Review by DDJ
"Choppy, plodding, and unoriginal. I just don't get the hype."
Review in Brief
Game: A prototypical action-adventure game set firmly in the Batman comic book mythos.
Good: Plenty of excellent fan service; one of the best video game voiceover performances ever assembled; great atmosphere and tone.
Bad: Choppy gameplay with no real "core" game behind it; a plodding plot that remains completely devoid of tension or emotion; a complete lack of any original features.
Verdict: The game itself ought to be treated at Arkham Asylum for its dissociative identity disorder gameplay, its depressed plot, and its kleptomaniacal game structure.
Recommendation: Great for hardcore Batman fans, but I can't recommend it to anyone else.
"Choppy, plodding, and unoriginal. I just don't get the hype."
I've heard Batman: Arkham Asylum called many things. Game of the Year for 2009. Best Superhero game of all time. An all-time classic. I even named it my best game of 2009 based solely on the public opinion in my Top 10 Games of the 2000s list. I hadn't yet played it then, but with all the good that was showered on it, how it spanned genres and gave pulse-pounding gameplay and was finally the superhero game we've all craved, it seemed like a surefire choice.
Well, I finally got around to playing it recently, and I just do not understand the hype. I'm more than willing to accept the idea that maybe everyone else sees something in it that I don't, that maybe it's just not my style game, that maybe I'm just missing the game's charm. I'm fully willing to accept the fact that my impression might be the minority of minorities, and that maybe my taste in games is just terrible. But all that said, I did not enjoy Batman: Arkham Asylum much at all.
I don't think this is a case where it just wasn't my kind of game, though. I'll openly admit, action games are not my normal genre, but usually I can see where fans of the genre would enjoy things that I don't. But in the case of Batman: Arkham Asylum, I don't see the appeal. There are a lot of criticisms I could lob at the game that would mostly be my personal tastes and opinions, but I'm going to try to avoid those. Instead, for my criticisms, I'm going to focus on the three things that I think are actually objectively bad about Batman: Arkham Asylum. These are three things that I don't think are just my personal opinion; I feel they're objectively detrimental design decisions that no game should be guilty of.
That's not to say there's nothing to like about Batman: Arkham Asylum. There were some cool moments, the tone and atmosphere that the game creates are among the most unique I've found, and perhaps most importantly, it's a game that long-time fans of the Batman franchise will adore. But from a pure game perspective, it leaves much to be desired.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is an action-adventure game set in the Batman universe on the island of Arkham, a small island near Gotham that houses the psych ward that is home to many (if not all) of the Batman franchise's most notable enemies. The game is positioned plot-wise basically near the "end" of the Batman comic book franchise (at least, with all of the villains already established, although some of the stranger comic book events haven't happened yet) and holds the assumption that most of the battles outlined in the comics have already happened, leading to many of those criminals being incarcerated on this island. As you might expect, the story starts with Batman's arch-nemesis, Joker, escaping confinement and hatching a plan to terrorize Gotham and destroy Batman. And although the game came out shortly after The Dark Knight and takes place largely in the same place as Batman Begins (although portrayed very differently from the movie), this game builds almost exclusively on the comic book mythos (as well as what ever animated series fit into that mythos as well). Check your memories of the TV show, the movies, and other games at the door.
Gameplay-wise, Batman: Arkham Asylum has a bit of a split identity. There are head-to-head brawler segments, stealth predator segments, platformer segments, detective segments, boss battles, exploration segments, and others. For the exploration and platformer elements, it borrows heavily from the Metroid/Castlevania franchises, while its battle system is a fairly straightforward brawler, and its stealth segments have a significant Assassin's Creed flavor to them.
While the majority of my review will be spent on what I see as the three major problems with Batman: Arkham Asylum, there's definitely a lot of good to be had in the game. There are people for whom the game will be a must-play, and there are certainly some elements that are both enjoyable and notable in the grand landscape of gaming.
