The game Gotham needs, or the game Gotham deserves?
I always envisioned that the ideal Batman game would be encapsulated in a sandbox. Imagine it now; patrolling the streets of in the Batmobile, beating up thugs and keeping the citizens safe from crime and itself. Unfortunately, recent sandbox games, both with real superheroes (Spiderman: Web of Shadows, Superman Returns) and imitation heroes (Infamous, Prototype) have taught me better. All of those games featured redundant gameplay mechanics realized the notion that the life of a superhero is less than glamorous. Sure, the first time we knuckle-sandwiched some thugs after robbing a bank was thrilling, but after the twentieth time, then superheroism became yet another drab 9-to-5 existence. Like real sandboxes, sandbox games aren’t meant to be monitored and protected from crabs and hyperactive little brothers so much as they were meant to be smashed and battered, so why should we do the same in a video game?
With that in mind, I give two big thumbs up to Batman: Arkham Asylum for being a strictly linear action adventure game that focuses more on the Batman part of the Batman experience than the city part.
(And two big thumbs up for fully realizing the Watchmen commentary, playing the idea that all heroes and villains are just fetishists and psychopaths. Just look at Batman’s suit on the box.)
The entire game is set within the confines of Arkham Asylum, famous for having no ability to keep a supervillain locked up. Batman makes the mistake bring the Joker to Arkham as opposed to somewhere with a lower escape record. Like a dog kennel. Joker gets free, takes over the prison, Batman gets grumpy.
So instead of my original vision of a Batman game being set in the city that doesn’t deserve him, we get the more intimate setting of a mental institution designed by Satan’s private architect. The dimly-lit halls, the dingy caves, the stone-laden interiors, Arkham is a place no health and safety inspector would approve of. But it makes the ideal setting for an action game driven by its demented villains. Certain gold-card holders of the Batman Rogues Gallery club make domineering appearances and you can tell the developers have a clear understanding of what makes each character mentally unique and corrupt. The game applies that God of War mentality where you can motivate players by dangling an antagonist in their faces like a twinkie, promising that you’ll get to devour this jerk soon enough. The Joker (voiced as only Mark Hamill can) constantly makes appearances on the Arkham intercom, delightfully annoying the player with lewd intercom messages and color commentary, building anticipation for when you can finally bust his enlarged lip.
So the Caped Crusader (who’s cape is exceptionally well-rendered) ventures forth into the Asylum, with about the same degree of linearity as a Metroid Prime game. Whether by map waypoint or a flow-altering sub-sequence where Batman uses a forensic analyzer-thingy to act all Sherlock-like, you’ll always be pointed in the right direction. As you progress, you collect a handful of new gadgets that increase your overall mobility (all the while questioning why Batman didn’t have said devices in his utility belt in the first place) and you have the freedom to explore the island. There’s an optional scavenger hunt, but it stands above the normal optional gaming scavenger hunt where a bunch of random-but-identical items are scattered around a game world and you’re never given a reason to collect them aside from “because they’re there, get them to get the Achievement, you freaking clepto!” In this game, The Riddler has broken free and will constantly berate you from a distance, daring you to collect his trophies and scan in-world items related to a series of riddles. There are some nice small rewards too, like bios of characters in the Batmaniverse and delectable therapy session tapes with the insanely-sane villains.
But when you finally decide that the Joker commands your attention (and he’s certainly trying his hardest to get it) then the game becomes a surprisingly well-paced action adventure. The combat system will pit Batman against a sizable group of thugs who haven’t learned after 60 years of comic books that going hand to hand with the Bat isn’t a great idea. Fighting is bafflingly simple; usually you’re either punching with one button or countering with another, but the animations transitioning one attack to another are so shockingly smooth that you feel more like comic book Batman than Adam West Batman. There are other combat options aside from “hit” and “don’t get hit”, but combat is more about maintaining a high combo score and kicking as much ass as possible before a mosquito bites you, than it is about survival of the fittest like in the Watchmen games.
OR, the thugs have read a few Detective Comics, and decide that Batman may have a weakness to automatic weapons. In these sequences, it’s best to hide away and stealth KO each goon from behind. The problem with these guards is that they chose to carry these guns in rooms filled with gargoyle statues near the ceiling that Batman can perch himself on. It’s a bit silly how, if spotted, you can just scurry up to your gargoyle statues like a security blanket, and these guards don’t clue in to your secret strategy until late in the game (but at least they figure it out eventually!) The general key to winning a stealth sequence is to isolate one guard, wait until the Joker ridicules his own goons for letting you suffocate a drone, then let the guards hurry to their fallen comrade, then pick of the next idiot. On the positive side, with unlockable tools like remote explosives and multiple batarang upgrades, you’re given a bit of breathing room when it comes to experimenting. And there’s a great sense of satisfaction in watching the guards tremble in fear, knowing that the throaty-voiced avenger is near. Now that is what being Batman is about.
