Has the Batman franchise found safe haven in Arkham Asylum?

Rain pours down from the sky like a punishment; a desperate attempt to cleanse the streets of a city mired in criminals and psychotics. Sirens are heard in all directions as a lone obsidian blur tears through the streets as if powered solely by the will and determination of its driver. Thanks to him, tonight there is one less criminal psychotic threatening his city and the people he vowed to protect. Thanks to him, the most dangerous mind he's ever encountered is being returned to the madhouse.

But that's exactly where he wants to go.

So begins Batman: Arkham Asylum the latest third-person action/adventure title developed by Rocksteady Studios and published jointly by Eidos and Warner Bros. Interactive.

As the laughing man is wheeled through the processing corridor of the titular building, the audience is introduced to its depressingly clinical low-ceilinged environs, and re-introduced to the dynamic that exists between the Joker and the Dark Knight; One talks a lot, one scowls and says nothing, and this compelling dance, that has been going on since the 1940's, continues.

What sets this game apart from other super hero vehicles is that, unlike your spider-or-super-men, Batman doesn't need an entire city through which to leap and swing. He's a quietly observant, deliberate man who is, let's face facts, more than a little strange. Those are very difficult qualities to articulate in a videogame, yet Rocksteady has managed to articulate them. The game feels exactly right; Batman belongs in claustrophobic hallways and vents, he is at home hanging from gargoyles in the rafters, stalking his would-be assailants.

Speaking of his comfort zone, Batman is not a lover. He's a fighter. And fight he will. A lot. But the amazing thing is, the combat system is so well-crafted, players will find themselves looking forward to every encounter. That in and of itself is a marvelous achievement, but it deserves mentioning that the game's "Freeflow Combat System" is elegant in its simplicity: one button strikes, one button counters, and one button dodges. There are some upgrades available (throws, mid-combo takedowns) to add some spice, but essentially that's it. And it works. It's simple enough that one could in theory button-mash their way through each fight, but doing it right, with just the slightest degree of finesse yields not only the inherent satisfaction of watching Batman somersault across the room to kick someone in the face, but also the big points necessary to get those sweet upgrades as quickly as possible.

The other side of Batman's tactical coin is Detective Mode, where with the touch of a button the world is awash in blue light and pertinent information is displayed onscreen such as nearby hostiles or interactive elements of the environment. Couple this with the combat system and players will find themselves always trying to figure out the best way to accomplish their goals, which makes one feel eerily like the World's Greatest Detective himself.

The only problem with Detective Mode is that, when the environments are as lovingly crafted and detailed as they are in the Asylum, it seems a shame to spend so much time looking at them through azure-colored glasses.

The, er... edge of Batman's tactical coin (work with me) is the Invisible Predator mode. This is arguably the best part of being Batman: silently stalking a room full of armed thugs, whose weapons will mow you down in a matter of seconds, and picking them off one by one, as each remaining enemy slowly wets themselves with fear. it's a true testament to the enemy AI that it isn't exactly easy to clear a whole room without being spotted, as enemies will start to all huddle together and cover each other's back. However, the satisfaction felt watching one foolish thug wander from the pack, dropping down silently to string him up from a gargoyle while the rest fire their guns blindly in terror, is unparalleled.

The plot of Arkham Asylum, written by Batman: the Animated Series writer Paul Dini, is too good to spoil with details here. Suffice to say it was partially inspired by Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, a cerebral and visceral must-read for Batman fans, and the game is unafraid to take dark, surprising turns.

Arkham Asylum is a game which one can feel the care put into it as they play. There is a rare level of consideration put into everything (even the game over screens aren't the same thing over and over) and with the story missions, the 240 collectible items scattered throughout the island by the Riddler, and the challenge maps crafted to push your combat and invisible predator skills to their limits, there is plenty to keep players checking themselves back in to the madhouse again and again.

Between last summer and this summer, it's looking mighty good to be the Caped Crusader.

Good review, though I didn't see much on the stealth sections. Did I miss that part or something?

NoMoreSanity:
Good review, though I didn't see much on the stealth sections. Did I miss that part or something?

uh... as far as you know, yes. you missed that part. that part that was there the whole time. why don't you look again? you will see plainly that it is now always has been there.

saintchristopher:

uh... as far as you know, yes. you missed that part. that part that was there the whole time. why don't you look again? you will see plainly that it is now always has been there.

Ah, I see I "missed" it now.

 

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