Every Batman fan on the planet has been waiting for their caped messiah, waiting for an above average Batman game to finally come. While Batman: The Animated Series for the SNES was a winner in some fan’s eyes, it was really just a by-the-numbers platformer that didn’t strive to break the mold, and didn’t succeed in putting Batman games on the map.
But in August 2009, our time has finally arrived, compliments of Rocksteady’s development team. Arkham Aslyum reeks of production value: from the decision to cast many voice actors from the animated series along with other top shelf talent, to the penning of the Hollywood worthy script by acclaimed writer Paul Dini (Lost, Batman: The Animated Series), it would take a lot of effort to screw this one up. Read on to see if Arkham Asylum delivers on the hype.
While it seems like Arkham Asylum would follow a simplistic level-based style, the game is actually set up in a limited sandbox fashion. Arkham Island is kind of a hub world, and it hosts six buildings on it’s grounds. Although you must progress in a linear fashion (the story opens up these building entrances as it goes on), you’re free to roam the main grounds for collectibles, and re-visit past areas.
The amount of detail found in Arkham Asylum is astounding. Batman will wince and turn his head whenever there’s an explosion in close proximity; his outfit and cape will deteriorate over time; his facial expressions will change based on the situation; he’ll look around nervously when fine tuning his equipment. When Rocksteady announced a former Pixar employee would be working on the facial models, they apparently meant business, because Arkham Asylum’s world, and the characters that inhabit it, are phenomenally well done.
You’ll also find random villains scattered about Arkham making cameo appearances. Any fan of Batman will certainly appreciate the multiple familiar faces that pop in. The only character that feels out of place is Harley Quinn. If you haven’t seen her newest redesign: it’s kind of out of character, and while her voice is the original actress found in the animated series, it doesn’t quite match up with her new persona. Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker are even more spot on than they were in the animated series. I can’t tell you how much I missed Conroy’s matter-of-fact portrayal, and Hamill really takes the spotlight in this game, allowing him to dish up some particularly juicy lines.
Another incredibly refreshing aspect of the game is its gritty atmosphere. The Joker and his minions will brutally execute innocent guards right in front you, and there are a ton of random, unexpected deaths throughout the game. The Joker maintains his true entropic and unforgiving self, and because of this, Arkham Asylum presents us with a gripping and realistic portrayal of a psychopathic murderer not often seen in gaming. Additionally, an effort was made to tie the game in with existing Batman lore as much as possible: which includes some subtle links to the recent Nolan films. For instance, you’ll find a very familiar looking “Vote for Dent” campaign flier in Two-Face’s cell, and so on.
If I had one complaint with the game’s story, it would be the pacing. The beginning is incredibly intense, and you really feel a connection to The Joker: if he’s not antagonizing you on the spot, he’s on the asylum’s PA system, badgering you. Sadly, the story really drops off during the middle, and resorts to quite a few fetch quests. The Joker also suddenly stops throwing unique quips your way, and starts reaching from a database of previous voice overs. Thankfully, it picks up towards the end, but the odd finale will no doubt disappoint some fans.
The combat system is much more deep than at first glance, but it does have its share of problems. There’s so much going on, it’s really hard to manage, especially once you start battling ten or more people at one time. “Free flow” essentially translates to “use the X button” over and over to attack, allowing you to change directions with the simple press of the analog stick. You can counter with Y at any time, but ultimately that just translates to “mash Y” over and over without penalty.
While it is a bit clunky, I do commend the developers of Arkham Asylum for creating a brand new take on action game combat rather than resorting to a stock system. Free flow definitely has a place in future installments of action games down the line, and I hope that it’s caretakers tweak the system to provide a more fun experience.
Despite my contentions with the actual combat system, the stealth sections are much more fun, because the game really does a good job of bringing the caped crusader down to Earth. Batman is not Superman, and as such, he is extremely susceptible to bullets in the game: so much that they drop him in seconds. Because you can’t jump on command in Arkham Asylum (it uses an Ocarina of Time jump system), you have to rely on your trusty grappling hook to remain out of sight.
In these sections, you can use a myriad of tricks to distract, confuse, and terrify your opponents. From tying up foes upside-down, and throwing your batarang at the string to cause a distraction, to hiding under vents to attack unsuspecting passers-by: you can pretty much do anything. In one room, I intricately laid some C4 gel in key spots, used a remote baterang to move them all into specific areas, and strategically detonated them, knocking them out cold. You can also go for the more direct approach, or use stealth take downs at close range: the choice is yours, and that’s what makes it so beautiful.
