Batman: Arkham Asylum
Yeah, I said it: Episode X
I’m not much of a comic book guy. I mean, I like them, I read them, I spend maybe $40 a year on them. And while lots of people might think that’s a lot of money, if you’d ever known a true Comic Book Guy, you’d know I’m not one. I just like them.
As a casual comic fan, I always thought it was funny that there’s such animosity between the Superman Camp and the Batman Camp. Superman was always my favorite, and the reasons are obvious: he’s friggin’ Superman.
Batman die-hards always stress Batman’s humanity and lack of superpowers as a reason he’s just “so much cooler” than Superman. But here’s my problem with that: Batman’s portrayal by these fans as the working man’s blue collar hero contrasted with Mr. I-Have-Easy Superman is just... untrue.
Let’s take a look at the DC Comics Wiki for Batman and see what listed powers/abilities he’s got:
(PS - I’m going to trim the list a bit, ‘cause while you say a lot of things about the nerds that wrote this, you can’t say they’re not thorough...)
Peak Human Strength, Reflexes, Endurance, Speed, Agility, Durability
Master Martial Artist (this covers weapons, stealth, and marksmanship)
Genius-Level Intellect (including degrees in forensics, chemistry, engineering, and computer science by age 21, and advanced degrees in several fields by 25)
Net worth of around $6.5 billion according to “Forbes”. The REAL “Forbes”, not “Forbes” in the DC comics universe.
Yeah... dude sure does have it rough, eh? Being able to run as fast as Usain Bolt already means you hit the DNA jackpot, but to do it while holding advanced degrees in chemistry and engineering, while being a ventriloquist, while being master acrobat, on top of an expert in all forms of combat I’m pretty sure disqualifies you from being called “just a human with no super-powers”. All that, while earning interest on that $6.5 billion.
Anyway! Why bring all this up? To illustrate that being Batman is COMPLICATED. We all watch the movies and cartoons and admire the man that does all these things and accept his ability to do all of it. There’s a problem translating that to a video game, where now YOU have to do all that work covered up by your own suspension of disbelief with 8 buttons and an analog stick (not counting the stupid buttons like “Start” or the d-pad).
Batman: Arkham Asylum does its best to solve this problem without you noticing, and in doing so created the first truly great “Batman” game. I know Batman Returns was fun, but did you really FEEL like Batman? No, you felt like Mike Haggar. The inspiration from Batman comics could make a stealth game, it could make a beat ‘em up game, it could even make some sort of Sherlock Holmes-type detective game with light combat. But a game fully recreating the experience isn’t just one of these games... it’s ALL of these games.
Arkham Asylum finally let’s you BE Batman. Or at least, as close as video games can reasonably get.
This is accomplished by, oddly enough, letting BATMAN be Batman instead of letting you be Batman. I joked with co-workers that you don’t so much control Batman as you pick targets to get “Batman-ed”...
“Batman that guy!”
“Now Batman that guy over there!”
“Now Batman up to that ledge!”
The controls are pretty simple during the midst of a fight, and moderately more complex when puzzle-solving or platforming as you have a little more time to think and plan your moves. Combat relies primarily on the control stick to move Batman and face targets, and then only one true “attack” button. The attack itself will be primarily chosen by the computer at random or sometimes based on your distance from the enemy chosen by what direction you’re facing. Far away enemy = flying jump kick. Close up enemy = maybe a punch or some kind of elbow strike. There’s a “counter” button that’ll become useful when you get an indicator that an enemy is about to attack that’ll dodge and then hit the enemy, and lastly there’s an button combination to hit when you want to disable an enemy that’s already been knocked to the ground, but is not out of the fight yet.
Later in the game you’ll get access to some slightly more advanced moves, but even these are just pushing two buttons at the same time or hitting the button that throws a batarang. Successful combat comes from stringing together uninterrupted attacks as you build a combo streak. As this combo goes up, you’ll find you stun enemies more easily, making it easier to take on a crowd of 6-8 enemies by hitting one once, hitting another, hitting another, hitting another, and so on. This keeps a majority of the gang recovering from an attack at any one time allowing you to more easily single out an enemy for a finishing attack. The enemies will get craftier as the game moves on, acquiring knives, stun batons, and guns, all adding to the difficulty, especially when an enemy picks up the gun of his fallen comrade and begins firing away. Finishing a gang of thugs quickly and without taking a lot of damage is pretty satisfying, allowing you to bask in your Bat-prowess for a moment.
With so many famous faces in one game, you know you’re bound for a few boss fights. These take the form of a traditional “boss fight” or something more like action sequence set-pieces. Just know that really regardless of what you’ll be doing, they’re usually quite entertaining. Oddly enough, I wasn’t that impressed with the final fight. Not because it was bad, but it was stuff I’d kinda done earlier in the game.