Plenty of Fan Service
One of my best friends is an enormous Batman fan and thoroughly enjoyed Batman: Arkham Asylum, and so I was jackassedly obligated to take it on myself to tell him all the reasons I didn't like the game. What emerged from that conversation was the realization that a significant portion of this game's appeal is exponentially more powerful to existing fans of the franchise than it would be to random gamers picking up a Batman game and erroneously assuming it was a tie-in to a recent blockbuster movie like some idiot Top 10 list writer did a few months ago. But enough about me.
As mentioned above, Batman: Arkham Asylum builds almost exclusively on the Batman comic book mythos, and takes significant steps to allude to that mythos at every turn. There are no original enemies and scant original characters in the game, appropriate for the latest iteration of a franchise that is decades old and has so many iconic figures already. The setting fits in perfectly with the classic storyline, and the story itself fits rather seamlessly into the comic book plot. For a franchise that has more versions of what's "canon" than the Roman Catholic Church, Batman: Arkham Asylum actually fits very well into the core canon of the franchise.
Part of the game's optional content, like every game nowadays it seems, involves running around the game world and collecting random items, either by literally picking up physical items or by finding particular things in the scenery. That on its own I consider one of the stupidest and worst trends in modern video gaming, to the point where one of the writers at one of my sites, Gaming Symmetry, has dedicated a series to chronicling all the ways in which these kinds of things appear in games. However, while I think generally they're dumb and distracting, in Batman: Arkham Asylum, at least they unlock something cool; pursuing these gives you access to the back stories on all of Batman's characters, mostly the villains, as well as taped "recordings" of psychological evaluation sessions with some of the bigger criminals. While the method for unlocking these is stupid, at least the result of doing so is enjoyable (though on the flip side, it's frustrating that something so cool is locked away in such a tedious task).
It's not just about having fan service, but it's also about having fan service of the right kind. Fan service can actually alienate fans of a franchise if it comes across more as fluff than an earnest homage, but in Batman: Arkham Asylum, the fan service is of the utmost quality. The game is really incredible faithful to the comic book franchise (so I'm told, at least), which represent one of the game's appeals. Earnest, long-time fans of the Batman franchise will thoroughly enjoy all the allusions and references present in the game, to the point where they just about justify the random collection quests that I would otherwise be thoroughly berating in this review.
Great Voice Acting
One thing that Batman: Arkham Asylum has grown famous for is its voice acting. Reportedly, it has one of the best voice acting casts and performance in the history of video games. I tentatively agree with this assessment, though there's a major exception I'll mention in a moment.
The voice acting for the villains in the game (the villains are by far the most interesting part of the Batman mythos) is absolutely phenomenal. Mark Hamill's portrayal of Joker is well-documented as one of the best jobs at video game voice acting, but it's really not just about Joker. Hamill's been playing Joker for over a decade now, it's not surprising that he's perfected it. The really impressive thing to me is all the voiceover artists for the other villains. Arleen Sorkin plays Harley Quinn and somehow manages to make her objectively obnoxious without being subjectively obnoxious; by that I mean that the player can tell she's an annoying character without personally being annoyed every time she comes up (though the pair of Ds and the corset might help, too). Tom Kane plays every single old grumpy man in the game, yet I had no idea it was all the same guy until I checked the game's IMDb page. Somehow I missed the fact that Steve Jay Blum, my favorite voiceover artists and probably one of the best-recognized voices in gaming (Wolverine, Vincent Valentine, Zegram, Ares), plays Killer Croc, and nearly every other major character has a dedicated voice actor. The result is a much deeper sense of immersion and realism than one would get with a Final Fantasy X-style cast; one actually feels that they're watching events unfold, rather than just hearing the words the writers wanted them to hear.