And there are a few platforming sequences. Between the occasional jumping, shimmying and grappling hooking, you’ll occasionally play the role of the Dark Prince of . Some parts of the environment can be ‘sploded with your ‘sploding gel, some ventilation shafts can be snuck into, and a handful of Metroidian upgrades will allow access to more of Arkham’s grotesque secrets. A tap of the left shoulder button opens “Detective Mode”, where Batman uses his honed sense of deduction to identity what parts of the environment can be tampered with, as well as each enemy’s skeleton and heart rate. Them’s some damn fine detective skills.
Taken on their own, the combat is relatively simple, the stealth sequences aren’t as deep as certain Clancified games and the platforming isn’t as…ehhh…Persian, as Prince of Persia. But Arkham Asylum succeeds fantastically in pacing its many elements out so they never get old. Unlike Prototype or Infamous, which expect you to destroy military base after military base or gang troop after gang troop in succession, Batman wisely divides its gameplay morsels into more palatable servings. The interior designers at Arkham were sensible enough to place gargoyles only in rooms where they match the stone décor, and thus stealth sequences are spread out accordingly. Thug-thrashings are also scattered and often brief. Not to mention, the game is smart in its use of distinct set-pieces involving the Batman villains. Most Marvel games (scratch that. EVERY Marvel game) feature comic book heroes and villains making pointless cameos in the name of drawing an “oh my gosh it’s the Human Torch” reaction. In Batman, the sparse villains that appear make frequent, memorable appearances that both fit into the plot and draw perfectly onto their personality and/or personality disorder. If you originally thought “Zsasz” was the name of a Muppet Baby, then you will be well-acquainted by the end of this game.
All this, and Arkham Asylum is wrapped around some stellar production values too. I had mentioned in the past that Ghostbusters felt like the most TLC’ed game ever made, but Batman may have been out-nurtured by its programmers. The numerous references made to past characters in the levels, placed in a subtle manner as to not guilt-trip players who don’t know about Humpty Dumpty. The way entire environments contort in reflecting plot twists. The way Batman will repel himself to safety should he fall into a bottomless pit. The amount of fun the Joker seems to be having over the PA. How the villain-of-the-moment will do a happy dance during the Game Over screen. Each and every programmer at Rocksteady was born not to preserve their genes for future generations, but to create this very game.
Now, if for whatever reason, you become enraptured with the stealth or combat, then you can unlock the game’s assorted Challenge mode missions, which isolate a series of combat and stealth sequences in the name of posting a score online. Playstation 3 owners can download a challenge mode pack where you play as Mister Hamill/Romero/Nicholson/Ledger/Joker. Being the Joker simply means having some comedic move animations and losing all of Batman’s useful abilities (including the most important of all; the ability to spoon gargoyles for safety.) Also, you have to stand still to use “Detective Mode”, which for Joker, is more aptly named “magic mushrooms mode”, so the Joker missions are more for challenge-hungry players than anything else.
I guess this would be the “if the game has any problems” paragraph that most game reviews seem to have. But you have to look hard to find any kind of faults in this game. The first time I fought a super-muscle-bound freak monster, I thought it was an exhilarating battle of which I was fortunate to walk away from, spine-intact. But variations of that same battle will reincarnate a handful of times, more often than I would’ve liked. But again, they’re spread out and don’t become the same kind of annoyance the giant trash robots from Infamous grew to be, and you’d be right to assume I have an issue with Infamous and Prototype. My other complaint is that I would’ve liked a better payoff for completing all of the Riddler’s tricks. Like, say, actually getting to see the Riddler would’ve been a nice courtesy. I know a lot of people will take issue to how many famous villains are teased but never seen or fought, but I was glad that the game focused so succinctly on the key characters that do appear. Trying to squeeze in the game Mr Freeze would not be a task of ease, if you please. As would’ve been trying to squeeze in a Batmobile or Batjet sequence. Batman is just fine as it is.
My biggest struggle with Batman: Arkham Asylum was simply deciding how to rate it. Do I give the game a near perfect score and merely call it great, or proclaim that the game is perfect and thus my only other 5-star game of this console generation? The ultimate call that made up my mind was this; like that one other game, I not only finished this game but collected every optional side-item along the way like the obedient tool I am. And once I did retrieve every Riddler doodad, I continued to entertain the idea of playing through the game once again, even in the face of newer video games that were calling out me name, begging to be reviewed. That right there is a mark of excellence in my books. Buy this game, even if your background knowledge of the Batman fiction isn’t so serious. You could say that the game wouldn’t rank as high as it does without the Batman license; I suggest that the game is better because it plays to the strengths of the psychologically distorted themes and characters of . How many comic book-based games can claim that? Hell, how many comic book-“inspired” games can claim that? This is how to not butcher a major franchise, folks. I want a Batman shirt.
As for the mystery of what that other 5-star game is, well as of this writing, I haven’t reviewed it. Stay tuned! Same Bat time, same Bat channel.