But all that only matters when you’re going toe-to-toe with enemies. Often times (whether because you wanted to or the story mandates it) you’ll find yourself sneaking around the room and taking out thugs on at a time. This is probably the most crucial element for people who want to know if it “feels” like a Batman game. These will commonly take place is large rooms with high ceilings for swinging around in the shadows, floor grates and duct work for you to get close to enemies on the ground, and maybe a destructible wall or two for traps. This is a fantastic aspect of the game, and aside from only a couple times when I felt like the AI let me get away with some less-than-impressive stealth, they run almost perfectly. It’s easy enough to execute that you feel the power and ability of Batman, but not so easy that you feel like the scenarios are being gift-wrapped for you.
The biggest asset in these areas other than your trusty grappling hook is what the game calls “Detective Mode”. It’s a computer-aided overlay that shows points of interest for grappling to, crawling in, or blowing up. It also gives you a rundown on the number of enemies, if they’ve got guns, and where they all are. This allows you to see them through walls, so you know where they are even if you don’t have line-of-sight to them.
Detective Mode comes is quite handy... almost too handy. With the wealth of things to look at, it’s too easy to play the entire game practically in Detective Mode, as it almost turns into a hassle to turn it on and off as frequently as you’ll be wanting its help. It’s only a button push, but after a while you’ll honestly wonder why you’re turning it off.
When not fighting enemies, there’s still plenty of Batman-ing to do. Following blood trails, sneaking into buildings, saving hostages dangling over... various things. You’ll employ a variety of Bat-tools doing all this side-work, like the grappling hook, batarang, explosive gel, or a zip-line launcher. These are all located on the d-pad, using them is a matter of selecting the proper tool, holding down a shoulder button to aim, and hitting another to throw. These sections tend not to be very long or complicated, but they last long enough to break up the pace from fighting and turn a brawler into an actual adventure.
As you complete fights or uncover clues, you’ll gain XP for spending on upgrades to your gadgets, armor, gaining some new combat options or something. None of these are especially ground-breaking, but do help keep the gameplay from getting stale. Having new combat options makes for more entertaining fights, and new gadgets give you the tools you may finally need to reach Riddler puzzle solutions you previously couldn’t.
Aside from story-driven work, there’s plenty of exploring to do around Arkham. The Riddler has hidden dozens if not hundreds of trophies and images around or riddles that require a certain object be identified to solve the riddle. Detective mode comes in quite handy here helping you find walls to blow open and clues for all this bonus content.
Arkham Asylum plays host to this adventure. As the maximum security institution for all of Batman’s greatest villains, the ensuing... um... security issue... will set loose a who’s-who of troublemakers running amuck in the complex. The story will uncover a plot involving a lot more than just releasing the inmates to see what happens. It's not the most complex story, but it was quite sufficient for the game.
This story will be told through a series of cutscenes as well as conversations as Batman is traversing the island. You’ll be happy to know (or at least you SHOULD be happy) that the voice acting is not only excellent, but features the main components of the animated series from the early 90s. This means favorites such as Kevin Conroy as Batman, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, and the one and only Mark Hamill as the Joker have lent their talents to the game, and we’re all better off for their help.
The graphics of the game do a good job setting a dark and disturbing tone, and keep it running through the length of the game. Arkham is an unsettling place on its own, let alone during a crisis. The action looks fluid and impressive, and the developers admirably resisted the urge to copy what everyone has loved about the (admittedly great) Christopher Nolan Batman movies and tried to find a realistic-looking comic book art style for the game instead. It was nice to see them not just play off of the newest flavor of the month and go for a more classic look for the game.
One kind of nice touch was the gradual wear-and-tear that shows up on Batman’s suit throughout the night. Eventually some tears in the cape or the suit, or a cut on Batman’s face will pop up and remain for the duration of the game. It’s a fun little touch and a nod to what a hellish night this is supposed to be for Batman. I enjoy it when games take advantage of the opportunity to do this to the characters.
There’s plenty of work to do in the form of challenges when you’re not scouring Arkham for trouble. These will be either score attack combat missions where combos are rewarded or time attack types where you’ll have to clear a room as quickly as possible. It’s a pleasant activity for people that enjoyed an aspect of the game such as stealth or combat as they have a chance to just play with it for fun. Naturally, these all have leaderboards so you can see how many people are more obsessed than you.
It’s nice to see someone finally get a Batman game right. After a while in this industry you get numb to watching licensed games getting puked out by developers alongside a movie or something and it’s easy to pass off any Batman game as Bat-crap. Recently, some rays of light have begun to poke through that disgusting blob of licensed garbage, and it’s refreshing to see.
I think the key may lie in a combination of two things: the right developer and NOT BEING TIED TO A MOVIE.
Finding the right developer was key for this game. Finally someone found a way to boil down all that is Batman and make it accessible to video game fans. And (like Spider-Man: Web of Shadows) not being attached to a movie meant this game had no "other" timeline to operate with in the form of a movie release date that was needed to ensure sales. This bought the game time to find the right dev, and then bought it the time it needed to actually come out a finished product. Don't miss this one.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was the first video game to finally get Batman right.
Yeah, I said it.