That major exception, however, comes from every good character in the entire bloody game. Batman, Commissioner Gordon, the doctors, the security officers, Oracle -- every single one of them delivers their lines with all the emotion of a pair of awkward office acquaintances commenting on the weather during a long elevator ride. There are instances where a doctor just witnessed the brutal murder of all the people he works for, but he delivers the line as if that's a daily event around these parts (granted, maybe it is, but that introduces the deeper question of who the heck would choose to work there). This isn't meant to be nitpicky, it actually has a significant impact on the game plot that I'll get to in the criticisms section.
Good Tone and Atmosphere
It's a little hard to describe exactly what I'm going for here; tone is one thing, atmosphere is another, but what I'm really getting at is the general overall feel of the game, how the appearance and the plot and the setting merge into one cohesive gameplay experience. And for that, I must say, Batman: Arkham Asylum does a very admirable job. It's the normal gray, dank, dark setting that we see far too often in gaming nowadays, and even areas that would justify some color seem to focus on earth tones, but that does fit the game's overall dark mood. The important thing, though, is the game isn't overwhelmingly dark, but rather seems fittingly dark.
Another element of the tone and atmosphere, though, is the overall way the plot is framed; I'll thoroughly thrash the plot in a few sections, but it does afford for some interesting dynamics that remain rather fun to watch. The basic premise of the game is that the Joker is in control of the game world and often is intentionally testing or teasing Batman with troops and thugs; that sets up the dynamic whereby the player feels like they have an illusory audience given the Joker's ability to track the player's actions. There's something about that dynamic that's wonderfully engaging; the notion that you, the player, are not doing anything that the Joker has not foreseen and planned is possibly the only tension that exists in the game, and his constant taunts against Batman serve as great motivators. A similar dynamic exists with other villains as well, and that overall framing -- of being tested with, and subsequently defeating, puzzles and challenges -- serves the game quite well.
As I mentioned in the introduction, there are a lot of criticisms I want to lob at this game. There are a lot of things I think are wrong with it, and there are a lot of parts that I, personally, just flat-out didn't enjoy. But in my opinion, those criticisms pale in comparison to the objectively bad design choices I see plaguing Batman: Arkham Asylum. So, to avoid this review coming across as nothing more than a non-action game fan complaining about an action game, I'm going to focus on what I consider are absolutely poor design choices in every sense of the term.
I won't be talking much about the ridiculous difficulty spikes that occur as a result of the game's extreme reluctance to give you a challenge more than once every couple hours because hey, maybe I just sucked at the game. I won't be talking much about how silly I think the collectibles are because, much to my dismay, those have become oddly normal in the gaming industry, so I suppose there are people out there that like that. I won't be talking about how the random riddles and trophies distract from the overall immersion of the game because I'm well aware that I'm all to prone to jump on that soap box. And I'll try not to talk about the absence of plot justifications for various parts of the game because, again, that's my personal crusade against the industry, and Batman: Arkham Asylum has plenty else to criticize about it before having to get into my personal tastes.
Instead, my criticisms are the three words from the review title: it's choppy, it's plodding, and it's unoriginal.
Let's start with choppy, just for the sake of alphabetical order. What do I mean for a game to be choppy? Let's imagine what that would mean for a movie. A choppy movie would be a sequence of short scenes that lack an overall cohesiveness. For a game, it's the same: Batman: Arkham Asylum is largely a long series of short, unrelated gameplay segments.
I mentioned in my description that it's hard to find an identity to the gameplay in Batman, and that's effectively what I mean when I say choppy. Consider the different play modes or settings you come across in the game. Early on, you're introduced to stealth killing, swinging around in the rafters and picking off your victims one by one while staying undetected. That part plays like a stealth game. You're also introduced to hand-to-hand crowd-based combat, wherein you take on various challengers all around you head-to-head. This part plays like a brawler. There are also elongated detective modes that require you to track someone's movements through a building or find a certain clue (and I'd probably throw the random item-finding quests in that category as well). There are even pseudo-2D platformer sections and Prince of Persia-esque 3D platformer sections and puzzle sections. And of course, there are boss fights.
