Review by Raizor_Blaid
"A Serious House Indeed."
There is a preconceived notion that superhero games, or to be less specific, licensed games, will always inevitably suck. This belief isn't entirely unfounded (see Superman 64 particularly, and every other licensed game you can think of for emphasis), usually because they're rushed out to market in order to cash in on the property on which they're based. Arkham Asylum, however, seems to exist solely to kick every other licensed game in the face and say I'm goddamn awesome, suck it, and it does an amazing job of backing itself up on that. While it is a licensed game, using the license of Batman as you may have suspected had you read the title of the game, it doesn't base itself off of any specific product or medium in the Batman franchise. In fact, it manages to incorporate some of the best aspects of the comic books, the animated series, and the live action movies into one highly satisfying gaming experience.
As the opening cinematic plays, you're greeted with Batman escorting Joker back to the Asylum. The Dark Knight is suspicious, and insists on following Joker all the way to his cell; not the most brilliant of choices, as he finds himself deep in the facility when Joker breaks free of custody and, with help from Harley Quinn, begins his island takeover. Batman, being the Batman that he is, of course opts to put a stop to the clown prince of crime's ambitions and is forced to fight his way through the island, gathering clues that will lead him to Joker.
It won't be long before you notice just how well the game crafts the best aspects of Batman (generally spread out over several mediums) into one; the iconic voices of the Animated Series, as well as Paul Dini, an amazing Batman writer, the expansive continuity of the comic universe, and the grittiness of the movies ( Ignoring Batman & Robin and everything involving Adam West), all coming together with a game design that truly makes you feel like you are Batman, the skilled martial artist, the master predator, the genius inventor, and the world's greatest detective. Arkham Asylum integrates all of these seamlessly.
As the crime fighting caped crusader, you will be spending a lot of your time fighting Joker's endless horde of thugs, and thankfully, Rocksteady designed a brand new style of combat that perfectly matches Batman's skill and gives the player a feeling of power. The freeflowing combat system they've come up with allows you to do four things, attack, counter, stun, and evade, and switch from one to another flawlessly. It all flows together and makes fights highly entertaining as you see more and more of Batman's plethora of context and direction specific techniques. It's a breeze to start beating up on one guy, switch to another once he's down without missing a beat, counter the guy coming up behind you with a pipe, stun the knife nut before he starts taking slashes at you, dodge over and behind the dude with the stun baton and beat the crap out of him, and swiftly chuck out some batarangs to keep the rest of the crowd busy while you do a finishing takedown move on the guy you just knocked down. All in one smooth combo. Because you're Batman. If this sounds too easy, it is, if you're playing on the easy mode, and on normal it isn't particularly challenging either, but hard mode should satisfy people looking for more of a challenge, as the removal of the indicators that tell you when to counter make things sufficiently difficult in larger groups of enemies.
Equally as amusing is the stealth aspect of the game that you will be facing frequently, being Batman. Stealth doesn't really do it justice, as has been said by Rocksteady themselves; the idea of sneaking around makes you seem weak, but in Arkham Asylum, it's crafted to make you feel like a powerful predator picking off the weak people and striking terror into them as you do so. Don't worry, the finesse of the combat system doesn't make preying on enemies obsolete, as if you try to take on an armed thug with just your bare, albeit Batman fists, you will get shot, in the face, and die. Instead, you can take several different approaches to engaging your foes, depending on the environment. Swinging up from the gargoyles and using those as your primary means of getting around the room and taking out enemies is the most common method, though you're also able to duck around in air vents, underground, and behind walls. Or if you're awesome enough, just walk around without being seen by anybody, because you are Batman.
The general idea of the predator gameplay is to clear a room of patrolling, armed thugs one by one so as not to alert the others and get yourself killed. In addition to the variety of approaches, there's a pretty good amount of actual ways to take the enemies out. If you're blunt about things, you can just batarang somebody, get on them, and do a takedown, but you're also able to sneak up behind them undetected and do silent takedowns, ledge takedowns, corner takedowns, and you can use inverted takedowns to swoop down from a gargoyle, pick up an enemy, and string him upside down. As you go about your business, it proves to be extremely satisfying as the once confident mooks become terrified of you. It's also possible to cleverly make use of your gadgets in these situations, but I'll go into that shortly. Again, if this sounds too easy, it can be on easy and normal; it actually gets easier as you go because while you get better, not much gets done to make these sections harder. On hard mode though, it can actually prove challenging to pick someone off without being detected, and when you are spotted, it is much more difficult to escape their sight, which is fatal considering how quickly a guy with a gun can take you out.
