Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

The premise of the game is fairly straightforward. Joker escapes and holds the mayor hostage. Batman takes him down and brings him back to Arkham Asylum. During the prisoner transfer Joker breaks loose and takes over the island. It’s soon realized that he had been planning this for sometime having carefully moved all the pieces of his master plan into place. Now it’s up to Batman to shut the Joker’s scheme down and restore order. Of course along the way, a whole host of Batman’s deadliest foes are going to show up to try and destroy him. Personally I didn’t really look at the premise as being anything ground-breaking since I’m pretty sure something almost identical to this particular scenario has occurred before (I want to say Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth). But as I actually experienced the story playing through the game, it became so much more than I had ever expected. It became such a deep routed, psychological thriller as I progressed through the asylum and was put through the tests of some of Batman’s most dangerous enemies.

The story of course directly connects with the overall premise of the game being that everything takes place on Arkham Asylum. I would equate this to something like BioShock or even Metal Gear Solid where the whole game is set in a singular environment, but you’re able to move all around it and explore different areas both as the story progresses and as you backtrack for hidden items and things of that nature. This is where one of my first problems with the game comes in though. I like being able to explore the island and see all the different things hidden here and there, but strictly from a movement perspective, it can all get a little tedious. If I’m going from one area of the island to another, I have to walk/run the whole way. It’s not a big problem since there are areas with a handful of differently armed thugs that I’ll have to either confront or sneak around, but the whole travel time is longer than it should be particularly when you’re doing it over and over again. Still the travelling is just the in-between portions of the game. You’ll be spending so much time battling groups of enemies, confronting legendary members of Batman’s rogue gallery and investigating crime scenes that you’ll hardly notice anything else.

Rocksteady did a tremendous job of really bringing a representation of Batman that is as close to being the Dark Knight as I’ve ever experienced. For Arkham Asylum, Batman has been boiled down to his three biggest characteristics. His combat prowess, his ingenuity and use of gadgets, and his keen, tactical detective mind. Firstly, the combat is broken down into two areas, free flow hand-to-hand fighting and predatory stealth attacks. The free flow combat is where Batman shows off his extensive array of martial arts abilities. Though it might take a little while, you will get use to the system which revolves around attacking, countering, dodging, and takedowns. Usually you’ll engage at least a half-dozen enemies at any given time so you’ll have to be on your toes and make use of every maneuver in Batman’s arsenal. Besides his physical combat, you can also use batarangs and the grapple claw to mix things up and keep your combat streak alive by attacking enemies who are outside of the range of your punches and kicks. My only complaint with the fighting is that some of the big finishing strikes don’t always land the way they are supposed to. It’s a little weird to see a slow-motion flying dropkick hit a guy in the shoulder as opposed to the chest. Still this only happens a fraction of the time. Normally these attacks will land as they should and they look devastating. When it comes to thugs, Batman is ruthless.

As I mentioned, there is also the predatory gameplay. These sections, which are primarily stealth oriented, were being hyped a lot during the game’s development period and I thought it lived up to most of the buildup and the excitement. This section of the gameplay is actually a combination though as it utilizes Batman’s combat abilities as well as his uncanny knack for strategy and can take advantage of everything in his utility belt. Usually you’ll walk into a room with at least a half-dozen heavily armed thugs trying to keep the place locked down. From here you have all sorts of options from silent takedowns to setting up traps using explosive gel and batarangs to using inverted takedowns as a means of hanging people from gargoyles. To me it’s the most fun part of the game because you can perch yourself on a gargoyle high above the room and study the guards’ movement and plan just how you’re going to isolate and systematically attack them one by one.