In addition to Batman ‘the crime fighter’ and Batman ‘the stealth subduer’, you get to see a side of Batman rarely seen anywhere: ‘the detective’. Using your detective sight (very similar to the technology at the end of the Dark Knight Nolan film), you can isolate certain scents and DNA samples in order to track your targets. It’s a very fun and engaging break from combat.
Collectibles are the bane of many gamers (think Assassin’s Creed’s flags), but Arkham Asylum certainly covers its tracks. In case you’re completely stumped by The Riddler (which he will certainly revel at), you’re able to find a map that unveils all the riddle’s locations: it doesn’t tell you exactly how to get them, but you’ll still have an isolated location at your disposal. By collecting these objects, you unlock additional challenge rooms, patient audio logs, biographical information/character art and experience points: so they’re easily worth finding if you’re a fan. Hearing The Riddler talk about how his father beat him as a child for allegedly cheating on a logic puzzle is priceless.
My absolute favorite aspect of Arkham Asylum has to be its boss fights. There are absolutely no QTEs found in any of them, and some encounters are puzzles or platformers rather than strict hand to hand affairs. While you may feel slighted that your favorite villain’s encounter is a bit short, it really helps differentiate the game from every other action title out there.
Arkham also has a ton of other tiny little additions that are huge upgrades for the action genre. For instance, it has a very unique take on “game over” screens during platform sections: if Batman falls to his “death”, he’s always able to save himself by grappling up with the quick press of the grapple button (it prompts you on-screen). In any other game, you would have failed, and been sent to the continue screen, but Arkham picks up without a beat.
You can also view batarang throws from a first person perspective camera, and see Batman out of the eyes of a frightened enemy: that’s just plain cool. All your equipment and abilities are upgraded through an experience system, which you earn by downing foes, exploring new areas and solving riddles. Don’t assume that the level up system is shallow just because it’s an action game: there are a ton of upgrades to be found. By the time I finished the game, I was missing four more potential abilities.
When all is said and done, Arkham Asylum is a typical action experience in terms of length. It clocks in at around 10 hours, 15 if you solve all 240 riddles in the game. You also get extra challenge rooms which function very similarly to Mirror’s Edge, but there isn’t much of a draw to them. In Mirror’s Edge, you would at least compete solo with a ghost opponent based on another player’s merits, which gave it a faux-multiplayer feel. But in Arkham Asylum, the challenge rooms feel like an empty experience: a mere shell of the single player game.
Because of the short amount of time it takes to unlock 100% of it’s content, $60 will no doubt be too rich for some, and hardcore action goers will most likely just beat it once and forget it, considering there’s no difficulty level beyond “hard” (which isn’t really that hard). Sadly, you get nothing upon completion, except for a slightly different armored Batsuit, which can only be used in challenge mode. I would have loved the ability to play as Bruce Wayne, Robin, or perhaps a classic Batman costume; but as it stands, I have no motivation to beat it again. PS3 owners are allowed to use The Joker in challenge mode, but since I have only played the 360 version, I can’t comment.
Simply put, if you’re a Batman fan, and don’t have Arkham Asylum yet; save your allowance up, trade some games in, Goozex it: the bottom line is somehow, you need to buy this game. Action fans may be left wanting more, but for the studio’s first foray into the Batman franchise, it’s a solid title.
Reviewer’s note: The Xbox 360 version was tested for this review
No doubt about it, Arkham Asylum shows the true attention to detail the developers put in.
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Not being able to jump puts you at the mercy of the game's jumping system, which has steered me wrong a number of times. Combat also has its flaws, but all around, it's a blast to play around with Batman's gadgets.
You'd swear that the soundtrack is right out of a proper Batman film, and the voice actors are top notch. In addition to the obvious quality performances from Conroy and Hamill, there are a handful of veteran voice actors sprinkeled in as an added bonus.
The game's challenge mode really doesn't have anything distinctively different about it, and story mode only lasts around 15 or so hours for 100% completion. I suppose we can hope for future DLC, as the option is there on the main menu.
Despite a few problems and its short length, Arkham Asylum pushes a lot of boundaries for action games, and is a must buy for Batman enthusiasts.