I’ve never really been a superhero kind of guy. Oh, sure, they’re cool and all, but I’m not the type who furiously pores over all of the material while waiting for the next upcoming film or game based on my favorite hero of choice’s exploits. For that matter, I’ve never really bought into all the Batman hype, either. So you can perhaps imagine my consternation (and delight) when about half an hour into Batman: Arkham Asylum I found myself gleefully reveling in how the game made me feel like “Holy crap guys, I’m f*cking Batman!*”
Arkham Asylum starts off with Bruce Wayne having apprehended his longtime nemesis the Joker, delivering the villain to Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where all his supervillain rivals wait in between films before busting out to menace Gotham once again. Something doesn’t feel right, though, and Batman’s instincts are soon proven correct as Joker escapes custody and enacts a long-planned scheme to free the inmates and take over Arkham for himself. Naturally, the Dark Knight isn’t going to stand for this. So begins a tense, action-filled journey into the depths of the asylum as Batman pursues his nemesis and deals with the inmates in an attempt to restore order to Arkham and bring the Joker to justice once again.
The first ten or so minutes of the game – as Batman accompanies Joker and the guards deeper into Arkham – set the tone perfectly. Batman’s silent, imposing figure in the corner of the screen, Joker cackling and swerving between jokes and not-so-thinly-veiled threats, and a heavy sense of suspense and tension: As the player, you know Joker is going to break free, but there are so many false starts that it comes almost as a surprise when it finally happens.
Arkham does a great job at letting the player feel like they’re in the cowl and cape of Gotham’s protector. You see the world from over Bruce Wayne’s shoulder, and his imposing stature and silent demeanor just make you feel like that much more of a badass as you calmly advance on a mob of panicking thugs. This game makes walking feel awesome.
When those thugs have had enough of quaking in their boots and charge you, though? That’s where the game really shines. Arkham Asylum‘s highlight is its combat, with the “Freeflow” combo system letting Batman quickly move from inmate to inmate as he knocks teeth in. The joy of the combat comes in its stellar choreography and animation – you might just be hitting one or two buttons (with directional inputs) but on screen, Batman is moving like a whirlwind in tights, breaking arms and busting heads. I can’t think of many other games where my reaction to seeing a group of twelve baseball-bat wielding criminals waiting for me was “Oh, hell yes!”
Batman isn’t just a peerless hand-to-hand fighter, though. He’s the world’s greatest detective, and foiling Joker’s plans will take brains as much as brawn. A simple button press takes you into Detective Mode, where Bruce will be able to note things in the environment that he can use to continue – a structurally weak wall to blow up here, a grate to pull out there – as well as to keep an eye on everybody around him.
For all that Arkham Asylum portrays Batman at the absolute peak of what humanity is capable of both physically and mentally, it’s curious that Rocksteady chose to also focus on the (comparative) frailties that come with being a mere human. Batman isn’t Superman, and can’t shrug off bullets; if you try to take on a gang of criminals armed with guns the same way you would if they only had bats and golf clubs, you’ll find yourself shot to death very quickly.
Instead, taking out gun-wielding foes requires patience and forethought – I’ll put explosive paste here, detonate it when the guy walks past it, then Batarang his buddy which should give me enough time to drop down and choke the third one into unconsciousness – as you creep past your foes and pick them off one by one. It’s incredibly intense, and occasionally frustrating, but oh-so-rewarding when you finally pull it off.
Setting the game inside the literal Rogues’ Gallery of Gotham means that Joker isn’t the only foe Batman will face, and each of his supervillain opponents brings something new to the table. One might try and fault the game for trying to do too much, but it’s hard to argue that when it does so much well. It has awesome button-mashing action, strategic predatory stealth combat, moments of genuine suspense – waiting for your foe to pop out from the water while creeping around Arkham’s sewers – and sequences of surreal mind-screwing horror that would make Hideo Kojima himself proud.
The game is bolstered by the voice work of the Batman: The Animated Series cast – with Mark Hamill stealing the show as the lethally insane Joker, swerving between cackling hysterics and chilling threats in the space of a sentence. It’s a middling-length game; a first playthrough may run ten to twelve hours depending on skill (though in the style of Metroid and Castlevania, there are tons of upgrades and challenges to find hidden around Arkham) but the story is so expertly paced that it keeps you engrossed as you continue unearthing facets of the Joker’s plan – or was it all just a ploy to match wits with his timeless foe?
Arkham Asylum‘s flaws are few and far between, but stand out all the more because the game is otherwise so well-made. After a well-choreographed fistfight, it’s jarring to see an unconscious foe slide through Batman’s character model, and many of the Riddler’s puzzles seem to not so much involve critical thinking and deductive reasoning as they do just going through the area with a fine-toothed comb and looking at everything. Two of the game’s strengths even seem to conflict with each other: Detective Mode is very handy and intuitive to use, but the game’s superb atmosphere and style are severely diminished when you’re looking at the world through a blue filter. But these are just nitpicks, and while there are certainly nits to pick, they don’t significantly detract from how stellar the rest of the game is.
People are holding up Arkham Asylum as the first great superhero game in quite some time, but you know what? It’s not. To call it “a great Batman game” or “a great superhero game” would actually be doing it a disservice, because Batman: Arkham Asylum is a great game, period.
Bottom Line: Beautifully brutal combat and suspenseful stealth action support a gorgeously cinematic and oppressively atmospheric venture through the chaos of Arkham Asylum. For the fans, it’s got a great story with some of the most beloved characters in the series, bolstered by a fantastic voice cast. For everyone else, it’s just one hell of a good game.
Recommendation: Batman fans should under no circumstances miss Arkham Asylum. Everyone else should still give it a rental at the very least.
*John Funk would like to note that this was an expletive, not a verb. Bruce Wayne will have to buy dinner first.
This review was based off of the Xbox 360 version of the game.