Batman: Arkham Asylum
Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Steam (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X)
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: August 25, 2009
Batman: Arkham Asylum Review
Aside from Lego Batman, the Dark Knight hasn't seen a quality video game adaptation in a long time. But even a painful lack of quality (excruciating even) can't stop the frequent release of Batman titles. Dating all the way back to the 80's a Batman game has hit shelves every two years or so, usually to coincide with the release of a Batman movie (animated or otherwise). The development of these games has never been handled with love and care, so to speak, so the product has always been sub-par...until now.
The developers at Rocksteady Studios treated this game the way a gentleman treats a lady - with respect. They crafted a story that's faithful to Batman lore, but original unto itself. In Arkham Asylum, the Joker enables his own incarceration to lure Batman to Arkham (a prison island) and slowly release all the inmates upon him. Truly Arkham is the perfect setting for a Batman game and allows for the logical inclusion of any villain without the need for some insanely convoluted plot.
Since the Joker has control of Arkham he fires a perpetual volley of taunts and insults via loudspeaker. Mark Hamil's unmistakable and frightening rendition of the Joker echoes at every turn. Batman fans will weep tears of joy to discover nearly all of the voice actors in Arkham Asylum are reprising their roles from Batman: The Animated Series. It's a wonderful blast of nostalgia, but controlling the Dark Knight taps into something even more satisfying.
The gameplay in Arkham Asylum perfectly captures the essence of Batman as a character: part detective, part shadowy predator, part brawler. Clues, such as fingerprints, will guide players to and from areas of confrontation throughout the game. Activating a feature called "detective mode" turns the screen into a blue x-ray which highlights relevant clues, interactable objects, and enemies. From a strategic standpoint detective mode is incredibly useful (you can see enemies through walls, for example), but having it turned on means sacrificing the game's gorgeous visuals for a haze of transparent blue. It's a problem, but not every moment calls for being a detective.
The real fun in Arkham Asylum isn't hunting for clues, it's beating the crap out of henchman. If you stumble upon a room filled with semi-automatic wielding baddies it's probably time for predator combat. Batman can use his grappling gun on ledges, railings, or gargoyles and zip between the higher reaches of an area. From an elevated position you can glide down and kick an enemy in the face, toss a batarang to stun or distract, and even use the grappling gun to string an enemy upside down from a gargoyle in classic Batman fashion. Variety is the name of the game. Players can utilize bits of the environment (destructible walls, vents, etc.) as well as the full range of utility belt gadgetry.
Dense groups of thugs call for a more straightforward approach than predator combat. Not unlike Assassin's Creed, enemies encircle the player and start a brawl. A button color will flash above a henchman's head before they strike, which allows for a variety of counter attacks. Repeated hits unlock special combo abilities and with a little practice brawls become a free-flowing thing of beauty. Fights get more complicated as the game gradually introduces enemies with knives that must be stunned before they can take damage, enemies with electrified batons that can only be attacked safely from behind, and enemies that wander off to find firearms or things to throw at Batman. Adding to the overall feel of combat, heavy blows to the head will blur the screen and enemies rendered unconscious go rag doll in entertaining ways.
Dispatching enemies awards experience, which in time will level Batman and afford him new abilities. You can choose the order in which these abilities are unlocked and gain upgrades to throw multiple batarangs at once, increase Batman's health, and so on. This feature is supplementary so don't expect an RPG-style leveling system or a vast skill tree here. Most unlockable abilities are passive, but customization is a welcome addition that gives a real sense of character building.
Arkham Asylum's gameplay perfectly distills the essence of Batman. Rotating between detective work, predator combat, and brawls provides a satisfying mix of challenges and there's a real sense of power that comes from dispatching groups of henchman as the Dark Knight. The boss battles are riveting, especially the atmospheric bouts against the Scarecrow and Killer Croc. Voice acting in this game is unparalleled (particularly Mark Hamil's Joker). Arkham Asylum is a must play for Batman fans and easily one of the best action games of the generation. All told, you won't be able to put down the controller until you've wiped that taunting grin off of the Joker's face.