This isn't a criticism of any individual part of the game. The stealth sections are fun. The brawling combat is fun. The detective sequences are fun. The platformer sections are fun. The boss fights, while unoriginal, are fun. The problem isn't that there are too many gameplay modes or that there's anything wrong with the individual modes, but rather with the balance and flow of those modes. Varied gameplay is a crucial feature for any good plot-driven game to have, and I'm not criticizing the game for trying to have it, but the implementation is very flawed. In his review for Batman: Arkham Asylum, Zero Punctuation's Yahtzee praised the game for finally having a balance between stealth and open combat, but I completely disagree. Balance isn't about "having both"; balance is about the two flowing together, mixing, merging, and interacting. The gameplay in Batman: Arkham Asylum isn't balanced, it just randomly tells you, "Hey, be stealthy now." or "Hey, punch them in the face now."
Essentially what I mean by this is that no particular gameplay sequence in the game lasts longer than a few minutes at most, and most are few and far between. Toward the end, you're confronted with a sequence of big battles with lots of guys, and they're legitimately challenging only because battles against lots of enemies at once only happened once in a blue moon the rest of the game. The same thing goes with the stealth sequence; they're very fun, but there's only a handful, and they're spread out over the course of numerous hours. By the time you reach one, you've forgotten everything you learned playing through the previous one. As a result, you never really feel like you're good at the game, but rather that you're just good enough to get by a section.
It's possible that that's just me sucking at the game, but I think it still holds true if you're good at it. You just don't engage in any one gameplay mode long enough to really learn how to do it, and you jump between them so often that it's hard to get a good read on the game's identity. Is it a stealth game with action elements? An action game with a fun stealth mode? A platformer with deeper combat mode than most? The choppiness of the gameplay largely betrays the game's identity, which is a pretty significant problem.
Where 'choppy' referred to the gameplay, 'plodding' refers to the plot. The game's plot is, quite simply, slow and boring and plodding and tensionless. A good plot involves twists and turns and unexpected events. A good plot rises to a climactic final battle, with the stakes increasing at every turn. A good plot makes the player feel like something is genuinely at risk. A good plot, quite frankly, involves tension, and Batman: Arkham Asylum has no tension whatsoever.
This starts from the very beginning. The setup for the game is contrived and phoned in. Early on in the game you find that the Joker has escaped, as well as several prisoners and other supervillains, but the writers don't seem to pay any attention to justifying how that happened. It's basically, "we need Joker to be free on the island, so let's just say at the beginning, 'hey, he broke free!'" Little details are applied to describing how this happened, leaving the player to feel a bit like a foreigner to the game developments.
From there, the player engages in a plot that goes... well, basically exactly like you'd expect it to. Some of the supervillains are running amok on the island and you have to go from place to place to stop them. Scant justification is given to why you're going a certain place and when, with the reasoning usually being either, "Oh, there's an enemy there" or "Oh, you got a new device that lets you go there." The plot really doesn't have any twist and turns, and while there are elements that you might could describe as plot twists, they never really feel like a twist of any kind. I mentioned above that the relationship with Joker is fun, but the relationship doesn't really drive the plot. The limit to it is basically that Batman and Joker are rivals, and therefore of course Joker's setting a trap for Batman; no more development is given to it than that.
It's important to note though, that this isn't a matter of there not being enough at stake. Quite the contrary, plenty is at stake; Joker is threatening to destroy Gotham as usual, and along the way no fewer than two other plans for destroying Gotham are hatched by other supervillains. The problem is that it never feels like there is an actual risk of these plans coming to fruition. The player never feels like anything is actually at stake; it's as if it's a foregone conclusion that Batman's going to win and everything's going to be okay. The way these Gotham-destroying plots pop up actually is part of the reason they don't feel important; when a plot to destroy the city can show up on a moment's notice, they kind of lose their drama. And I won't spoil the ending (not that there's that much to spoil, really), but when it comes time to go fight the final battle, the feeling is much less, "Climactic events have arisen that make it time for the final battle to take place" and much more, "K, you've beaten the rest of the game, now go fight the final battle." No tension, just inevitability. As my friend described, it feels less like a climactic ending and more like Batman's just tired and wants to go home.
