Review by BloodGod65

"Welcome to the Madhouse… You’re Gonna Love It Here"

Despite being one of the most iconic superheroes of all time, Batman has been a laughing stock for most of his existence. From the kooky Adam West driven series and the more recent Hollywood debacles that cast the likes of Val Kilmer and George Clooney in the role of the Dark Knight, there have always been problems transitioning Batman into something the masses can enjoy. However, with Christopher Nolan's two brilliant films, the fate of Batman seems to be changing for the better.

Even so, it's hard not to be suspicious of another Batman video game; after all, the Dark Knight's video game track record is even worse than his Hollywood career. Taking a deeper look at the talent responsible for Arkham Asylum only increases the bleak outlook. Indeed, the only other game Rocksteady Studios has under its belt – Urban Chaos: Riot Response – wasn't exactly a blockbuster success. But there are a few bright spots that bode well. For one, the game isn't tied to any movie. It isn't even related to the recent films. Instead, Arkham Asylum takes place in the same universe as the early nineties animated masterpiece.

The game begins with a familiar scenario. Batman has once again captured the Joker and is taking him to Arkham Asylum. However given the ease with which he caught Joker, Batman is suspicious of the whole situation. Batman's suspicions prove to be well-founded soon after Joker is admitted to Arkham. While being transferred, the Joker shows that he orchestrated his capture before escaping confinement and simultaneously releasing all the inmates in the asylum. Now trapped on Arkham Island and surrounded by countless maniacs, Batman must regain control and stop the Joker.

It's a fairly simple setup, but one that is immensely engrossing due to the excellent pacing, writing, and presentation. The way the game is able to draw the player in makes it easy to compare Arkham Asylum to Bioshock. Taking into consideration the technical aspects of the game makes this comparison all the more apt. As in Bioshock, Batman has a constant radio contact with whom he discusses plot developments and gets crucial information from. Batman can also find many audio diaries that take the form of clinical interviews with the various psychopaths populating Arkham. These also help to further the story and clue players in to what was going on in the days leading up to Joker's takeover.

Like Bioshock, Arkham Asylum has a masterfully crafted atmosphere that leans towards ruined grandeur. The asylum is unlike a typical mental institution, having instead been designed to fit into the confines of the founder's palatial mansion. Large buildings of oppressive gothic architecture dot the island, juxtaposed against more modern additions while guard towers, gates, spotlights and the like suggest that the island is more prison than asylum. Even taking into account the destruction that occurs after Joker releases the inmates, Arkham Asylum is not a happy place, but this effectively creates a dark atmosphere that is perfectly in line with the old animated series.

What makes Arkham even better is that Batman is essentially free to roam around the island at will. During the course of the game, Batman will always have some sort of objective guiding him but players are free to ignore this and strike out on their own. While there is little reason for doing so other than curious exploration, I doubt that many players will be able to resist the temptation to break away from the beaten path just to see what's lurking around the corner.

The environment design is exceptional, but so are the character models. Batman, with his slow, confident walk and billowing cape, is the epitome of bad-ass. The convicts, while mostly wearing the same garb have different hairstyles and make-up, which keeps things from getting too stale.

But the impressive atmosphere isn't the sole product of good graphic design – it has just as much to do with audio. Arkham Asylum takes a page from the Bioshock playbook in this area as well, with Joker constantly utilizing the asylum PA system to make crazed announcements, harass Batman, and taunt his own cronies. Batman can also listen in to conversations between escapees, which are quite entertaining and frequently disturbing, as they discuss the psychotic things Joker is doing behind the scenes.

One of the things that Batman fans will adore about the game is that it brings back the original voice actors from the animated series of the nineties. That means Kevin Conroy makes a triumphant return as the voice of the Dark Knight and Mark Hamill gives the most unsettling and psychotic performance of the Joker that he's ever done. Even the less important characters seem to be voiced by the same people.

As much praise as Rocksteady deserves for crafting such a dark, broody world, they deserve even more for what they've done with the gameplay. All of the elements that make Batman such a versatile and interesting character are present in Arkham Asylum, which means players will get to see his combat prowess, detective skills, futuristic gadgets, and acrobatic abilities in full force.

Given that Joker has released hordes of psychotic inmates and they're all trapped on the same island, it should come as no surprise that Batman will do his fair share of fighting. True to the source material, Batman is an expert martial artist and Arkham Asylum's combat system, while simple, is one of the most brutally satisfying I have ever encountered. Combat is comprised of two main actions; attacking and countering. Using the X button, Batman can unleash a furious combo against enemies and he can easily turn the tables on his opponents by countering with the Y button.

