Review by Jekefka

"You don't have to be crazy to play this...but it helps."

Batman: Arkham Asylum is an incredible gaming achievement. It gives proof to developers that licensed games can be fun for more than fans, sell brilliantly, and be met with critical acclaim, and it gives gamers hope that other popular franchises may be taken seriously and done right. That said, the game isn't without its flaws, but whether you're a fan of Batman or just a fan of great games, Arkham Asylum is the game for you.

The game opens with Batman taking the Joker into Arkham custody, but naturally, not everything goes as planned. Joker escapes with the help of Harley Quinn and soon releases other inmates into the halls of the asylum. This begins one hectic, and exciting, night for Bruce Wayne that will keep you interested and involved from start to finish as plots are unveiled and schemes are thwarted. The game crafts its own intriguing story while doing the established Batman universe justice, and even if you know nothing about Batman, the game is riddled (sometimes literally) with information and insight into the many characters with which you'll be interacting.

The cast is brought to life by superb voice work, particularly by Mark Hamill as the Joker, who steals the show even if you mostly hear him through the asylum's PA system. Batman is voiced equally well by Kevin Conroy, and whether it's Harley Quinn's squeaky, accented jabbering or Killer Croc's hungry snarls, the vocals of Arkham help construct the outrageous personalities you'll encounter throughout the Dark Knight's foray into madness.

Thankfully, the visuals are just as good as the voices. Arkham Asylum is gritty and moody with each section of Arkham Island standing out in its own way. The Gardens are covered in stretching vines and overgrown ivy; Medical is filled with contraptions that look almost like torture devices; the Mansion has the air of a grand, regal castle, and even the distant skyline of Gotham helps put you, the player, in the asylum. Character models are detailed, especially on Batman, whose costume gradually accumulates permanent battle scars, and the animations, most notably during fights, are simply beautiful: You'll feel intimidating, skulking towards the last, terrified henchman that doesn't know you're right behind him....

And you'll be taking down a lot of henchmen. They're the primary, and almost exclusive, enemy found in the game, and aside from the rare boss fight, you'll be smashing, flipping and weaving through a countless number of thugs who have no business trying to take down Batman. That latter statement is apparent the moment you step in to fight them. The combat system is simply stunning, a freeform style that lets you seamlessly attack and counter an entire room of bad guys, and if you do it right, Batman is unstoppable. Unfortunately, the bosses are indeed very rare, and when you do come across them, they're nearly all the same. Some of the super-villains don't even put up a fight – literally – and while they serve their purpose from a story perspective, it would be nice to directly duel them rather than see them eliminated from your adventure through a cut scene. There's little to figure out about your opponents and there's little challenge because of this, but it does look good while you punch and kick them into submission.

Fighting isn't the only way to knock out enemies, however. On numerous occasions you must traverse a room through stealth and Batman's abundance of gadgets, staying hidden while you render every living thing in the room unconscious by some method or another. These segments can be suspenseful and grant you a variety of ways to succeed, letting you control a room and find interesting uses for your tactful items.

You can replay some of these stealthy portions in a Challenge Mode, as well as test your might in eight different freeform battles, but the only way to unlock these is to find specific collectibles. Picking up these collectibles is optional, but the downside is that you must hunt down a certain 16 of the 240 to access all of Challenge Mode. On the plus side, however, there are 240 collectibles, so searching for them all can add replay value to a game that will only last you around 10 hours before it's all over.

Between fighting, stalking, and hunting collectibles, there is some platforming that can be a bit tedious as you crawl through ventilation and follow clues around Arkham. The platforming isn't especially fun mainly because there are usually no obstacles in your way: You simply have to climb or walk for a few minutes before you reach the next fighting or stalking section, and it offers no challenge, danger or excitement, except for in a couple of cases. The venues look great; they're just not all that thrilling to take a jog through.

Altogether, though, Batman: Arkham Asylum is an excellent game of immense quality that few would regret playing. Like most single-player adventures, the replay value comes from collecting/side-quests and, well, replaying it, but if you don't plan on revisiting the madhouse a second or even third time, it would be most wise to rent it if only because this is one of the must-play games of the year. But if you're a big Batman fan or intend to play it through again, collect everything and really dive headfirst into the Dark Knight's best video game yet, then by all means buy it. You won't be disappointed.

Pros
+ Excellent visuals and sound
+ Great story
+ Stunning, flowing combat
+ Superb stealth & item gameplay

Cons
-- Lack of boss/villain battles
-- Low enemy variety
-- Dull platforming

Middle Ground
= Challenge Mode is fun and addicting, but you have to work a bit to be allowed to play it all.
= Collectibles are either pointless or add replay value, depending on how you want to approach them.

Rent or Buy?
Buy it if you really want get into it and experience it again and again, but give it a rental if one time through will do it for you.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 09/09/09

Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (US, 08/25/09)


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