A bigger part of what contributes to this, however is what I alluded to earlier: problems with the voice acting on the side of the good characters. The evil characters are incredibly voiced, but the good characters all sound like they're on Prozac. Ignoring how that feels silly in the scenes (which I described thoroughly before), it's part of the reason the plot feels so plodding. None of the characters seem to feel like there's any real risk being posed to Gotham, and thus, why should the player? Whenever challenged about Joker's plans, Batman replies with a calm, "Yeah, I'll stop him" that feels more like a husband telling his wife that he'll grab milk on his way home than a superhero promising to stop a supervillain from destroying a major city. If the main character doesn't feel any pressure, why should the player?
The aforementioned friend told me that this is actually part of Batman's appeal to hardcore players: he's always cool, calm, and in control. That's fine, actually. It's entirely possible for the tension to be raised in the game without changing Batman's voice acting: instead, you'd have to change all the other good guys'. Batman can be the self-assured and masterful superhero so long as everyone else around him is freaking the hell out; in fact, that'd be a good thing. It's cool to play as the character who keeps a level head when the worlds going to hell around him. But it's not very engaging to play as a character that keeps a cool head when everyone else around is keeping a cool head, too, even though supposedly all their friends and loved ones might be about to die horrible, horrible deaths.
A little attention is given to bringing up some elements of interest regarding Batman's own sanity and his relationship with certain past enemies, but not nearly enough attention is paid to them. As a result, the point of completing the game never feels like more than, well, to complete the game. You don't feel like your goal is to save Gotham or defeat the Joker, you feel like your goal is just to finish the game because the plot lacks the direction to let you know much more. There's just not that feeling of gravity or tension going into those final battles because no one seems to think there's any risk of you not winning. And of course, we know if you lose you can just try again, but within the context of the game plot, that's not supposed to be a possibility.
I used the word 'choppy' to describe the gameplay and 'plodding' to describe the plot, but when I say 'unoriginal', I'm describing something more akin to the game structure. It'd be on the gameplay side of the spectrum, but less about the individual button presses and control mechanisms and more about the overall demands of what you're doing.
The overall structure of the game sees you climbing around the game world, darting around rooftops and shimmying along ledges and exploring different areas. Along the way, you'll encounter lots of baddies, and while you can take them in hand-to-hand combat, the game gives you ways and seems to encourage you to focus more on your stealth capabilities. If you find yourself in a hand-to-hand battle, though, you'll be surrounded by enemies of a handful of different types, each with a specific way in which they must be killed -- although alternatively, if you hack away at them long enough, they'll usually die, too. Counterattacks, fortunately, are rather overpowered, and you can deflect almost any blow with the push of a button. When you're walking around outside of combat, you can press a button to enter a special viewing mode that highlights enemies' locations and the locations of notable pieces of the environment. You can use this to stealthily sneak up behind enemies and kill them without anyone noticing. For a sidequest, you're tasked with finding a certain object that has been scattered across the game world.
That entire paragraph could be copied and pasted into a review for Assassin's Creed. I should also say that if you've beaten Assassin's Creed, you're well-suited for Batman: Arkham Asylum because the gameplay is extremely similar. I could also comment on the similarity between something in Batman: Arkham Asylum and the glyphs in Assassin's Creed II, but in fairness, Batman: Arkham Asylum did come first.
That's not all there is to the game, though. Exploration is largely controlled by your access to particular tools. At the beginning, you start only with the basic grappling hook, and that limits where you can go a fair amount. As the game goes on, however (and oftentimes for completely arbitrary reasons), you gain new equipment. These new tools can be used to open doorways that you couldn't formerly open, access pathways that used to be out of reach, or traverse areas that used to be off-limits. These tools, in turn, become the primary way in which the game manages how you go through the game world -- most of the time, the next place to go is the place that you couldn't access before. You'll also encounter places and items as you go through the game that you can't access unless you backtrack after getting the right equipment.
