Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum

Instead of coming up with some nostalgic intro about Batman games, I'll just come right out and say it: Rocksteady Studios gets it. No. They really get it.

At this point, the story should be pretty well-known: routine dropoff of the Joker at the Asylum goes awry when he breaks free and releases the inmates. Not just the token, brawl-fodder inmates, but the big guns as well (Bane, Croc, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Riddler).

Your goal as Batman is to stop the Joker's insidious plan and regain control of the island. I'm about halfway through the game (felt that I should fully caveat this review by saying that I've yet to complete it), but what I've seen has been awesome. Having said that, you're probably asking why is it so awesome.

The biggest reason for the awesomeness is the story. Batman: The Animated Series producing and writing alum Paul Dini has created a completely original story for the game that ties into the mythos of Batman, but isn't firmly rooted in the comics or movies. You could say the game has the feel of a Batman: The Animated Series feature-length movie focused on Arkham Asylum.

If you were a fan of the show (and I really don't know why you wouldn't be) the game feels so familiar. Almost like a reunion between Dini, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill and a certain sense of nostalgia to go along with it. Dini's story is made even more special by Conroy and Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and Joker respectively.

Heath Ledger's Joker has become the de facto embodiment of his maniac personality, but Hamill is just as strong. Clearly there are influences on his Joker from Ledger, resulting in a personality that wasn't there in the animated series. When Hamill is on though his Joker is everything Joker should be: chilling, homicidal and joyful at the same time. A perfect storm of insanity and joy.

Joker even offers Batman a way to end it all before it begins: kill the Joker and be done with it. Batman has fought Joker so many times in so many mediums that it's hard to keep it fresh. The game does however, while also letting you feel what being Batman is really all about.

This is really the first game where a fan really undestands what it means to be Batman. The burden he feels to stop Joker, the need to protect Commissioner Gordon and just the general sense of weariness that you'd expect Batman to encounter are all on display here. Batman openly admits at the beginning of the game that he's not sure if he can stop Joker this time.

Clearly he's tired of fighting crime and wants to live a normal life, and his original motivation of vengeance has transformed into a motivation of commitment at this point. His suit gets ripped, cape tattered and there's just this overall sense of exhaustion in him. All as a result of constant run-ins with inmates and the Rogue's Gallery.

Batman and his Rogue's Gallery are more psychological in nature, and the story really hits that. Every villain Batman is up against represent a different aspect of a personality and that's the thing about Batman that has always drawn me to the character.

Those aspects are fully on display in the game and require Batman (via you the player) to intelligently combine fighting skills with problem-solving prowess. Joker chimes in over the PA with seemingly crazy ramblings, Riddler constantly challenges your self-esteem via intelligence and Croc stalks you to rip you to shreds. And it's not like Rocksteady was thinking "ok, the player has to fight Bane, Croc, Scarecrow and do we force that into the story?" Your encounters with the villains are varied and well-placed, giving you tons of time to explore the massive asylum.

Even the asylum itself is successfully personified. You really feel like you're going up against the Rogue's Gallery AND the asylum simultaneously, making the battle that much more difficult. Speaking of the asylum, the art folks over at Rocksteady Studios hit it dead on. The institution clearly shows its age, as the walls are cracked and peeling, ivies have enveloped buildings and the grounds are full of wear and tear.

The intricacies of the complex are on full display with the vast network of air vents, elevator shafts and hallways, and even with a map readily available you can easily get lost in the vastness of the asylum. Some parts of the asylum are downright chilling and could easily rival environments in games like Bioshock, Resident Evil or Dead Space. Successfully creating an environment that becomes an obstacle is no small task, however Rocksteady Studios pulled it off.

Soundwise, the music and voice acting are both top-notch. It's impossible to not have good voice acting with Conroy and Hamill reprising their roles, but the supporting cast does an excellent job as well. And the music effectively sets the mood of game in general, but also the room you're in at the time. I was sufficiently creeped out in the morgue, between the music and whispers warning me that I shouldn't be there.

