Batman: Arkham Asylum
Review by Suprak the Stud
"The Dark Knight Rises (Again)"
Batman and videogames have about as good of a track record as Spiderman and musicals, and a couple of titles released for the Sega Genesis came dangerously close to defying several key tenants of the Geneva Conventions. Batman games are like the Chicago Cubs of videogames; perennially awful but people still go to go see them anyway because of unrealistic expectations and a poor sense of pattern recognition. Thus, all Batman: Arkham Asylum would have had to do to exceed expectations was not release a swarm of spiders when you opened the box. I didn't really get excited for Arkham Asylum for the same reason I don't get excited for the newest flu outbreak, and when reviewers started universally praising the game I had the sudden fear that hipsters had taken over the industry and were giving all the praise ironically. However, after playing the game I can say that you should ignore the past history of the franchise and put aside any fears or doubts you might have, because this is absolutely one of the most entertaining games of the most recent console generation. Batman: Arkham Asylum might have a few minor flaws, but the gameplay is so undeniably fun and entertaining that this game almost single handedly makes up for what Batman Forever did to my childhood.
The story starts off with Batman escorting the recently apprehended Joker to Arkham Asylum because he has the suspicion that Joker gave up too easily and is clearly up to something. After voicing his concerns with the guards, they amp up security, dutifully perform thorough investigations on all staff members to make sure none of them could possibly have any ties to criminal organizations, and post an extra contingent of guards around the "unlock all cells" button. And they all lived happily, and intelligently, ever after. Nah, just kidding. Instead, the guards all drink a bunch of paint and start filling out applications for jobs that don't involve the safety of an entire city. Once again, Arkham demonstrates it has worse security than most small town malls and within moments of the game starting nearly every single inmate in the entire asylum has been released and every guard captured, endangered, or killed, setting the world record in both incompetence and fastest reversal of fortune. Joker takes over the asylum, releases all of Batman's worst enemies, and posts some very insulting things on Twitter (#BatmanSmells is now trending) before retreating back into the depths of the asylum and leaving Batman surrounding by the various thugs he put in the asylum in the first place. Now, as Batman you must uncover what Joker is planning, defeat him, and tuck all the various criminals back in their cells before bedtime.
Batman and almost all the big name villains show up for at least a cameo, but despite all of this I never really found the story particularly riveting. It works well enough as a means to string all the various fights together, but the actually plot is a fairly generic comic book storyline type stuff. Joker wants to do some particularly evil supervillain-y type stuff, but there really isn't any of that interesting subtext that good writers have worked into the more memorable Joker storylines in other media. Instead, he's just sort of evil because he's in it for the money, and a lot of the story is sort of predicated on the awful decisions made by some people on the staff of Arkham. While the story does get a little stupid at times, that is sort of to be expected from the genre and it doesn't mean there aren't some great moments thrown in. Some of the best come from your multiple encounters with Scarecrow, where he decides to completely derail whatever you were trying to do by completely crushing your psyche and ruining your perception of reality. I ended up genuinely looking forward to when he decided to pop up and scare the pee out of me, because these ended up being some of the strongest segments of the game storywise. It isn't that the story is awful, and there are a lot of interesting bits of therapy footage that show some interesting conversations between the staff at Arkham and some of Batman's more stab happy foes that really help demonstrate what kind of monsters you are dealing with. Still, while there are some really good pieces, the overall story is really only passable, and the script and dialogue sometimes sound like things that were rejected from actual comic books for being too poorly written.
While the story is only kind of meh, the gameplay is so excellent that even if the story had been about Batman's difficulties with eczema I wouldn't have cared. Arkham Asylum features some of the best hand to hand combat ever to be utilized in the game, although perhaps I am biased because this game allows me to fulfill my boyhood fantasy of punching people in the face while dressed as Batman. Combat is heavily dependant on the proper utilization of combos, and while it might appear daunting at first after a little practice it isn't that hard to pull off over 40 chained attacks in the same combo. Theoretically, you probably could stumble your way through the game by mashing attack on the easier difficulties, but you'd end up feeling less like Batman and more like Batman's drunken epileptic uncle. To really get the full experience, it is worth taking some time to practice the combat system and learn how to properly string together attacks, because not only is that the best way to deal with large groups of enemies, it is pretty freaking awesome.
As Batman, you have a variety of attacks and gadgets at your disposal, from basic punches and counters to instant takedown attacks and grappling hooks. Timing is crucial, but once you get the hang of it, you can seamlessly go from attacking to countering to throwing a baterang within just a few seconds of each other, all while planning who's face you're going to rearrange next. Different enemies require different attack patterns, and despite how often you end up in combat, it never became dull or routine. While it might take some practice to fully appreciate the ins and outs of the system, it manages to be challenging without being frustrating and taking out a group of ten guys is just immensely satisfying. Combat is somehow complex, yet fluid, challenging, yet never frustrating, and so amazingly entertaining that I wonder how it is that so often games that have tried to implement a similar system have gone so horribly, horribly wrong. I would go as far as to say that this is perhaps the best combat system I've ever encountered in a game, and after I got the hang of it I would get excited when I was ambushed by five or six assailants at once because it just gave me the opportunity to see how flawlessly I could dismantle these semi cognizant punching bags this time around.