Lastly there are plenty of puzzles and secrets that require you to really think about things and put the pieces together. Again, as part of the core gameplay, you’ll have a few specific events throughout the story where Batman will section off a small area of a room and deem it a crime scene. From there it’s up to you to investigate and pinpoint a specific clue, ie. Fingerprints, and then track those prints throughout Arkham as you hunt down a potential suspect. I liked the concept of this CSI-type of investigation, but it comes off as a little too obvious. You find one clue and then all you have to do is walk around trailing that clue, like I said with the fingerprints or whatever else (I don’t want to spoil anything), and as long as you have your visor on and detective mode is up they show up instantly and in abundance. I think if you’re going to include some sort of investigation puzzle into the gameplay, it can’t be that easy. I would have rather seen the crime scene scans reveal three or four items as opposed to a singular option. From your findings you’d then have to deduce which is the right clue that connects to your perpetrator. Something like this would work a lot better as a puzzle mechanic because you actually have to use deductive reasoning to find the solution. What was a real disappointment though was the fact that these parts only show up a small number of times throughout the whole game. A puzzle mechanic like this has never been seen before in a game that is so action oriented so maybe I was expecting a little too much. At least it leaves room to grow.

To this point though, everything I’ve said is about why I feel Batman: Arkham Asylum is a great game. What I love most about Arkham though are the things that make this a great comic book game. Take it from someone who’s played plenty of them, this is the best comic book game to date. I was a big fan of The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, and Spider-Man 2 was awesome, but what makes Arkham stand above them all is that it touches on everything in the Batman mythos, and yet it’s really only features a fraction of everything in the Batman universe. The first thing anyone is going to notice are the voice actors. Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin all reprise their roles from Batman: the Animated Series as Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn respectively. They are also reunited with Paul Dini one of the writers/producers of the cartoon who also wrote the story for Arkham. I thought it was a really great choice to go with such individuals who have been tied to the Batman franchise for so long. I loved Heath Ledger’s take on the character, but Mark Hamill’s interpretation of the Joker is the best I have ever seen. As I mentioned before, the plot works so well and I think Dini deserves a lot of praise for that. There are a lot of points during the cartoon where I’d say to myself, “This is definitely meant for kids, and yet it has such a dark and almost sinister edge to it.” Arkham brings that whole spirit back. It’s meant to attract Batman fans and get people interested, but it also doesn’t shy away from anything. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that I’m honestly surprised this is a Teen rated game.

On the artistic side, I think they did just as great of a job both with the characters and the island itself. If you’ve watched any of the trailers, you’ll be familiar with some of the new looks such as Harley Quinn and Bane. However while most characters benefited from the redesigns, I personally wasn’t a big fan of all of the new artistic revamp. Batman was one character who I thought was a little too big and bulky, especially around the shoulders. I was expecting him to remain muscular but to look a little leaner. I guess that’s the chance you take though when it comes to artistic licensing. Not everyone is going to be a fan of everything you do. Scarecrow was another character who went through some heavy changes but these I thought looked really cool. His new costume and everything worked on so many levels because it served the purpose of his specific form of villainy as well as incorporating a dispersal unit for his fear toxin. Generally though, I don’t have too many negative things to say regarding the characters.

In terms of the environments, I thought the design team did an even better job because a big part of the surrounding locations goes into how strong the mood is and it sets the atmosphere for the whole game. The deep caverns and rocky caves, the decaying cells and high security prisoner transfer areas. There’s a good mix of gothic architecture and Victorian-era designs in the older buildings with newer, sleeker looks to the more recent buildings. Everything is so dark and dreary though and it has this almost overwhelming feeling. The funny thing is that as Batman, I never really felt out of place or that there was something I wouldn’t be able to handle. Even walking into something like the Botanical Gardens with Poison Ivy on the loose, it didn’t matter what was around the corner because I was ready for it.

