When playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum, there were moments when I couldn’t believe this game was this polished and this intelligently designed. Rocksteady Studios had only one other game under their belt prior to Arkham Asylum, which didn’t make huge waves critically, but three years after their first release, they’ve come out with what is easily one of the best games of the year. It’s not one of the best games of the year just because of how polished and lovingly crafted it is, it’s one of the best because this is a true Batman game that fully embraces and uses the rich history of the Batman universe to the fullest possible extent in a smartly restrained manner. It’s a game that simply wouldn’t work as well as it does without the Batman brand, and that’s the right way to make a licensed game.
If you’ve never had an interest in Batman, then Arkham Asylum will probably get you interested. If you have always had an interest in Batman, then playing Arkham Asylum will be like bathing in pool of ecstasy for at least ten hours. It starts predictably; Batman takes a cuffed Joker to Arkham Asylum. This time, though, Joker’s capture just seemed a bit too easy, compelling Batman to follow Joker all the way to his designated cell. It’s a fantastically produced opening sequence that makes the most out of what is otherwise a fairly routine occurrence for Batman and Joker, by letting you trot your way from the entrance of the asylum all the way to the deep interiors of it. It’s a hint of things to come; the place is large, complex, and comprehensive. Then, expectedly, Joker executes his master plan and then suddenly becomes the warden of the asylum.
It’s a bit of a trite set-up but a necessary one. It works well, allowing for the progression of the game to be tightly controlled and smartly paced, with the omnipresence of Joker always pressing down on you in a way that’s never ever annoying. The narrative isn’t all that interesting, but the situational Joker ramblings through the PTA and all the LCD screens and constant contact with Batman’s tech support, Oracle, keeps things flowing and moving always pushing you to your next objective.
Though, at the beginning, it’s too pushy. Arkham Asylum is huge, and it really starts to open up a few hours in. I got a compulsive need to explore the place, even though I knew I was barred from accessing a lot of the areas in the game. The game, though, has its own agenda, as Oracle incessantly reminds you to keep going a certain way, and even Batman starts to talk to himself about how the trail’s getting cold, if you start to trail off the objective path.
As annoying as it is, it admittedly takes you through the basics of the gameplay. The two primary facets of the game are the freeflow combat and the stealth. Combat consists of a few buttons, and the most you’ll usually use are the strike and counter buttons. The key is to keep up a chain of pain. Start up a three-chain hit to get Batman to practically glide and fly over to the direction you want him to punch, making it easier to chain some awesome-looking combos. The magic is in its simplicity; it’s easy to kick inordinate amounts of ass, but there’s a need to always be aware, when to counter a strike and when to initiate a takedown by looking at your surroundings. It’s cathartic, visceral, and kinetic, and the visual reward for consistently being deft at duking it out is so good that honestly, the action on display here is far superior to any of the action seen in Nolan’s Batman films.
The stealth is just as cathartic, visceral, and kinetic in its own way. Calling it stealth is almost a misnomer, because it’s not about sneaking past patrols but about completely eliminating them. You’re always on the prowl, picking targets, watching henchmen panic, and attacking and then disappearing. You have nearly every advantage over these guys; Batman’s gadgetry, like the Detective Visor, allows you to gain a lot of situational feedback: number of guards, how many are armed and unarmed, their state of being and so on. To make this really work, though, the developer made some concessions and contrivances. AI isn’t dim, but their line of sight and cones of vision are pretty abysmal. It’s extremely lenient. And since Batman needs to hide in the shadows, you’ll mostly use gargoyle fixtures near ceilings to get a bearing on your surroundings. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but the aggressive stealth works wonderfully. Taking a guy out, using the grapple hook to get back into the shadows, roping up and tossing Batarangs to harass – it’s all great fun. The AI reacts to your clandestine actions in a really satisfying way. They’ll start traveling in groups, shooting blindly into the air, and completely freaking out when you charge from behind.
I really felt like I was Batman. The fighting made me feel empowered and the stealth made me feel like an omnipotent sadist. These two gameplay components constantly evolve throughout the game. Rocksteady does a great job of always building on top the game’s foundations, changing up the rules and injecting variety in ways that feel completely natural and refreshing. New enemy types appear the further you get into combat, changing the way you approach certain enemies and how you exploit others. Stealth changes and grows when you obtain more gadgetry, letting you get more creative and sadistic with every encounter. And with a simple XP system that lets you upgrade Batman’s capabilities, there’s also a satisfying character progression, even if some of the abilities, like the inverted takedown, are something you need to earn with XP.