Now, I fully believe what I've stated above. The hand to hand combat in Arkham Asylum is some of the best in any game in any system. And here is the amazing thing: despite all the smashy punchy blam-o fun offered by the combat, it still isn't the best part of the gameplay. The combat is fantastic, but the stealth mechanics are even better. I feel kind of bad for the combat, honestly. I'd be like if someone grew up to be a supermodel doctor, but she was still loved less by her parents than her sister who was busy being the world's first senator astronaut rocket scientist. The fisticuffs are great and all, but any drunken chump can punch some guy in the face and hit him with his cape (assuming the guy is a belligerent drunk and wearing a cape for some reason). What actually makes you feel like you are in control of Batman and not random brawler #4 in a strange suit is the excellent execution of the stealth based gameplay. Every now and then, you'll encounter a room full of guys with guns, and as good of a fighter as Batman is, he does a surprisingly poor job at punching away bullets and just jumping out in the open and punching a guy is a good way to get filled full of holes and get some use out of your bat-coffin. Thus, to ensure Batman is not fully aerated, it behooves you to take a different approach and use sneakiness to combat your foes.
Just like in combat, you have a variety of tools at your disposal located on your bat-tool belt, and each one of them is useful in certain situations. A lot of games will bestow upon you a variety of tools or power-ups, but you'll neglect and ignore all but the most powerful technique while the others get pushed to the back of your closet and collect dust with the Christmas decorations and your N-Gage. Batman, on the other hand, prefers to roll with an assortment of actually useful gadgets, so you'll find yourself rotating between using explosives to blow up walls on unsuspecting opponents and hanging upside down from vantage points and dropping down on an enemy, just to tie him up and dangle him from the wall while he screams for help and pees his pants. You unlock more tools as you progress through the game, and each room has a different layout with different routes to take to leave your enemies all incapacitated on the ground, bleeding from at least three different places and crying themselves to sleep. I don't have a large enough vocabulary to properly describe how entertaining it is to stalk around the room as Batman, sneaking up on your foes on at a time and taking them out so I'll just make up a word for it: fungasmic. There is something immensely satisfying about watching a room of swaggering braggadocios go from confident to apprehensive to screaming at no one and shooting at their own shadow as you slowly dwindle down their numbers. You also have the chance to run and hide effectively if the enemies do see you, making it tremendously less frustrating than the annoying kind of stealth games where you basically get an instant game over if someone so much as catches a glimpse of an eyelash. The stealth segments are just brilliantly designed, giving you an effective means to move and hide and the tools by which to make the actual take downs tremendously entertaining.
While not fighting, stealthing, and gossiping, you have time to wander around and explore the asylum. Along with all of your various gadgets that you can use for combat, Batman also has night vision amazo-vision at his disposal, which allows him to see through wall and locate other people (presumably to be used for crime fighting and not super peeping). This allows you to identify potential threats before they arise, and also helps locate secret areas and items. While it does get a little weird looking at everything in blue-o-vision, it does make exploration more enjoyable as it prevents you from having to search every crevice looking for every extra. Exploration as a whole is enjoyable due to how well Batman controls. The gameplay is so strong in part because the controls and the camera are both so tight. The grappling hook allows you to quickly move to higher grounds, while your cape allows you to fly because YOU'RE BATMAN AND SCREW YOU PHYSICS. It is quick and enjoyable to get from place to place, and the fluidity of the controls makes it easy to utilize your abilities to either crush your enemies or move around to find a better route of attack.
As if all this wasn't enough, Arkham Asylum comes with enough extras to make even the batcave blush. The Riddler was apparently let loose some time before Joker showed up, and guessing by the amount of work he's done I'm assuming it was sometime during the Carter administration. Throughout the asylum, he has hidden 240 different tests for you to find, like you are engaging in the world's most psychotic Easter egg hunt. These vary from little trophies you can collect, to solving actual riddles by locating the specific object he's alluding to, to collecting various reels of audio tape that log the treatment of the various famous residents of the asylum (because although Batman has the latest technology, the asylum is still operating on technology from the 1970s). Some of these are just for fun, while others unlock challenges or statues to view. The whole package adds a lot to the game, and I found myself tracking down the various hidden goodies instead of progressing through the story at times, making me a great pack rat but a terrible superhero. The challenges are even more enjoyable, and are either combat or stealth based. The combat challenges are relatively straight forward, and have you fighting through waves of enemies to accumulate a set amount of points. The stealth missions have you replaying the stealth sections from the game, but to fully complete them you need to complete specific tasks, including as things as simple as using an air takedown to far more difficult challenges like taking down three thugs at once by breaking three separate walls. Both of these challenge modes were tremendously entertaining, and really showcase just how well both the combat and stealth were integrated into gameplay. All of these various extras were fantastic and gives you plenty to do even after you complete the story.
