to say, in those stealth sections, if you're ever spotted, all you have to do is grapple onto the rafters and swing around wildly until the enemies “forget” about you. There are some tedious sections with one specific boss in particular that could've been handled better. Also, none of the boss fights were particularly memorable or fun to play through (save for one), culminating in probably the most underwhelming end-boss fight ever. These issues are minor, however, and do not retract from the overall greatness that this game reeks of.
In the end, Rocksteady crafts a masterful experience that both captures the feel and spirit of what it is to be Batman. It isn't a perfect game, but the core experience is so powerful that it's difficult to find any reason not to recommend this game to anybody. They really found a balance that captures accessibility and complexity that makes Batman: Arkham Asylum a truly great game.
- Great combat, stealth, and exploration systems that really capture the feel of being Batman
- Engrossing atmosphere with a great setting and great character design
- Awesome graphics and fluid animations that really pack a visual punch
- Some tedious sections
- “Game-y” mechanics take you out of the immersion
- Forgettable boss fights (except for you know who!)
- Lackluster end game