I think one of the biggest selling points behind Arkham though is just how much there is to do. The story itself is in and around the ten hour mark and can be beaten over the course of three days easy. Completing the story mode is only about 50% or 60% of what’s here. There are sixteen challenge rooms to play through which are broken up into eight free flow combat challenges and eight predator challenges. The free flow combat rooms are fairly straightforward. You start in a small area and have to battle through four rounds of the Joker’s thugs. Each wave gets more difficult as the number of enemies you face grows and they’ll come armed with things like a pair of knives or a stun baton. Enemies will get smarter too. After a while they will completely run away right off the bat and try to grab a rifle from one of the weapon storage lockers or rip a pipe off a wall before trying to take down the Dark Knight. In the end, your objective is to survive and accumulate as many points as possible. You’ll be rewarded with bonuses for completing a perfect combo, taking no damage, and performing as many of Batman’s combat moves in a single combo. There are also three medals that can be awarded for reaching certain scores, ie. 1 medal for 5,000 points, 2 medals for 10,000 and 3 medals for 20,000.

The predator challenges are the opposite as they’re based on the stealth aspect of Arkham. Once again, you’ll begin in a room, albeit a much larger room, with several armed henchmen roaming around. Here the point is very simple, take out each of the guards as quickly as possible. There are also three medals that can be awarded here too. However these medals are obtained by taking down an enemy in a specific way. For example “Fall Guy” requires you to use your Grapple Claw to pull a guard standing on a balcony over a railing. Each challenge room has its own unique three challenges; there are no descriptions however, so you kind of have to guess. Aside from the medals, there is also a leaderboard for each challenge rooms which provides even more incentive to take on all comers.

However I think most fans, comic book fans anyways, are going to spend as much time as is necessary to find the 240 Riddler trophies, puzzles, and items scattered all around Arkham Asylum. After beating the game, you can click on “Continue Story” in the main menu and you’ll be able to walk around the asylum grounds and buildings searching for whichever of these little hidden items you’re missing. With the story completed, you’ll still have all the gadgets and upgrades you’ve unlocked which becomes a necessity if you’re trying to find all 240. With enough backtracking, you can actually find all of them before you beat the game, but I think that’s a choice that different people will make differently. On my first play through, I was able to find all but 9 items before I completed the story. The Riddler trophies will open most of the challenge rooms as there are only two to start with if my memory serves me correctly.

I was more interested in all the little character items that they unlocked though. There are character trophies which are 3D models of the in-game characters. Everyone from Batman to the villains to the Arkham guards to the inmates. There is also an extensive list of character profiles which include close to two dozen of the individuals in the game, as well as just about every one of Batman’s enemies who did not make it into the game. My personal favourite was the patient recordings. These are audio recordings similar to those found in BioShock and consist of the Arkham doctors analyzing the various inmates during their sessions together. Again, the dialogue is fantastic and you really get a sense of just how insane these individuals are. In general I really liked the Riddler puzzles because they were genuinely challenging. After a while you get a sense of what the pattern is so they become easier to solve, but I still liked the creativity and the fact that you really have to use your mind to think about things a little bit.

As much as I loved Arkham Asylum though, there were a few little things that were not quite up to par. I mentioned already some of the contact issues with the free flow combat and the underwhelming CSI-like investigation pieces. One of the other things that got under my skin a little bit was the fact that you couldn’t interrupt actions during the free flow combat. If I went for a ground takedown to finish a guy off, one of his buddies could run in a nail me from behind. Naturally I wouldn’t expect anything less when fighting a group of enemies, however if I see the attack coming I should be to use my counter at the expense of interrupting my current attack. It’s a sensible tradeoff because I either finish off a guy but take a hit, or I let the guy up off the ground but am able to defend myself against his ally. I also wasn’t a big fan of some of the level designs. There are two or three rooms that are designed as physical platforming areas which means you can’t use Batman’s grapple gun to zoom up the different levels. Mostly these rooms are used to hide Riddler trophies as you’ll probably find seven or eight in each of them, but that specific type of more traditional platform gaming seems so out of context given the rest of the layouts in the various buildings. It feels like the whole reason why those rooms were included was just for the Riddler trophies and not necessarily to vary the gameplay. It seems almost pointless.