If you really feel like being a clever jerk, you can make use of a number of gadgets to pick enemies off as well. As you progress, you'll gain experience that you can use to upgrade to new WayneTech gizmos, and the story will yield nifty tools as well. While the default batarangs are simple and quite ubiquitous, the other things you get will be used more for getting around the island and into new areas. Explosive Gel makes short work of structurally weak walls, and the bat claw allows you to get into those high-up grates you couldn't yank off before. These can be upgraded as you go, and you will get a few specifically useful for combat. From certain vantage points, the bat claw can be used to yank enemies over railings to their end, and you can increase your number of batarangs for larger groups. Explosive Gel can be used to set traps just about anywhere (especially when you get the auto-proximity detonator), but the explosion of walls and floors is a more effective way to take out enemies. There are more than this, and the number of different ways you can use them is limited only to how creative you are.
Varied and deep while still easily accessible. Incorporation of all of Batman's character traits makes for a satisfying game experience. A tad easy on normal, though; start on hard.
Let's get into how it looks, now. Being on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, you would expect it to be quite a good looking game, and you'd be quite right in expecting that. The Unreal Engine is used, and it shows; some people may not be a fan of that, but it makes Batman and his cavalcade of lunatics looks quite spectacular. The bat himself is muscular, imposing, and down-right intimidating, and the villains don't look especially pleasant either, except maybe Harley or Poison Ivy if you're into those Sorts of things. This is consistent through the entirety of the game, as you tread through new areas of the Asylum, you'll find that the Gothic and Victorian design principles that epitomize the grit of the Asylum and the series itself are ever-present, and an air of creepiness and horror tends pervade every moment you aren't watching a guy flail around upside-down, hanging from a gargoyle. For the most part, though, the game inverts the horror as you're frightening the inmates almost as much as they are you.
Of course, something this Beautiful, if you will would be nothing if it weren't tied together by slick, lifelike animations, and thankfully, it is. The animation of the thugs makes them seem quite alive, or quite unconscious when the rag doll physics come into play after they get their face punched in by an equally well animated Batman. The combat makes the animation look that much better, as you're flawlessly flowing from one action to the next, rarely looking awkward. The specific character animations all tend to live up to their personalities, most notably Joker, who will often be seen prancing around like a silly little psychopath. Something else quite worth noting, visually, is the change in Batman's model as you go through the game. At key plot events, the effects will take their toll on Batman and it will be shown on his outfit, as scratches on his armour and tears in his cape become quite noticeable, as does the five-o'clock shadow that begins to develop on his face as the night presses on.
Spectacular technical and aesthetic prowess in constructing the island in such a way that it exudes the gothic style of the series. Animations are fluid, and there is a high attention to detail.
The thing with gaming is the trifecta of things experienced in the process, there's the visceral experience of controlling it, the visual experience of watching it, and the audible experience present through well crafted sound design. Batman is not a comic, a TV show, a movie, or a game in which listening to horrible punk rock skateboarding music as you dash through the creepy corridors pummeling enemies would ever be appropriate. The developers know where Batman lays, audibly, and that is in moody, fitting pieces of instrumental music that fit the feeling of the scene perfectly, be it dramatic or fear-inducing. The music always matches what's going on, as does the sound design. A number of warped, creepy sound effects play throughout to get the proper responses, such as the distorted chime that plays over the Arkham intercom when Joker decides to interject with one of his many hilarious witticisms, or the bat sounds that can be heard accompanying the visual bat effect when gathering experience. Just as noticeable is the bone-crunching sounds you'll hear and likely cringe to as you smack around your adversaries; so prominent are the crackling sounds of combat that the lack of blood in the game may go completely unnoticed to you.
And, of course, many characters are defined by their voices, and being such a big series, the many Batman characters have had a variety of actors portraying them. None, however, are more iconic and representative of the roles of Batman and Joker than Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively. From the animated series and beyond, these two practically are their roles, and are the most defining voices of the characters. Upon finding out that these two were set to reprise their roles in this game, my heart fluttered a bit. I'd imagine it was similar to finding love for the first time, except with a sweaty man in a bat suit and a murderous, psychotic clown. They continue to deliver excellent work in Arkham Asylum, and while I'm not especially familiar with the voices of the other characters (save for Harley Quinn still being voiced by her BTAS actor, Arleen Sorkin, and Killer Croc somehow being voiced by Steve Blum ), they all do spectacular jobs, as one might expect. Though Scarecrow, in all his horror and fright, sounded kind of like a woman when I first heard him.
Epic and well fitted musical scores, atmospheric sound effects, and satisfying combat noises combine with top-notch voice acting to deliver an experience not dissimilar to having chocolate sauce poured into your ear. In a good way.