Yep, I did it again. That paragraph could be copied wholesale into a review for Metroid Prime (or Castlevania, but the 3D nature of Metroid Prime makes it a better comparison I think). Before I had a negative perception of Batman: Arkham Asylum, I was going to title this review "Metroid's Creed", since the vast majority of the gameplay can be described as either Assassin's Creed-esque or Metroid-esque. Combining the two into an interesting genre might have been cool if it hadn't been for the choppiness I alluded to earlier; the two aren't combined so much as they're juxtaposed with only a little more transition than the "battle start" animation of a JRPG.
However, there's a third piece to the game's structure that isn't accounted for by Assassin's Creed or Metroid Prime; that would be the part that is even less original than copying those two would be. The game operates on both an EXP system and an HP system. Batman has a certain number of HP points (the number is never shown, but so long as you have a meter of health that goes down a set amount with each hit, there has to be an HP system underlying it), and when he runs out, he dies. HP is restored magically by winning the current battle. EXP points are earned by defeating enemies, finding random trophies, and basically doing anything in the game. EXP points, in turn, are exchanged for weapons upgrades.
I promised I wouldn't get on my "plot justifying the gameplay" soapbox much, so I'm going to make this short. If Bruce Wayne is a multibillionaire that's been fighting crime for decades, why does he have to wait until he defeats a certain number of random enemies before he can buy an upgrade to equipment he invented?! It's his equipment, for crying out loud, he should have it whenever he wants it. The plot and the game structure in this regard do not match up at all. What's more, you get EXP points for finding those stupid random collectibles, which means that whether you choose to participate in a meaningless, tedious sidequest actually impacts how strong you are out in the main game.
But even if the plot and game structure weren't going to justify one another, the structure could at least be original. Instead, they opted for the most stereotypical, basic, and unoriginal health and level up systems possible. No thought whatsoever was put into those parts. On top of that, the game doesn't really have any original way of ramping up the difficulty. The bosses could all pass for bosses from Star Fox where the key was just figuring out their attack algorithm, and the big battles become "harder" just by throwing more enemies at you at once. It doesn't test your skill at the game; it just tests your endurance, which is fine for out-of-plot challenges but makes for a disappointing gameplay experience.
I honestly can't think of a single original idea there was to be had in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I'd love to hear what anyone else found to be original or innovative in the game. Now, of course, if you like the games that I'm suggesting Batman: Arkham Asylum rips off, then you might still thoroughly enjoy the game. It all depends on whether you expect a new game to present a new experience or more of a familiar experience.
Where Batman: Arkham Asylum shines, it shines brilliantly. For fans of the Batman franchise, it's an absolute must-play if solely because of how well it augments, extends, and summarizes the Batman canon. The voice acting helps the gameplay stay immersive in a place where video games regularly struggle, and if there were awards for voiceover work (or maybe there are), Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin both deserve one. The game also creates an engaging atmosphere and tone that remains remarkably consistent throughout the game.
However, those are all the equivalent of putting vanilla icing on a mud pie; it's still a mud pie, and Batman: Arkham Asylum is still a poorly-designed game. Its gameplay system is so choppy and schizophrenic that it itself should be checked into Arkham Asylum for dissociative identity disorder. The plot is so slow, plodding, and tensionless that it probably could use some evaluation for depression. And the game structure? Hopefully they treat kleptomania there because Batman: Arkham Asylum can't seem to help itself from stealing from Assassin's Creed, Metroid Prime, and classic games that introduced concepts that haven't been original since 1995.
A must-play for hardcore fans of the Batman franchise. A decent game for action-adventure fans. Not something for anyone else to waste their time with.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 10/13/11, Updated 10/18/11
Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (Game of the Year Edition) (US, 05/11/10)
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