The Dark Knight Rises, or in this case, swoops down.
With both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan achieved sophistication with a character and a universe that had been stuck in shitty comic book revisions for decades. While Batman always had the potential to be an interesting character, he never seemed as vivid to me as his super-villain counterparts. (Notice I say vivid instead of, say, lifelike; because honestly, there’s nothing lifelike about an eleven-foot tall crocodile mutant, or most of these characters if you really think about it.) That being said, prior video games about everyone’s favorite caped vigilante seem to have been treated with the same level of seriousness as the prior films (Mr. Freeze ring a bell? Or the hokey nature of Adam West?): Just throw Batman in a fucking 2D sidescroller, a lame platforming beat ‘em up, who cares. But surprisingly, much like the two aforementioned Nolan reboots, Batman: Arkham Asylum succeeds as a competent piece of Batman fiction. And it succeeds as a game, too, albeit with some needlessly frustrating sequences and restricting linearity.
Batman: Arkham Asylum begins with Batman bringing the captured Joker (Mark Hamill’s Joker, not Heath Ledger’s existentialistic, nihilist take, though the revised Joker here sports the Glasgow Smile of Ledger’s famed version) to, well, Arkham Asylum. Joker breaks free – surprise, surprise – and traps Batman within the Asylum, setting up a sandbox in which you’ll encounter a number of classic Batman super-villains; these varied (each with a different gameplay system, for the most part) encounters advance the story, with the only abstract one being Scarecrow’s fear gas sequences—which can be so infuriating that you’ll often forget how great the mindfuckery is that prefaces them. While it would have been nice to randomly run into some of these characters during free exploration, Arkham Asylum prefers to have its sandbox as confined and structured as possible. The term “sandbox” is often used to describe an open world with lots to do in game review cliché. Here, I’ll be using it in the correct way: It’s a closed box with designated sections (the stuff you’ve constructed in the sand, if you will). The island is super linear, with collectables and Metroid-like you can’t access this place yet, but you will later-gadget unlocks creating the façade of an open space. You are free to go to the other areas on the map, but unless there’s an objective along the way, you never really need to. Most of the key collectables, such as the fascinating patient interviews (a highlight of the game and an homage to Bioshock if there ever was one) and Riddler challenges, appear consistently throughout story objectives. So it’s not as if you’re missing much by just sticking to the story. Character upgrades unlocked in the form of experience points from combat are distributed plentifully throughout the main story, so you don’t need to worry about that either.
The gameplay blends very satisfying combat, not-so-satisfying and imprecise hoping around from place to place using various gadgets, stealth akin to a poor man’s Splinter Cell, and a detective vision mode. The combat is rhythmic, with the X button serving for strikes, Y for properly timed counters, and B for stunning an enemy holding a weapon. It’s a bit obtuse (literally, the camera can make things seem so slow despite how fast everything is moving at you) at first, especially when fighting multiple enemies, but a few upgrades and some time spent and it’s actually fun. The hits are hard, and they’re represented well with some nice animation. There are multiple stealth tactics to your advantage as well, such as conveniently placed Gargoyles to swing around on, silent takedowns, vents to pop out of, etc. However, the myriad of options sometimes seem artificial. I encountered one instance where I had to subdue – ‘cause remember folks, Batman doesn’t kill anyone…otherwise this game would be a hell of a lot easier – an entire room of armed Joker's lackeys. Despite the many so-called “options” available, it was clear after being spotted and shot dead nine times in a row (the Batarang being as useful in these scenarios as throwing a ball of rolled up paper would have been) that I had to do things a certain way in order to take everyone out without being seen. That’s not exactly the type of freedom that upgrades, collectables, and supposed different playstyles suggest. Cheap deaths are the main reason for repeating a lot of these stealth sequences—some of which are so contrived that it breaks up the good report established by the combat and general aesthetics of the island.
One of the invaluable tools at your disposal is detective vision, which essentially breaks the game, but at the same time makes playing it possible. By simply clicking the left shoulder button, you enter an altered mode of sight where all enemies, vents, gargoyles, collectables, security doors, etc are visible. The detective mode is supposed to be used for planning out the tactics of each room, how to deal with each situation, but the game leaves you with no incentive (or punishment) to not just leave it on the entire time. And that’s a shame because doing so causes you to miss out on the detailed environments of Arkham Asylum. Everything runs fluidly and animates well, with the brooding environments and scattered case-study interviews nostalgic of Bioshock’s city of Rapture. But Arkham Asylum remembers its roots with a comic book aesthetic for the menus and character bios, which feature original character drawings. Each character has a good amount of information available on them, and the voiced interviews expand on this while adding continuity to both the characters and the story.
The voice work is terrific, with Harley Quinn and Mark Hamill’s Joker as the standouts. The story could be better (maybe with less comic book contrivances all over the place), and Batman’s character (save the first two Scarecrow sequences) once again serves as a shell for much more interesting characters to be put around him. But everything is well voiced, and for the most part, works. The only real disappointment in Batman: Arkham Asylum is occasional frustration adherent to certain objectives. There are little nitpicky things on the side, too, such as how the thematic darkness of the environments sometimes makes it hard to know exactly where you’re supposed to go next, or how Batman’s bulky character geometry will occasionally impair your ability to make a jump or a leap to a safe spot that seemed doable. But all in all, despite the occasional “WHY THE FUCK DO I KEEP DYING?” moments, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a fun, engaging (and lengthy, at over twelve hours) third-person action game with a lot of intriguing fan service that’s actually worth the indulgence.