While the game as a whole is amazing and I love it and tuck it into bed every night before I fall asleep, I do have a few minor gripes because I am a terrible person and can't let even the most minor of grievances go. The worst thing about the game is the boss fights, which are so bad it is like they were outsourced to an entire other company that primarily manufactures and exports failure. Once every other hour or so, the game gets bored and sends a giant henchman to go fight you because it feels like it has been too long without a boss fight. Unfortunately, these all play out the same why, where giant roided up goons run at you and you need to jump out of their way before they hit you. Not only is it not particularly clever the first time they have you do it, it doesn't get any more clever by the fifth time. Boss fights as a whole are an area of weakness for the game, even when they venture outside the range of giant generic goons. The Killer Croc fight is literally built up almost from the start of the game, and he seems just huge and terrifying enough to provide a challenge and maybe rip you into several fun size pieces. Then you actually get to the boss fight and you find out it is little more than a game of red light/green light with just enough whack-a-mole thrown in to make it completely silly. There are a couple halfway decent fights thrown in, and Poison Ivy is at least somewhat interesting and unique in comparison to the other boss encounters, but as a whole this is a huge glob of mud and cat vomit on the otherwise pristine armor of the game.
Beyond the boss fights, most of my complaints are really minor. The visuals are only somewhat above average, and while they don't really detract from the game they really don't stand out much in the current console generation. The music and sound effects are well done, but the voice acting varies from great (Mark Hamill reprises his role as the Joker) to absolutely cringe worthy, and someone needs to send an ambulance to the voice actor that played Commissioner Gordon, because I'm fairly certain he had a stroke in the middle of recording his lines. Also, while most of the gameplay is solid, there are these really silly, straightforward investigation segments that are as brainless as they are useless. Every once in a while you'll need to find someone or something, and Batman uses his science super sniffer to locate something the individual touched or dropped or secreted and you'll pick up some scent you need to find. Then, the game leads you by the hand as you follow the strategically placed clues in a straight line to your goal. I have no idea why this was even included, other than the developers couldn't think of another way to get you from place to place. It isn't a huge problem, but it does start feeling a little contrived by the second time you have to do it.
Arkham Asylum is one of the few games that I found myself a little disappointed when it ended. Not because of the typical final boss letdown (although that is true as well), but because I wished there was more for me to explore and discover. I would say that this is the best Batman game, but that would be like saying that Tom Brady is the best quarterback in his family. Yeah, it's technically true, but look at the competition. Instead, I will say that this is the definitive Batman experience, entirely capturing the essence of what made some many of us want to don capes and throw bat shaped objects at our fellow classmates in Kindergarten. While there are a couple of minor issues, the core gameplay is just so strong that I really didn't care. Arkham Asylum is genuinely fun and well designed, and both the combat and the stealth are so good I would most likely give the game a full recommendation if it only featured one of them. Looking back, this was probably the best game to come out in 2009, and do not take the fact that I still wear my Batman footie pajamas to suggest that I am in any way biased. Arkham Asylum comes with my full recommendation, and if you don't already have it go out and get it immediately, gargle some gravel, and yell out "I'M BATMAN" in your most incomprehensible voice.
Batman (THE GOOD):
+Gameplay is absolutely outstanding and tremendously fun
+Combat is some of the best I've ever encountered in a game and fighting groups of enemies is amazing
+Stealth segments work incredibly well and are extremely entertaining and satisfying
+Some really well done story segments, including the Scarecrow portions
+Lots of extras that are fun to track down and unlock; plenty of content with extra challenge modes
+Wide assortment of bat-gadgets that are actually useful and help in gameplay
+Great controls that make gameplay even more enjoyable
Joker (THE BAD):
-Really bad, unimaginative boss fights
-Story is rather mediocre
-Some of the voice acting is pretty bad and visuals aren't too impressive
Robin (THE UGLY): One of the rewards for completing specific Riddler challenges are dossiers on some of Batman's most famous villains with various stats and interesting tidbits. While this in and of itself is pretty cool, it does show that there was a period during the 1940s and 50s where the writers absolutely ran out of good ideas and started outsourcing villain creation to ten year olds. There is no other logical explanation for why Batman's rogues gallery includes to fat guys named Tweedledee and Tweedledum whose superpowers seem to include having names remarkably similar to some of the least interesting characters in Alice in Wonderland and being able to consume more Twinkees than any other individual in Arkham.
THE VERDICT: 9.50/10.00
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/20/12
Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (US, 08/25/09)
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