Arkham Asylum is a must-play, no matter who you are.
Batman doesn't exactly have a good history when it comes to video games. The best thing you can say about the Batman games is that some of them are decent. But Arkham Asylum has abandoned the generic, repetitive beat-em-up structure that made other games in the same universe so dull and has instead opted for an experience that's part stealth, part action and part exploration. The result is a game that's not only a fantastic Batman game, but an incredible achievement in its own right. The stealth is handled brilliantly, the combat is simple but slick and the exploration offers plenty of incentive to keep playing once you've finished the 20 hour story mode.
The main aspect of Arkham Asylum is its stealth gameplay. Batman can crouch and silently attack enemies from behind, hang from gargoyles and grab them as they walk by, or sit and wait for an unsuspecting thug to walk close enough to get a boot in the face. Combine this with Batman's many gadgets, such as exploding gel that can be sprayed and detonated at will, Batarangs and a grappling hook and you've got tons of ways to be creative with your kills. The levels are designed in such a way that you can easily lay out elaborate traps or distractions, and the enemies' generally clever AI will keep you on your toes with their unpredictable movements. Thugs might split into groups to avoid being attacked or split up entirely, and occasionally they'll even flank you. If you're too loud killing an enemy or moving around, enemies will hear you and run to your position. Stealth in Arkham Asylum isn't as easy as waiting for someone to walk around the corner and snapping their neck; you've got to be clever and use your gadgets and powers to the best of your ability.
The combat in the game only relies on a few actions: punch, counter and stun. The attacks are extremely responsive and the Free Flow Combat system lets you seamlessly move from one enemy to the next by simply pressing the attack button. If an enemy is about to attack you, an icon will appear above their head indicating that you can counter their attack. Doing so can result in several counters, depending on what weapon they're using. Some enemies carry stun rods and have to be jumped over and attacked from behind, while others have knifes and can block your attacks, meaning you have to stun them first. But of course, basic thugs aren't the only enemies you'll see in the game. There's a nice variation of grunts to fight, but there are also Titans, which are large, boss-like creatures that run at you and have to be hit at the right time with a quick throw of a Batarang.
There are some boss fights in the game as well, but none of them are especially fun or memorable. Compared to the unique gameplay present in the rest of the game, the boss fights are incredibly formulaic, and their pattern-based attacks and weaknesses become old rather quickly. The most disappointing fight of all is Killer Croc. From the very beginning of the game the boss fight with Croc is being built up to, and once you finally get there all you do is walk slowly along a path in the water trying not to disrupt him while you collect plants. It goes on far too long, and nothing ever happens to make it interesting. The best boss fight in the game appears several times, and that boss is Scarecrow, who gets inside Batman's head and causes some of the game's best moments to occur. I won't spoil them for you, but I will tell you this: they're seriously awesome.
The exploration is one of the best parts of the game. Arkham Asylum is by no means an open-world game. You can't go anywhere you see, and despite seeing it in the background a lot, you'll never visit Gotham City. However, the asylum is well designed, and you can roam around searching for secrets and backtracking to early areas for stuff you might have missed. The best part about the asylum, though, is The Riddler's Challenge. The Riddler has hidden a ton of stuff around the island for you to collect. There are the aforementioned audio logs, voice recordings called "The Chronicles of Arkham", riddles to solve for experience points, Joker teeth to destroy and Riddler Trophies to find. It sounds like way too much, but it's actually a great incentive to keep playing because all of it is either incredibly interesting or unlocks cool stuff.
As you progress through the game you earn experience, which goes towards your level. Leveling up doesn't make you more powerful, but every time you level up you can buy a new upgrade for your armor, gadgets or combat abilities. These upgrades are useful for stealth and combat, but they can also be used to access new areas that you couldn't otherwise reach. The system isn't deep at all, but it works well, and it rewards you for completing The Riddler's Challenges. It would have been nice to see a deeper and more flexible system, though. A lot of the upgrades are lame and are rarely – if ever – used, and you're forced to buy them to unlock the better ones. It's nice that you can unlock better stuff, but the system sometimes feels a little tacked on.
The game's visuals are kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, the art direction is fantastic. The asylum is well designed and looks genuinely foreboding. It's dark, dirty and trashed. The designs are all entirely believable and the outer area offers some really cool sights of Gotham. On the other hand, the game uses the Unreal Engine, which means it's packed with hollow character models, lifeless, creepy faces, texture pop-in (though it's minor here) and an annoying bloom effect. Characters sometimes glow around the edges, as do the environments, and sometimes things even become blurry, which hurts your eyes. The only thing to do in these situations is switch to Detective Mode. Detective Mode, in case you're wondering, is an awesome-looking night vision-esque mode in which everything turns blue and glows orange around the edges. It looks cool, but it also highlights important things in orange.
The game obviously has a stellar voice cast, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and The Joker. Both do an excellent job, though Batman occasionally sounds a little stiff. The other characters don't sound quite as good, but they all get the job done. The music is dark and appropriate, though it's also pretty forgettable. The sound effects pack a huge punch, with loud punching and kicking noises that add even more responsiveness and fun to the combat. So overall, while the sound may not make your ears bleed awesomeness, the voice acting is excellent and the sound effects have kick to them.
There is one major issue that I have with the game, and that is that the camera is incredibly annoying. See, the camera is snapped close to Batman's back. This puts Batman on the left side of the screen. Not only does he block a lot of the screen, but this strange design decision leads to camera difficulties in tight spaces. Obviously, this game takes place in an asylum, so you'll be walk through a lot of hallways, many of which are narrow. Unless you run through them, the camera will be right up against the wall as you make your way through, obscuring your vision and causing you to get up close and personal with many of the game's blurry textures. There are also some cases where you'll be in cramped spaces and unable to run. At one point you have to go into a cramped air vent to find a Riddler Trophy, and it's basically just a small rectangle. This means running doesn't do anything and the camera goes nuts.
This issue aside, Arkham Asylum is a fantastic Batman game, and an excellent action game in its own right. Its clever take on stealth combined with the well-realized combat make it easy to forgive and forget the game's flaws. And once you're finished with the story, you can hunt down all The Riddler's hidden goodies, solve his clues and compete in Challenge Rooms that test your stealth and combat abilities. The Challenge Rooms probably won't keep you busy for too long unless you're into highscores, but The Riddler's hidden items will have you hunting for days, and you might even find yourself enticed to play through again. Needless to say, you should really play Arkham Asylum, whether you like Batman or not.