Review by horror_spooky

Reviewed: 12/16/10

Welcome to a world without rules

Touted as the first truly amazing superhero game, Batman: Arkham Asylum has been one of the most well-received video games of this generation. It was called video game’s equivalent of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and in many ways, it is a great game. However, has it been just a tad overrated, or does it deserve the unconditional praise?

Arkham Asylum borrows heavily from the classic animated Batman TV show from the 90’s. The gritty atmosphere is one element that has carried over, but so have many of the voice-actors and plotlines from that series bleed into this game. Mark Hamill reprises his role as The Joker, for example, which gives the game a high-quality feel right from the get-go. It’s hard to go wrong when Luke freaking Skywalker is voicing the greatest villain of all time in a gritty video game about Batman.

The high production values of the game are apparent elsewhere as well. The graphics feel dirty—which is a compliment. The titular asylum has been designed in such a way that it almost feels like Batman is exploring an area from a survival-horror game. There aren’t a lot of colors, but when there are colors, they pop out ferociously against the dark environment. Character models in particular are impressive, as is the animation. Cut-scenes are gorgeous and really show off the game’s good looks. Arkham Asylum has some of the best graphics this gen without question. The amount of detail put into the characters is breathtaking, and animation is superb. Batman fights off bad guys in a way that is so fluid and looks more realistic than any fighting system in any game ever. If that’s not an accomplishment, I don’t really know what is.

My favorite part about the game just so happens to be the previously mentioned combat system. Like I said, it looks just so damn good, and it is a fine example of how gameplay and visuals work in harmony to create superior gaming experiences. The fighting is simple, yet complex all at the same time. Batman uses melee attacks and combos to take down his foes, mixing in a Batarang to the face here and there, as well as simple dodges. The real beauty of this system comes with the counters, though. Batman reacts naturally to anything coming his way. If one of Joker’s thugs tries to kick him from behind, Batman will casually catch the guy’s foot and then elbow him in the face to take him to the ground, and then the player can choose to follow it up with a punch to the head to keep the guy out for good. This is what Arkham Asylum does best, and this extremely impressive fighting system really makes Arkham Asylum a must-buy in and of itself…almost.

What holds this otherwise excellent title back is the repetitive nature of how the game progresses. The repetition is overwhelming at times and makes the game boring. Awesome moments like large, Titan-powered thugs trying to shoulderblock Batman through a brick wall are cool at first, but the developers do this, and other similar moments, to death. It really takes a lot away from the impact when you’re repeating the same thing over and over again. I was reminded of the original Assassin’s Creed game in this regard. The first time you climbed to the top of a tower, gazed out across the land, and then dove dozens of feet into a barrel of hay was exhilarating. The 100th time…not so much.

Arkham Asylum does actually share other similarities with Assassin’s Creed. It’s a game that does focus on stealth for many segments, for one, and it also requires Batman to uniquely platform on buildings to get around. The platforming segments are sometimes enjoyable, but they feel like they were half-assed. Backtracking also makes the platforming a bit repetitive as well, and Batman’s gadgets don’t mix in well with the platforming like they should.

Batman’s gadgets do manage to add a whole new level of awesome to the combat and to the stealth segments in general, however. Batman’s tools include the Batarang, the explosive gel, the line-launcher, the bat claw, and others. While they are primarily used for the mild puzzle-solving elements and during the platforming parts of the game, they really shine in combat, and more specifically, when it comes to stealth. There was a room that I was in that was occupied by six or seven armed guards. I sprayed explosive gel at my feet and then zoomed up to a gargoyle perch with the aid of Batman’s grappling hook. I flung a Batarang at the ground where I placed the gel, which attracted the attention of a couple of guards who then went to investigate the disturbance. As soon as they were standing on the gel, I blew them to hell with the click of a button. It was as epic as it sounds.

