Having an objective opinion about anything Batman related is not easy. The character has been through so much, both good and bad, and in so many different media, that to not have an opinion means you either live under a rock or don’t watch television, movies, or read. Everyone at least knows who Batman is, and thanks to the recent resurgence of high quality comic book movies, their image of the caped crusader does not include rubber nipples or Adam West. The new dark knight is dark. His world is dark, his mood is dark, and his enemies have followed. Gone are the most comic bookish bad guys, replaced by brutish thugs and nightmare inducing clowns. Batman Arkham Asylum follows this trend, and there is nothing wrong with giving people exactly what they want and have come to expect. This game just feels like Batman, right down to the bad guys making fun of you when you die.
Of all the non-comic book versions, Batman: The Animated Series (not to be mixed up with the terrible The Batman that came out a few years ago) is the best interpretation. From the art to the voices to the nice bite sized plots it is what I think of first when talking about Batman. Arkham Asylum has a great deal in common with the old animated series, only it is not bound by the same restrictions as childrens television from the 1990’s. Three of the four main characters return with their original voice actors, the odd one out being Commissioner Gordon. Not a huge loss, getting Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill back is good enough, and the original Harley is icing on the cake. Only Batman’s voice is unchanged, however. Joker and Harley are edgier, meaner, and more than a little unnerving. It fits the character’s redesigns well, though I can’t say I approve of Harley’s tarted up new look.
Without spoiling anything, all of the villains along with Batman himself have been given a sinister visual once over. Though it feels and sounds like the animated series it certainly doesn’t look like the animated series; it is much closer in tone and intensity to The Dark Knight. It is no small wonder that this snuck through with a teen rating. Joker’s plot involves grotesquely mutating his henchmen into massive golems whose spines protrude from their back during the transformation for the sole purpose of killing as many people in Gotham as messily as possible. Guards are routinely seen strung up from the ceiling, the majority of the asylum staff are beaten to death or shot, and even more disgusting things are talked about or hinted at. The violence against innocents is handled as tastefully as a prison riot can be, with lots of ‘just in time’ cuts or views of the aftermath, but the combat itself is unapologetically, wonderfully brutal.
It should not be a problem for Batman to take on an average thug; it shouldn’t be a problem for him to take on ten average thugs and look good doing it, because he’s Batman. Arkham Asylum accomplishes this through a deceptively deep fighting system. It is possible to get through early fights just mashing the attack button, though anyone doing so should be ashamed of themselves. Add in gun wielding thugs, enemies who need to be stunned before taking damage, and finally giant mutants that can be ridden like a bull, and suddenly the player must use every option available to survive. Combat slowly advances from Final Fight simplicity to near Ninja Gaiden, with the player being rewarded for creativity and never punished to harshly for mistakes. Death will come, along with a sound mocking from either the Joker or whatever boss that killed you, but checkpoints are usually placed right before a fight, so it is never frustrating, at least on Normal. Bump it up to hard and you better be damned Batman himself to survive.
Beating the snot out of lowlifes and crazies is only part of the game, however. It is much more fun to scare the crap out of them first. While stealth doesn’t have quite as much to it as hand to hand combat, it is still is quiet satisfying to perch silently on a gargoyle and then fly across the level to kick some poor slob in the chops. As more and more are picked off, the remaining enemies get more frightened, eventually firing randomly into dark corners. There are only a few forced stealth sections in Arkham Asylum, but several more, along with some ridiculous combat challenges, can be unlocked while playing the main game. The latter challenges are not for the faint of heart, offering much more difficulty then anything prior, and then ranking you against everyone else in the world to remind you how much you suck. After only a few days the top times and scores are either superhuman or completely fraudulent. Either way, they are something for the OCD impaired to shoot for.
There is actually quite a bit to do for the ‘collect one hundred of something’ crowd. Arkham Asylum borrows heavily from Metroid, locking off areas and items until the appropriate gadgets are found. This forced backtracking could become tedious if the environment itself wasn’t a pleasure to wander through. The attention to detail is on par with BioShock, but the small references to years of Batman canon (and non-canon) make it all the more impressive. The Riddler, as a form of revenge for not actually appearing in the game, has hidden all sorts of stuff for Batman to find. Some of these items make sense: there are interview tapes for most of the main bad guys that offer back story to the unfamiliar; each section has several riddles pointing to a specific area or item that it is up to the player to find. The only collectibles that bothered me where the Riddler statues. It seemed odd for a game that tried to be as realistic as a game about a man dressed up as a bat can be to scatter glowing question marks randomly around. For just that second, it was only a game. Then I got over it, pulled some mook off of a guard tower and felt better.
Arkham Asylum’s missteps are few and far between. The afore mention collectables is less of a complaint about the game and more an annoyance at being pulled out of the game’s world for mundane, play time lengthening activities. The camera, like every third person game every made, can occasionally get stuck on level geometry and provide a less than ideal angle for a fight, but not fighting in corners takes care of that. As a Batman fan, I would like to have seen more villains included, but that is just greedy. Arkham Asylum is as long as it needs to be, with the main quest taking around ten to fifteen hours to complete. It successfully ignores the silliness of the 60’s television show and the unbearable pain of seeing George Clooney in the cowl, all the while paying homage to years upon years of crime fighting history. Batman Arkham Asylum succeeds on two levels: there is more than enough here for anyone just looking for an action/adventure game, but it is absolute gold for the aging, closet comic book nerd who just wants to pretend to be Batman again. Not that I know anyone like that.