Review by KWang

"Probably the best superhero game out at the moment, but at the end of the day, it's just another superhero game"

For a number of reasons, video games about superheroes seldom turn out to be any good. It's usually because developers think they can quickly make a game without putting any real effort, and expecting the game to be financially successful because people will buy the game due to the popularity of the starring superhero alone. And most of the time, they're right. When you come across a superhero game that turns out to be more than just shovelware, you know you've encountered something special and unusual.

Most people here will have heard the name Batman, so an introduction to him is not necessary here. The developer of this game, Rocksteady Studios, is not known for much else other than developing an obscure first-person shooter from 2006 called Urban Chaos: Riot Response. Chances are good that you have never heard of either the developer or their first game. So when such an unknown company comes out of nowhere and releases an actually decent Batman game, a true miracle in the video game world has occurred.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a third-person action-adventure game with some stealth elements. It is by no means a shooting game. Players take on the role of Batman in the main story (and the Joker in the downloadable content) as he explores not Gotham City, but Arkham Asylum and the island on which it is located. The game begins with Batman in his Batmobile arriving at Arkham Asylum, where some of Gotham City's most dangerous criminals are held. The Joker is just about to be locked up here, and naturally, Batman is here to make sure nothing goes wrong. But since it wouldn't make for a very fun video game to just be escorting the Joker along, the Joker manages to break free and escape. Now with the Joker on the loose and running the asylum now, it is up to Batman to recapture him and bring him to justice.

I'll admit the story is quite lackluster, especially when you consider that Batman originated from comics which were all about the story. It is possible that the story was intentionally made cliched to pay homage to something else that's cliched; I'm not entirely sure. Either way, the story eventually gets better as you gradually uncover the Joker's exact motivations for taking over the asylum. Scattered about the asylum are some of the Joker's subordinates, some of whom are armed with guns or knives, and others that fight Batman bare-handed. These generic enemy henchmen generally only have two varieties. There are the white ones and there are the black ones; they otherwise look identical for the most part.

Combat against these generic enemies becomes dull and repetitive not only because they all look the same, but because the strategies employed against them stay fairly consistent throughout the game. Batman can use a variety of tools to take them out, but doing so is actually slower than just charging right into them and punching every single one of them until they become knocked out. These melee attack commands are executed by pressing the Square button. Since combat hardly becomes any deeper than this, wiping out a group of enemies becomes little more than a matter of mashing the Square button repeatedly until all the enemies are down. There are no other buttons used for close-range attacks, nor is precise timing of the button presses necessary.

This extreme ease with which Batman can defeat the enemies is limited only to those the Joker decided not to supply with weapons, however. As you progress through the game, you will occasionally come upon enemies who are equipped with knives. Strangely enough, they will use these knives to defend themselves. While blocking, they cannot be hurt, and you must wait until their knives are down before you can inflict any damage on them. In order to do this, you must press Circle when near them, and Batman will stun them with his cape temporarily so that he can punch them. The idea is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Enemies that later upgrade to employing electric batons are dealt with in much the same manner.

To break up this monotony, Rocksteady Studios has included several enemies armed with long-range rifles, and fighting these enemies is arguably the most fun part of the game. This is also where the stealth part comes into play. It's not really anything like the stealth from Metal Gear Solid, though. These sections involve Batman hiding in a room from about six armed henchmen who will gun Batman down on sight. Being spotted by one will result in the others being alerted, so the key here is to be sneaky as you take them out one by one. It is possible to rush into them and melee them, but such a tactic is generally inefficient and a good way to get Batman shot to death. Instead, Batman glides from gargoyle statues conveniently placed around the perimeter of the room's ceiling, and waits for a henchman to become isolated before moving down behind him and then performing a silent takedown on him. The tension created in these environments provides for a very entertaining experience because you can tell the guards are getting nervous, yet at the same time you cannot afford to slip up, either.

The fighting in Arkham Asylum is, unfortunately, rather boring outside of these stealth battles. Occasionally the shootouts will involve henchmen equipped with sniper rifles, and these enemies are a pain to take out because their firepower is devastating and capable of killing Batman in only a few shots. Coupled with the fact that there are so many sniper rifles on the field actively searching for Batman at a time, and it becomes very annoying to travel to one sniper from the next to defeat them all. In order to temporarily incapacitate the snipers, Batman can throw a Batarang at them, and this sharp-bladed weapon renders the target unconscious momentarily for some reason. During this time, it is possible to make your way to the enemy, but it does not guarantee that Batman will be safe from the fire of all the other enemies. There is no way to heal Batman during these fights, so it can be frustrating to be forced to commit suicide after taking too much damage at the beginning of a fight just to restart from the last checkpoint.

Boss battles in this game are few and far between. Fans of Batman will be disappointed that while many classic villains appear in some form or another, very few of them are directly fought in real battles. Instead, they mostly make cameo appearances. The fights themselves are also not quite up to par. Many of them focus on repetition, forcing you to do the same thing over and over so you can attack the boss. One common fight involves being put against two large enemies that are defeated by making them charge into each other. The boss fights are some of the biggest letdowns in the game, but thankfully, they are far from the main focus.

Arkham Asylum is a very believable place that feels practical enough to be an actual location in the real world. All of its rooms are to scale with the rest of the building and island, and one can tell that great care was taken to ensure consistency in the appearances of the building from both the outside and the inside. The appearance of the environment is also quite realistic; this game boasts some of the best-looking visuals to be found on the current HD consoles. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the graphics is the appearances of the characters themselves; they look like real people despite being modeled from cartoons.

Complementing the game's excellent visual presentation is the excellent voice acting by Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin, who reprise their roles from Batman: The Animated Series as Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn respectively. For any fan familiar with the cartoon that aired on weekday afternoons back in the early 1990s, hearing these voices again will surely be a blast of nostalgia. As for the musical compositions in the game, those are either forgettable or non-existent, so there really isn't much to comment on.

If you like Batman and video games, purchasing this game is a no-brainer. After all, its retail price at the time of writing is only $44.99. But be warned that this game is very short. A single playthrough will only take you about ten hours. During these ten hours, you are mostly following an objective, so while you often have the entire island to explore at your leisure, you are still mostly restricted to the goal at hand if you want to progress in the story. There is trophy support for this game, and many of the trophies are very easy to earn. In your first playthrough while just trying to beat the game once, you may earn more than 50% of the trophies the game has to offer. Depending on how you look at it, that may be a good thing or a bad thing. Sidequests take the form of trophies strewn about the island by the Riddler. These trophies are often hid in locations so remote or inconspicuous that you can probably expect to need a walkthrough if you want to find every one of them. In fact, the game even accuses you of cheating and using the internet if you find enough.

There is a good chance that Batman: Arkham Asylum will be the best superhero video game on the market until its sequel comes out probably in 2011. Until then, this is one of the finest action-adventure games available, even if you're not a fan of Batman. After you beat the game, there are still ways to get replay value out of it, like the three episodes of downloadable content that are free for download on the PSN store, including a mode in which you play as the Joker if you have the PS3 version. If the fights of this game were not so repetitive and the bosses were a little more interesting, this would have been a solid contender for the best game of 2009. Perhaps Arkham Asylum II will add that extra bit of polish where this game was lacking.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/29/10

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

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