Another nice feature involving the gadgets is the leveling system. When defeating enemies, completing objectives, and partaking in Riddler’s interesting side-missions, Batman earns experience points. These experience points can be spent on upgrading pre-existing abilities and features that Batman has like his overall health, or they can be used to purchase new abilities, like the ability to use multiple Batarangs at once. It’s not a terribly deep system by any means, but it does its job in making the game more engrossing than it otherwise would have been. Let’s face it, RPGs are addicting as hell for a reason, and it’s good that this generation has really seen a lot of popular series (Call of Duty, for example) borrow mechanics from RPG games.

Riddler’s side-missions are actually some of the most fun to be had with this game. Batman’s famous enemy The Riddler is also in Arkham Asylum, and he has left behind little trophies for Batman to collect, riddles for Batman to solve, chattering teeth to destroy, interview tapes to find, and the history of Arkham Asylum for the Dark Knight to discover. I found myself going out of my way to complete these side-missions, as they are often very interesting and provide a ton of background information in the Batman universe. Delving into the psyches of Batman’s most famous villains is incredibly fun, and the game really is just as much about them as it is about Batman.

The way the developers made the side-missions more fun than frustrating is by actually rewarding the players for going out and completing them, among other reasons I will get into shortly. By unlocking new challenges, revealing information about Batman’s most infamous, and most obscure, villains, and by providing other unlockables and incentives (like good old-fashioned achievements), the developers have managed to add replayability that doesn’t make the game frustrating. Players can even find maps that reveal the locations of all these side-missions if they become stuck or just want the easy way to complete the game without having to look up a strategy guide on the Internet.

Another way these riddles and side-missions work so well is the combination of a linear and open-world exploration style the game has going on. Batman is basically free to explore the entire island at his will, but the game’s main storyline will point him in paths that will lead to linear levels of stealth, puzzle-solving, boss fights, and basic combat. These sections blend so effortlessly with the free-roaming aspect of the game that it’s shocking. Most games are strictly one way or the other, but Batman: Arkham Asylum has successfully managed to include the best of both worlds. If only the island was a little more interesting…

Regardless, there must be a reason why Batman is on this island full of psychotic patients that all want him dead. At the start of the game, Batman just finished escorting Joker to the asylum after stopping another one of Joker’s schemes. Unfortunately for the innocents on Arkham Island, the Joker has had a diabolical plan of escape right from the start, and puts in motion an evil plan to take control of the island, kill Batman, and abolish Gotham City. The supporting characters and the excellent villains help this story really come to life. The plot is fantastic, if not a bit predictable, and it just goes to show that even though he’s been around for decades, Batman still has plenty of fresh stories to tell.

I have sung the praises of the voice-acting multiple times in this review. And it’s fantastic. It’s great. It’s wonderful. The downside is that there is practically no soundtrack whatsoever. There’s no epic orchestra or bone-chilling music to accompany the survival-horror-esque moments. While there is certainly some music, it is generally dull and a bit on the generic side. It feels like the developers have neglected to focus on the music and instead spent all their time on the graphics, which is fine, but there needs to be a certain balance to things. Perhaps they can focus a bit more on the audio in the next installment.

With achievements, side-missions, and achievements, Batman: Arkham Asylum is quite the bang for the buck. The amount of content about the caped crusader is impressive, and any Batman fan will devour this game within hours. The actual game is a bit on the lengthy side, running almost ten hours, and after that, there are stealth and combat challenges to complete. There is even some free DLC that adds even more challenges if anyone is interested in that. Unfortunately, the game’s repetitive nature kills the willingness to play through the game again on harder difficulties. Hell, the game is repetitive enough the first time through, let alone the second or third time. Arkham Asylum just isn’t a game that was built to be played to death.

Batman: Arkham Asylum will most certainly appeal to Batman fans. They should pick up this game immediately, as it is the epitome of what a Batman game should be. The graphics are fantastic. The storyline is dark and engrossing. The voice-acting is superb, and the combat is awe-inspiring in design. The repetition of the game, the lack of a solid soundtrack, and the weak platforming segments hold Arkham Asylum back from being a must-have game at full price.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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