Of course, that had something to do with Scarecrow's fear gas but still. The sound pairs exceptionally well with the visuals.

Controls in general are intuitive and pretty easy to pick up. The Detective Mode can be entered and exited with one button, and switching between Gadgets is pretty seamless as well. There are some issues where Glide Kicks appear to have the right trajectory but instead you just fly into a wall, but that may be just as much user error as well.

There's even an "I'm an idiot" escape. If you fall into a pit, you're given three-four seconds to hit RB (Xbox 360) and you'll pull out your grapple hook and escape to safety. This is a godsend. It really alleviates the frustration from accidentally falling off a ledge or something and having to reload at a checkpoint. Here, you just grapple out and pull yourself up. No harm no foul.

The fighting system is one that would seem to be immensely complex but it's really not. And that's perfectly fine with me. You have a main attack button, a counter button, a stun attack (a cape whip) and evade. You can be surrounded by 10 inmates yet not take one hit if you attack and counter correctly. And the animations never get old, nor is slow motion overused.

Some games rely too heavily on slowing down an action just to make it look cool, but with Batman: Arkham Asylum there's nothing more satisfying than connecting a roundhouse kick with the an imate's face as you finish taking them all out. Trust me. It never gets old.

There are a few gripes. The first is the "alternative mode" phenomenon. The Detective Mode is extremely useful and cool as it shows you hostiles, highlights grappable objects and shows grates/weakened walls. The problem is that you could easily spend the entire game in this mode, meaning that you don't really experience the visuals of the game. It's a minor flaw, but there's really no other way around it.

The second is that combat can easily turn into repeatedly mashing the attack button and throwing in a counter for good measure. Sure the animations look varied, but you're still hitting the same button on almost turbo fire for big groups.

Finally, the detective mode tracking sequences sort of seemed tacked on a bit. The idea is that you use detective mode to track someone using alcohol or cigarette residue for example, but the game is relatively linear in itself so you really don't need to follow anything to find the right path.

I really, REALLY like Batman: Arkham Asylum. Rocksteady Studios really seemed to put tons of care and attention into the game and really wanted to make a game that Batman fans could be proud of. And it really shows. Tremendous accolades need to be heaped on the team at Rocksteady Studios for what they pulled off here. Even if you're not really a fan of Batman, you'll still love playing through this game.

It wouldn't surprise me if this game gets mentioned in a few months when sites do their Game of the Year nominations as it's really that good. Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the best superhero games ever made. It's so good that it's one of those things that is even good without the licensing. If you're a fan of Batman, quality storytelling or engrossing gameplay then this game needs to be in your collection immediately.

And if that's not enough, it was just announced that Batman: Arkham Asylum is now a Guinness World Record holder for ‘Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever’. Hot damn.


  1. I agree with everything you've said. One minor gripe that I would add, and one other really cool positive.

    So you know how in games, you go through this hellish sequence of fighting off bad guy after bad guy, and no visible damage appears? Sure...your health goes down, and the screen turns red, but the character shows no physical remnants of the ridiculous battle they just went through. I LOVE the little touches of damage to the uniform that automatically happen as the game goes on. Right at the beginning, when someone tries to drop an elevator on your head, I like that the batsuit gets a big cut on the chest. This game is FILLED with nice touches like that.

    Gripe? The ONLY one really so far, is that I hate the scarecrow sequences. The camera makes he hard to tell where you are going sometimes, they are crazy repetitive, and for whatever reason I just don't like them. I also agree that detective mode can be overused.

    This game is awesome, I also am a little bit further through it then Jon, and am loving it. The combat reminds me alot of Assassins Creed only a little simpler, and that is a good thing because I loved that game as well.

    I can only hope that superhero games based on movies come out looking like this from now on, and that sales are good enough for companies to justify doing this detailed a job on games.

  2. Unlocking the extras and the toy statues and everything else through the riddler clues are fun too.


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