Atmospheric and Innovative Stealth-Action
For all the impact he's had on comics and all other kinds of media, Batman's portrayal and success as character has always been confusing. He's innately dissonant in nature: here we have an emotionally scarred, near sociopathic man haunted by events of his childhood, who fights crime in a grim dystopian city where it's always night and the glass is always half full (...of BLOOD!). One who dresses up in a rubber animal suit and is directly responsible for many of the tropes of the campy, childish silver and golden ages of comics. This disconnect is most jarring in the comparison of the infamous Adam West
Batman of the 60's TV show and classic comics, and the gritty, harsh, GODDAMNED BATMAN of the modern age and the Dark Knight
film series: the same character seen in a different light can become completely unrecognizable. If anything, Batman's characterization has been dreadfully inconsistent, which is not too big a deal, especially considering his roots in comics. However one thing is certain, which Arkham Asylum
makes perfectly clear: Batman is a Badass.
Much as the animated series of the 90's has been praised for, the Batman of Arkham Asylum
perfectly balances the new and the older sillier Batmans from across the decades. Dark and edgy but also completely unashamed of its quirky comic roots. Not just for Batman as a character but for the franchise as a whole: while it is most reminiscent of the aforementioned animated TV series (mostly due to its returning voice actors and script penned by writer Paul Dini
), this is no specific Batman, but ALL of them. And the sum is most definitely greater than all of its parts, because this is arguably the best adaptation of Batman the franchise has ever seen. A celebration of what makes Batman great: The Essential Batman.Arkham Asylum
, uncommon for a licensed game, is completely unique in its execution. Whereas most licensed games can usually be summarized as something along the lines of "RPG", "shooter" or most common historically, "platformer", Batman is its own animal. It's sort of a cross between a gadget-based action-adventure like Zelda
, with a battle system somewhat like a 3D beat 'em up, and a completely unique take on stealth like nothing that has come before.
As expected, gameplay relies heavily on utility belt gadgets, such as batarangs, bat explosive goo, and at least three variations on the bat grappling hook. Speaking of which, echoing Bionic Commando
, the jump button is gone and replaced by a grappling hook, and arguably for the better. It's automatically aimed and fired at the press of a button, and will have you zipping around rooms, from ledge to ledge or gargoyle to gargoyle with ease. The whole thing feels extremely streamlined, but manages not to come across as being too casual-friendly: the easier to manage controls make it less aggravating and allows the player to deal with the tense and difficult stealth combat situations, rather than having to wrestle with the controls. Other toys are used in predictable but welcome ways, such as the explosive gel which serves as the remote-controlled answer to Link's bombs, or the upgraded bat-grapple which is used to pull down obstacles and reel in enemies.
In terms of exploration, it is fairly solid and comparable to something like Metroid Fusion
in its structure and linearity - a semi-linear exploratory adventure game with frequent options side-paths and optional backtracking, and a linear main road with frequent twists and turns. It does a decent job disguising its relatively straightforward path by making it sometimes difficult to find exactly what is the right way out of the particular puzzle room you're in, and littering the various secret trapdoors and air ducts with hidden character logs and collectible trophies courtesy of Batman's nemesis, The Riddler, who is portrayed as a bloodthirsty and insane genius with an inferiority complex. One of the most satisfying aspects to the exploration is solving his riddles, which are given as hints leading you to various decorative objects lying around the Asylum, sometimes hidden in plain sight, sometimes devilishly hard to find. These unlock character bios for plenty of people in the bat's rogues' gallery, some of them very obscure.
Melee combat is adequate. You have a fairly standard punch and kick combo, as well as some throws and takedowns which seem to be used automatically when the combo meter is racked up. Every standard attack is initiated with the press of a single button. More interestingly, you have the ability to interrupt and counter any incoming melee attack with the press of another button and proper timing. Opportunities for these maneuvers are shown by a symbol appearing over enemies' heads, depending on difficulty. You also have a finishing attack, usually smashing enemies' faces into the floor with your enormous fist. This is all liberally sprinkled with a healthy dose of slow motion. It's mostly unnoticeable while you are playing, but when watching someone else play the amount of slow motion is fairly jarring. It runs extremely smoothly with very few cheap deaths - you are given a directional dodge roll which mercifully seems to make you invincible to attacks that only graze your hitbox, and the counter system allows you to make it through most altercations unharmed, with skill. Things get a little tense when enemies with unblockable knives, assault rifles, or worse, stun guns show up, but you soon learn how to prioritize and take out mooks in the proper order depending on what they're carrying. There are few differences between enemies besides what weapon they're carrying, but it manages to mix things up enough to keep things interesting.
The boss battles are a mixed bag. The introspective drug-induced hallucinations provided by the Scarecrow are surreal and atmospheric with excellent sound and art direction. But the way you actually fight him isn't particularly amazing. Similarly, the boss fight with Poison Ivy is quite visually impressive but consists mainly of 'shoot the boss in its weakpoint and don't get hit'. Worst of all is Killer Croc's battle, which should have been tense and unnerving, but is effectively tedious due to its ease and predictability. Additionally, there are an alarming number of re-skinned minibosses which are fought by simply throwing a batarang and side-dodging.
