Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

A Must-Play game for fans of third-person action adventure. YOU ARE BATMAN!

Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Release date: August 25, 2009
Reviewed on: PC

The Lone Crusader

“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
— an old Irish proverb

It goes without saying that Batman is a well-known franchise; the Lone Crusader was a household name for decades. Unlike Spidey and Superman, however, the Batman universe is well known for its darker, more grotesque style in both looks and content.

Given the distinct atmosphere and the franchise’s fame, there has been a lot of speculation whether the British developers Rocksteady Studios (with only one title to their name at the time) could deliver up to the fan’s expectations.

But rest assured, for that is precisely what they did. And then some.

And Along Came Batman

The story begins when the man whose cape you’ll be wearing for the duration of this game captures his arch nemesis Joker and drives him to Arkham Asylum. If you’re not familiar with the Batman lore, the asylum (located on its own island, no less) is the home to the city’s most dangerous criminally insane. Basically, a super-villain prison.

But for some, a day without blood is like a day without sunshine. Surprise, surprise, not all goes according to plan. Joker breaks free and locks down the prison with the help of some inmates that he had managed to get transferred to the asylum beforehand. He also grabs Batman’s crime-fighting colleague Commissioner Gordon to make it even more personal. And so it’s up to you to restore order and kick a moderate amount of insane arse.

Industrial Light & Magic

Batman: Arkham Asylum goes for the dark and gritty in terms of imagery and sound. In addition to the haunting visuals, the game designers put in some subtle touches that help define the setting: for example, as you make your way through the island, you have a chance to pick up tapes of the establishment’s previous patients (Joker being one of them), which adds a welcome narrative layer to the game.

And that brings us to the next important point of the game’s presentation: voice acting.  While all character’s voices are on par, Mark Hamill as the Joker steals the show.

If by any chance you didn’t know, Mark Hamill is almost as famous for being the voice of Joker as he is for killing Darth Vader. Listening to his delivery is an absolute blast.

There’s Only One “Bat” in “Battering”

The actual game consists of a healthy mix of stealth and action, the stealth part usually an option, not a must. As Batman makes his way through the asylum, his attempts at recapturing The Joker are countered by enemy goons at every other corner. The fight mechanic is pretty easy to get a hang of, and looks as brutal as you can get without splattering blood all over. These fights (sometimes with up to a dozen baddies) are all about timing, and if your timing’s right, Batman unleashes devastating counter-attacks on his opponents. The controls are fairly intuitive, and these counter-attacks both look and sound realistic enough. Sometimes the game goes in slow motion just to show off the more violent of impacts. This is paced perfectly well, however, and does not distract from the game.

My only concern here was that when you get a number of combo hits in succession, Batman gains unrealistic speed and starts jumping from one foe to the next like a rabid cat in a cage full of ferrets.

While this can look cool on screen, it distracts from the otherwise “realistic” style of the game, making it fairly obvious that you’re playing an arcade beat-em-up hybrid.

The stealth segments come in when you reach areas so filled with enemies, both armed and unarmed, that taking them on head-on is suicide. Despite his impressive physique, Batman is quite the acrobat, so you get to guide him as he picks enemies one at a time — wall to ceiling, ceiling to gargoyle, gargoyle to floor grate, and so forth.

Another nice touch to the game is that as the enemies numbers dwindle, they get visibly more nervous, muttering curses and firing at shadows. I felt I was playing as predator rather than the prey.

A Killing Profit

Apart from the main plot, you’re given a number of optional bonuses. An example would be finding the audio interview logs of the island’s inmates that I’ve mentioned earlier. Some are solving puzzles scattered throughout the game, and some are simply finding hidden tokens. These then work towards increasing your points and unlocking additional game content. And for a single player only game, the developers sure made to pack a lot of extra content.

Invaders Must Die 

As fun as it is to punish Joker’s contract employees, more enemy variety wouldn’t have hurt. There are your basic grunts, then there are the grunts with guns, and then there are grunts with knives or stun batons.

Each require a separate approach, but the core mechanic is the same — dodge, then connect your your Batfist with their faces, or other exposed body parts.

There are some instances where you get to fight off mutant grunts which are twice as big and thrice as strong, but, as fun as these fights can be, they are few and far between.

Then there are the boss battles. Unfortunately, these are hit and miss. There are at least a couple battles (including the final boss fight) in the game that I’ve felt were disappointing in terms of both originality and story impact.

The Batorang and Me

Batman wouldn’t be Batman without his gadgets. You do get to play with a few of these in the game, probably the most significant of them being the Bat Vision tool.

With a press of a button, the screen turns blue, and Bats can see through walls, get enemy counts, weapons reports, important items, and so forth.

Like most of the things in this game, the execution’s great, with the only drawback being that it’s actually much easier to play through most game without ever switching the mode off. Thankfully, the game’s pretty enough to make you want to play in normal vision mode just to admire all the work the artists put in it.

Other gadgets include three types of Batorang, explosive gel that can be remotely detonated, a grappling hook that you can eventually use to pull enemies off ledges, and a few other cool things.

Almost each action you take in the game, from a good combo to discovering hidden content, grants you in-game points, and these gadgets can be obtained and upgraded by spending these points.

The Man in the Long Black Cape 

This game does many things right, but it’s the atmosphere and the setting where the game developer’s skill, talent, and dedication to their product shows the most.

Arkham Asylum runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the game a testament to how great the engine can look when handled properly. There are some intermissions from the game’s main story line when our titular hero’s drugged and forced to fight through a wicked version of reality that his intoxicated brain traps him in. These segments break up the pace, and are wonderfully done.

The level design, the pacing, the lighting, hell, pretty much about the atmosphere department feels just right.

Batman and the Beast

The game’s not without its flaws, sure, but it does stand high above most other representatives of the third person action genre.

You don’t have to like or care for Batman to enjoy it — though I guess it wouldn’t hurt if you do — if you enjoy action adventure video games, put this one on your Must Buy list.

Yes, Mark Hamill’s Joker is in fact much more exciting than the titular hero, and yes, the enemies and boss battles could’ve been better, and yes, the ending sort of sucks (spoiler: Batman wins) but in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter because this game is clearly a product of love. Of hard-coding video game designer programmer love. Just like the fact that Batman is a product of… Bats.

And, arguably, cottage cheese.

My Rating: 4.5/5 Penguins


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