Possibly one of the most remarkable things about the game is just how much attention to detail it's staff has paid. The island is amazingly well crafted, and when Batman finally makes it out of Intensive Treatment and the camera pans around the island and its mansion, don't be surprised if you find yourself smiling. Even more than that, it is filled with little nuances, homages, and other such references to the series. Just about every villain and character who didn't get to play a part in the story gets a mention either in a character bio or a riddle, which I'll talk about more later. The villains that did get on Joker's party list though are quite impressive. The fight with Bane includes a number of throwbacks to their first encounter when the Dark Knight's back was broken, and Poison Ivy's abilities over the island are not downplayed. Probably most spectacular of all the villains presented is Scarecrow, who will be encountered a few times, each time sending you on a trip through mind-rape hell as you deal with the disturbing effects of his fear gas.
Sadly, while they are well integrated into the plot, not every villain is as exciting to encounter as our beloved Dr. Crane. One key issue with the game is that the actual boss fights can prove uninteresting at times. It isn't uncommon for the villain fights to be broken up into segments that will have you pummeling a bunch of pointless thugs in between, and often times it will be these thugs who pose the biggest threat, as they are sent in irritating quantities. The final boss too, I will say without spoiling the specifics, is not very satisfying. The cutscene after you fight him is, but the battle is not. One that kind of depends on the person is venturing into Killer Croc's lair. If you're easily frightened, you'll be uneasy through the entire ordeal. Otherwise, when the giant man-crocodile pops out of the water threatening to eat your flesh, you'll just be like yeah whatever croc and throw a batarang at him to knock him back into the water and continue on your merry way. Still a little creepy though, when he isn't right in your face.
Well constructed story, written by Paul Dini, drawing aspects from and paying homage to a number of Batman comics as well as other mediums, with an A-list villain cast (as you might expect from Batman), but the actual encounters with those villains might not be what you were expecting.
When all is said and done though, and you've made your way through the story and find yourself wanting more, the game delivers quite well. Early on in the story you're greeted to the charming voice of the Riddler and his 240 or so riddles for you to solve, which you will not accomplish before finishing the plot unless you set out to do so. Taking these on can actually be quite a time consumer, is intriguing, and will provide a lot of oh why did I not notice that I am stupid moments, and as the riddles become progressively more difficult, it is hilarious listening to the Riddler break down at his slowly being bested by the world's greatest detective. Some of them teeter on overly obscure, though, so I won't judge you if you end up using a walkthrough for some of them. The problem here is, although it's fun to test your meddle and see how many obscure Batman references you can pick out, it can feel a bit empty running around the island, taking these riddles on without any enemies to fight, except for maybe a couple of lunatics running around the place that will quickly be taken out. It isn't a post-game breaker, but it can leave a longing desire to punch a guy in the back of the head unfulfilled.
Thankfully, though not a complete remedy, the game provides a variety of challenges to take on when you're confident in your skills! There are 8 different challenges, four combat, four predator, and then 8 more extreme versions of the originals, making 16 (plus four free downloadable challenges), and even more, in each challenge there are three medals to get. In combat, it depends solely on how high you can get your score to go (and it can get pretty damn difficult), whereas in predator, you get medals for taking enemies out in delightfully amusing ways. If you take it upon yourself to ace these challenges as well as all of the riddles, Arkham Asylum should keep your interested for quite some time.
There is a lot to do once you finish, both on the island and in the challenges, but tackling the Riddler's challenges may bore you once you run out of the limited number of foes in the environment. Still, the challenges are fun and in a number of cases, actually challenging, and any fan of Batman will find the riddles a whimsical nostalgia trip.
I'll sum up my thoughts right here. Rocksteady has crafted a beautiful gaming experience that takes the Batman multimedia franchise and tied it all into one highly amusing and satisfying package filled with fanservice. With an intriguing, very Batman plot, spectacularly original gameplay decisions, stunning visuals and audio, as well as presentation through the roof for any actual fan of Batman, and a huge amount of extra things to do, Batman: Arkham Asylum is, simply put, a great game. That said, it isn't without its flaws, boss fights being one of the less spectacular aspects of the game, and honestly, I would recommend just about anyone start the game on hard first; it's much more rewarding. And if it's a decision between getting the game on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, I'd say go for the PS3 version and get the free downloadable Challenge maps that let you play as the ever-amusing Joker But don't buy a PS3 for that, I wouldn't say it's worth that much, and they could end up popping up on the 360 sometime in the future. Either way, you're the goddamn Batman. Treasure the experience.
FINAL SCORE: 9.0
Major Draw: Varied gameplay using all of Batman's skills and abilities in a complex, yet accessible manner.
Major Flaw: Some bland boss fights; a perplexing thing to get wrong when dealing with Batman, which has such a great cast of villains.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 03/12/10
Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (US, 08/25/09)
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