The main attraction and what will most likely win the player over is the stealth combat. Typical of stealth games, you can crawl through ducts, lurk directly over mooks' heads without them looking up, and peek around corners. What makes this completely different from Hitman
or Metal Gear Solid
where you enter and dispatch enemies completely undetected, is that your enemies will inevitably know you are there, watching them from the shadows. And you want them to. As you take them down one by one, you can watch and hear them become noticeably more agitated, looking over their shoulder often, shooting at random noises, and nervously shouting at you when they have no idea where you're coming from. This is all supplemented by the hilariously malicious taunts of the Joker, who is quite possibly the worst person anyone could ever work for. And hunting them down feels really good. There are no enemies in Arkham Asylum: only your prey.
One of the most helpful items to supplement your stealth in Arkham Asylum
is the Detective Mode, a sort of X-ray vision and all-purpose scanner for the various forensic activities the game has you participate in. More effectively, this amounts to institutionalized wall-hacks, allowing you to see enemy skeletons from anywhere in the room, as well as whether they are carrying a weapon. X-ray vision in stealth is nothing completely new (Perfect Dark
may have been the first example), but this game does it so well that when gadgets of the sort become standard equipment in the stealth action hero's toolbox, they will have most likely done so following Batman's example. Knowing where baddies are at all times is extremely helpful, and going back to sneaking around otherwise will be quite difficult. Besides that, it highlights in orange items of interest such as the many convenient human-sizes air vents for you to sneak around in, as well as breakable walls and collectibles. This presents a minor problem, as with no disadvantage to leaving it on constantly, players will inevitably run around with the screen completely blue-tinted and outlined, obscuring the beautiful graphics.
On that point Arkham Asylum
doesn't disappoint. While it suffers slightly from the same graphical problems as most 7th-gen games, with textures and normal lighting giving characters and certain objects the appearance of naugahide or resin anime figures, it looks impressive in motion, and even seems to have passed that textural uncanny valley for some character models, especially Batman's, in game. The textures for Bruce's enormous, manly chin are so high-res you can easily see his hair follicles in glorious HD. And the game takes pleasure in you doing so: during the events in the game, Batman grows an astounding amount of stubble to accompany his battle-torn bat-suit, over the course of only a few hours. Other characters weren't as lucky. Harley Quinn, in her horrifying and sexy new outfit, has hair which appears to be made of PVC. Something similar happens with Poison Ivy, where the vines covering her almost naked body are cut from the same polygons as her skin and cloth, with normal lighting compensating for the compromised geometry. One annoying flaw is the foliage: in 2009 I never thought I would see plants rendered with the 'clusters of leaves turning so they always face the camera' effect, but it still appears even in an otherwise graphically superior game. Those flaws aside, the game looks simply excellent.
The characters are presented with plenty of charisma, especially Batman himself who oozes manliness (er, in a family-friendly way of course). Voice actors from the well-received animated series reprise their roles for major characters, and the new guys they got to do voice work do a very good job as well. There are no voiceovers that fall below the line of adequate. The music is dark and heroic, and fits the tone of the game perfectly. The writing isn't particularly amazing for its dialog, but the storyline itself is fairly engaging. As expected it has Batman facing the Joker in Arkham Asylum, where all hell has broken loose. While following the Joker's trail Batman uncovers a conspiracy involving Arkham staff to produce a toxin with effects like super-steroids. You apprehend various Batman villains one by one and save the day.
Overall, Arkham Asylum
is nearly flawless. The framerate drops occasionally at obvious loading spots, and it sports the same styrofoam physics engine games have been using since early last gen which often does humorous things with ragdolls. But for a game with such seemingly open stealth combat and pseudo-platforming, there are surprisingly few bugs. In a single playthrough I encountered only two such errors, and neither were game-breaking, one only requiring me to load from the checkpoint which was passed a few seconds earlier.
The game is a bit shorter than perfectly ideal. It feels like it would have been the perfect length if you took on just one more villain before the (somewhat anti-climactic) final showdown, perhaps Mr. Freeze. Nevertheless it should be seen as to the game's credit that it's over before it wears out its welcome.
Another thing that will bother anyone used to games such as Fallout 3
, where nearly every single device can be picked up, read, hacked or otherwise interacted with is that very few of the objects seen lying around really do anything. Almost nothing even has physics with which you can knock it around or play with it, as pointless as that may sound. Everything that is even remotely important is highlighted orange when looked at through your detective mode scanner. One can only imagine how much more immersive and entertaining the game would have been if you could interact with the various books and terminals scattered about the asylum.
The PC version isn't inferior at all to its console counterparts, but it does not take full advantage of the platform. There are no options to change the controls in-game - you have to do it from the launch menu. Other luxuries PC gamers might be used to such as quicksaving are also absent. Make no mistake, this is a PC port of a console game. There is some rather nasty DRM present even in the Steam release, which may bother some. None of this is a big enough inconvenience to make the PC version worth skipping.
The Bottom Line
Minor nitpicking aside, as a complete package Arkham Asylum
does not disappoint on any front, something highly admirable for a licensed game. While it is undoubtedly the best comic-based game ever, one need not be a fan of Batman to find something to love here - it is an excellent game in its own right, and anyone with an interest in action, stealth, or cinematic games should check it out.