Even with this handful of little issues I had, there really wasn’t anything that actually spoiled the game for me. Batman: Arkham Asylum is a fantastic game, and definitely an early candidate for Game of the Year. The innovations in the free flow combat and predator gameplay were exactly the kinds of things that Batman fans have been waiting for. Throw in the extensive arsenal of gadgets and combat upgrades as well as the challenge rooms, Riddler trophies and unlockable character profiles and you’ll find that there is a ton of stuff to keep people interested. As an avid comic book reader, what really struck me most was how well they captured the essence of Batman. Obviously I wouldn’t expect anything less from someone as talented and experienced as Paul Dini, but even still, they did a phenomenal job. Batman is put through the absolute worst night of his life and yet no matter who he has to face, no matter how long they’ve been planning this, he’s going to take them down. It’s sort of this self-sacrificial thing where he knows he’s the only one capable of stopping these criminals but he knows they’re really gunning for him. That indomitable spirit is what makes Batman who he is and I’m so glad they chose to represent that in Arkham Asylum.

What really excites me about Arkham though is the potential for a future sequel. A game that’s this good and is going to make as much money as Arkham Asylum will can’t go without a sequel. And when I think about a sequel, my mind immediately goes to the villains who weren’t included in Arkham. The criminals who were here this time around fit in perfectly with the cerebral and insane style of the game. For the characters who weren’t used, yes they do have their own damaged psychosis, but they’re a little more tied to the organized crime element of the Batman world. As such, I think it would be really cool to see a second game that is maybe a little more noir in a sense. Maybe something that deals with a gang war that is tearing Gotham City apart. I don’t see Rocksteady going back to the characters they already used because there are so many strong and recognizable individuals for them to work with still. But for the ones that are left, their element is more of the straight forward crime syndicate type of style.

In terms of the immediate future for Arkham, downloadable content is certainly on everyone’s mind and why shouldn’t it be? According to the scrolling infocast at the bottom of the main menu, there is free downloadable content coming soon. I think there’s no question that we’ll see more challenge rooms for both the free flow combat and predator gameplay which I would be more than excited to try. Still if I could have anything, I’d love to have more playable characters. Having picked up the PlayStation 3 version of Arkham, I have to say the Joker is awesome. I’m not a huge fan of the way he controls, but I love that he has his own moves, his own gadgets. He’s a truly unique and fully fleshed out character rather than a clone of Batman. Now Rocksteady just has to apply that same idea to creating playable versions of Nightwing, Tim Drake’s Robin, Cassie Cain’s Batgirl, Huntress, Azrael, and on and on. Each of these characters are so similar to the Dark Knight, but they are also have such unique characteristics that I think would make for some really interesting and really fun runs through the challenge rooms.

Lastly before I sign off, I wanted to talk a little bit about the Limited Edition version of Arkham. With a $99.99 price tag, I have to say I’m actually surprised. Personally I was expecting a heftier cost given what was included in the package. As with any other special edition, one of the first things included with the package is a bonus DVD or Blu-Ray disc with a variety of behind-the-scenes type of videos. There are five documentaries in all as well as five or six trailers of the game. Along with the bonus content there is a code for a free downloadable free flow combat challenge room based on the infamous Crime Alley. Personally my favorite item is the fifty-page charater journal packaged in a leather duster. The journal was written to be the fiction diary of Doctor Penelope Young, a member of Arkahm’s staff. In it she discusses her analyses and professional opinions of the various inmates. Obviously the item that everyone is interested in is the 14” batarang. I was a little caught off guard as it is attached to a stand, but that doesn’t make it any less throwable. It is made of plastic, but it’s also good solid construction, and I like the detail in all the little scratches. It gives the batarang a sense of being worn and used. Imagine the epic battles it would have seen. In either case, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game any gamer will have fun with, but I would only recommend the Limited Edition to gamers who are truly Batman fans. As much as it is a good collection, I don’t think non-comic book readers would appreciate the content. Far be it from me though to tell someone how to spend their money.