Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360, PS3
I'm a Batfan, this cannot be denied. I've had a near-lifelong love for the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated series, but my fandom really began back in 2005 with the release of Batman Begins. I spent the next 4-5 years amassing a shocking number of Batman TPBs, hardcovers, and the like. So, upon discovering that Eidos would be publishing an immensely faithful video game adaptation of the series, I was understandably joyful. Bat-games have an unfortunate history, it should be said, but even from the first screens it was obvious that Arkham Asylum would be nothing short of the Dark Knight distilled to his purest elements.
For all intents and purposes, Arkham Asylum is a modern-day extension of the aforementioned animated series of my youth, minus the distinct aesthetic of Bruce Timm. It's written by Dini and once again featuring the voicework of Kevin Conroy and Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill as Batman and the Joker, respectively, and from start to finish plays like a darker, interactive episode of the groundbreaking series. The 2008 release of The Dark Knight saw Christ only knows how many people quoting Heath Ledger's memorable dialogue, and likewise Dini has written some true gems for Hamill's beloved--and, for many--definitive take on the Clown Prince of Crime. A truly laugh-out-loud moment involves his Joker comparing cutting an elevator's cables to "dropping [Batman] like a sack of puppies."
Arkham Asylum's plot and themes draw in large part from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's landmark one-shot, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, weaving together the titular asylum's past and Batman's present and resulting in a storyline that exemplifies modern-day tellings of the Dark Knight. Did I mention it's also heavily psychological? Like the Morrison/McKean work of its basis, Arkham Asylum seeks to explore the mental depths of everyone involved, including the Batman himself. And it succeeds, with collectable recordings of patient interviews augmenting the already-rich dialogue and atmosphere.
Furthermore, Arkham Asylum pays great tribute to the comic series itself, with literally dozens of in-jokes and references included as a form of scavenger hunt, courtesy of the Riddler who, unfortunately, remains off-screen for the entirety of the game. It's maybe a little too dedicated to the canon in this regard, with clues that only a long-time reader could pick up on--after all, Ratcatcher and Prometheus aren't the most well known members of Bats' Rogues Gallery.
It's also one the most "playable" games I've ever picked up, with controls that can be mastered by both casual and hardcore gamers. For the combat system, Rocksteady took a step away from the long-established but learning curve-heavy combo combat system and opted for something more freeflow. In the case of the 360 controller, X is punch, Y is dodge, B is cape stun. Enemies flash when they're about to take a foolhardy smack at you, giving you fair warning to evade, allowing you to take on a veritable mob of foes with relative ease. It sounds a little cheap, but by forcing you to keep on your toes rather than memorize a long list of supercomplicated combos, it succeeds.
Where Arkham Asylum excels, however, is it's stealth sections. Rocksteady opted to label these sequences "predator" moments, with the word "stealth" implying a sort of weakness or disadvantage on the part of the player character which, being Batman, you obviously don't have. Drawing on Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, you grapple from one conveniently-placed gargoyle to another, silently dropping down on armed-but-unsuspecting foes. I won't lie: these sections are probably some of the more fulfilling moments in my--granted, amateur--gaming career. Few things are more satisfying than gliding down a cable, snatching a goon off the floor and dangling him like an impotent testicle from an overhanging gargoyle.
And, by God, the Scarecrow sequences. This game contains some of the more effective uses of fear gas in the character's history, exemplified by a shocking but fascinating hallucinatory sequence in which poor Bats is reduced to his eight-year-old form, forced to relive the traumatic moment of his parents' murder. Of course, each scene is followed up by a rather odd "dodge the Scarecrow's gaze" platforming level, in which the Master of Fear basically becomes a lighthouse, casting his glowing gaze about a crumbling, wind-swept illusory world in search of a miniature Caped Crusader. Here, your goal is to evade detection and make your way to a Batsignal which, when shone in the direction of the good Dr. Jonathan Crane, will return you to the world of sanity. Interesting bits, to be certain, but they detract from the genuine sense of dread that abounds in the preceding hallucinations.
I'd also like to point out that this moment that the aforementioned "THE MASTER OF FEAR IS NOW THE LIGHTHOUSE OF FEAR" moments actually count as boss fights. Odd, but this doesn't necessarily stick out in the course of the game. Traditional boss fights are largely absent, with your two encounters with the vicious Mr. Zsasz ending quickly with single hits, Harley Quinn easily dispatched in a cutscene, and Killer Croc simply avoided rather than beaten. Granted, the Croc "boss sequence" is great, with Bats slowly creeping through a labyrinthe sewer, his pursuer occasionally growling threats from off-screen and bursting out of the water to attack.
We're also deprived of a normal boss fight with Joker himself, though you duke it out with him after he transforms into a giant monster (yes, this is true). Here, if nowhere else, I was hoping for something more traditional, something exemplifying the decades-long rivalry the Dark Knight has with the Clown Prince of Crime. Instead, we get a weird cage match, the Joker consumed with 'roid rage (and the muscles to show for it).
On a final negative, note, there's no real replay. This has never really been an issue with me, but after you beat the Joker and finish the Riddler's scavenger hunt minigame there's really nothing for you, save to wander about Arkham Island. I kid you not: it is possible to beat every enemy in the game, and while it's nice to stroll through this wonderfully designed environment without fear of ambush, it is, well, boring. Thankfully, this at least partially redeemed with Rocksteady's inclusion of a "challenge" mode, allowing you to replay certain mob and predator segments over and over, honing your skills and having you try out elaborate strategies in order to acquire completion bonuses.
But in the end, Batman: Arkham Asylum is very likely the purest Bat-game that has ever and even will ever be made, and certainly the best. If Rocksteady does have another go at the franchise (and they damn well better), it'd be nice to see a move from Arkham Island to Gotham City proper, maybe even access to the Batmobile. For now, I'm simply satisfied with having another go at the game, beating some challenge levels, and, yes, hanging more fools like impotent testicles.