The game could’ve been a linear progression of room-by-room fisticuffs and stealth, and this would’ve been a solid titlegame, but Arkham Asylum defies such an expectation. The game’s progression is shocking in its thoughtfulness. You’ll revisit previous areas and make your way to new areas in such seamless and intelligent ways that it’s hard to not be impressed. Hubs and areas change and evolve in ways you’d never expect, and the new gadgetry you obtain throughout the game opens up new sections in surprising ways. There’s more to Arkham Asylum than just the combat and the stealth. Its exploratory nature and the cohesion in its overall design are stupefying. Nothing feels divorced from one element to another. Nothing feels disparate. Arkham Asylum is this amazing whole that carefully parses and paces its events just brilliantly. The game will surprise, stun, impress, entertain, and other colorful praising verbs. Even the worst part of the game, the boss battles, are still good. They all follow predictable patterns, making them very artificial encounters, but again, they’re still fun.
The game looks and sounds pretty darn impressive, too. Visually, it’s great, with a vast amount of detail gone into the environments. The large hubs are packed with detail, and some of the interiors, like the Botanical Gardens, are some standout visual set pieces. Character models, while well-made from a technical perspective, are too muscular. With Batman, it’s understandable, but when it looks like all the male doctors in Arkham are completely built and buffed out, it’s weird. The PC version also comes with PhysX support. The effects are what you expect; they don’t add to the gameplay, but they sure look nice: physics smoke, tiles breaking, and cloth material reacting to your actions. It does seem to have some issues, though. If set to High, the game crashed whenever I reloaded a checkpoint or died. On Normal, all issues disappeared, and most effects were still being rendered. I’m not sure it if it’s an isolated issue or if it’s affecting a lot of people, but it’s something to be aware of.
The audio is great. Mark Hamill does an outstanding job as Joker once again, and Arlee Sorkin’s heavy accent does Harely Quinn the proper justice she always deserves. The surprisingly weak link is Kevin Conroy as Batman. His lines just aren’t very good, which is a shame, considering Paul Dini (one of the creative minds behind Batman: The Animated Series) wrote the script. Conroy’s delivery is fine, but the writing never approaches a shred of wit or blinding intelligence for Batman. Maybe I am spoiled by Batman in the Justice League cartoons. The rest of the voice work fares well; the environmental sounds have a lot of attention to detail, and the soundtrack sounds like it directly riffs off of music in Nolan’s Batman films, almost note for note. The understated, rhythmic percussion, the fast tempo of the strings – it’s awfully familiar. This is not entirely a bad thing, because that just means Arkham Asylum has a great soundtrack.
Your first playtime is highly dependent on how much time you devote to finding all the collectibles and challenges Riddler left behind on Arkham. There are 240 in all, and they can get really addicting to find and obtain, because the process makes extensive use of Batman’s gadgets, searching for new openings and new pathways. They also usually come with some nice rewards, like XP, character bios, and character trophies to further familiarize yourself with Batman’s world, if you haven’t already. You can probably breeze through the game in under 10 hours if you skip all the challenges, but going after them will result in a much longer playtime. Outside of the main game, there are a whole bunch of Challenge Rooms. These take the stealth and combat scenarios from the main game and divide them up into little chunks, and you’re graded at the end of each one. These are great in how they let you play a brief, fun bit of the game if you’ve gone through the entire game already. As far as leader boards go, though, a lot of the scores have been hacked to hell. The highest scores go into the hundred-millions, which is downright impossible to obtain. Hopefully, something will be done to rectify this issue, but right now, they’re not worth paying attention to.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a remarkable achievement. I need to stress just how thoughtful and smart its progression is. The way you make your way around Arkham is executed so well, and everything about the game is polished to an almost offensive sheen. Just as much as Arkham Asylum is an excellent game, it’s a game that wouldn’t be as great if the Batman fiction weren’t intertwined with the game’s framework in such a substantial and integrated way. It’s a must-play through and through.