On paper, a two button combat scheme sounds terribly boring, but Rocksteady has done such a good job with it that I was not bored a single time over the course of the game. This is largely because every action feels so intense and brutal that it never loses its visceral impact. Each punch Batman throws looks as if it has enough force to shatter bones, and every time he counters an attack – by grabbing an enemy's leg and tossing him aside, grabbing his arm and elbowing him in the face, or any other of many actions – it's an absolute thrill. The violence of combat is also highlighted by some clever camera work, which zooms in to highlight finishing blows and occasionally slows down to let a player revel in their destruction of a group of enemies.

Of course, fists aren't the only weapon Batman can employ against Joker's goons. As always, he has a veritable arsenal of gadgetry to turn insurmountable odds in his favor. The most basic tool Batman has in his employ is the Batarang. Batarangs have a variety of uses, from hitting switches that are beyond Batman's reach or just knocking a few enemies out from afar. Batarangs can also be deployed in the midst of combat to knock enemies off balance. Over the course of the game, Batman will receive a few more tools, from explosive gel to the Batclaw – a grapple gun that can drag enemies off their feet.

Batman's tools don't just come into play when fighting though. They are used just as often to traverse the labyrinthine environs of the asylum itself. Batman's grapnel gun can grab onto ledges and other items and pull him up to a higher vantage point while explosive gel and the Batclaw can be used to bring down walls. These elements often come into play during platforming segments, with Batman using the grapnel gun to climb up to an area or deploying some explosive gel to blast open an entrance into a new area.

Arkham Asylum has some of its coolest moments when it forces players to mix Batman's fighting skills with platforming and intelligent use of his gadgets. In these areas – called predator rooms - stealth is a must, so players must use all of Batman's skills to ensure that he isn't spotted. Batman may have to grapple up to a ledge to survey the area, then lay a trap with explosives gel, or swoop down and take enemies by surprise. Or you can play the fear game and throw Batarangs to make noise, scaring enemies in the process. Over the course of the game, these predator scenarios get more complex as certain enemies have collars that make noise when the wearer is incapacitated, and other complicating variables are thrown into the mix.

The strategies open to players during the game are expanded not only through the gadgets given to Batman, but also through those that players unlock by earning experience. Defeating enemies gives Batman experience points that can be put towards a variety of upgrades. These upgrades give Batman special fighting movies, such as one that lets him throw an enemy into a fellow goon. Others give Batman more health by strengthening his suit. The rest all add extra functionality to his gadgets. Most beef up the capabilities of the Batarang, from allowing Batman to throw up to four simultaneously, guide a Batarang while in air, or cause a Batarang to lure an enemy close before exploding.

Between all the fighting, Batman occasionally has to resort to good, old-fashioned detective work to accomplish his goals. Well, perhaps it isn't “old-fashioned” as such since he has some incredibly sophisticated technology built into the cowl of his suit. It can detect fingerprints, DNA, and trace elements in the air when the need calls for it. Unfortunately most of these scenarios involve little more than following an obvious trail of breadcrumbs to another location. A more helpful use is the built in X-Ray vision mode that highlights everything of importance in the environment. Not only can it see things like structural weaknesses in walls or objectives, but it can even spot enemies through solid walls.

Rocksteady has done a fabulous job of bringing the Batman universe to life in a way that no other developer has even come close to. The combat is excellent, the atmosphere is great, and the action just feels pitch-perfect for the character. While that would have been enough to make Arkham Asylum a great game on its own right, Rocksteady goes the extra distance is by making the game fit snugly into the Batman universe. Arkham Asylum is the home of many a psychotic super-villain, and through the course of the game you will meet several of the most prominent and hear rumor of many more. I hesitate to ruin any of the game's surprises, but there are a few that are implemented so well that they are worth mentioning.

The Riddler plays an interesting part in the game by providing a bevy of side challenges for Batman to pursue. Although you'll never meet him, early on you'll find that he has set up all sorts of riddles in the Asylum and scattered tons of collectibles around for Batman to find. The Riddler, in his quest to prove Batman a fraud, believes that the Dark Knight will never be able to find them all. And it would be a daunting task were it not for Batman's X-ray vision, which illuminates many of the hiding spots of Riddler's challenges with ease. While many will see this whole thing as little more than a collectathon, the game doesn't force the player to find even one of these things. Those who do will reap the rewards of extra experience, villain bios, and a satisfactory ending to the Riddler's arrogance. However, those villain bios are worth the time to hunt down each challenge as they contain character art and fun facts about the villain in question.

Another of the excellent villain appearances is the Scarecrow. During the course of the game, Batman will have several run-ins with Crane and his fear gas. These sections form some truly crazy gameplay sections that will no doubt mess with the minds of many. They are also an interesting break from the usual gameplay and have some wild side-scrolling platforming that Rocksteady manages to pull off without any problems.

If there is anything wrong with Arkham Asylum from a gameplay perspective, it is in relation to the boss fights. I won't spoil anything here, but you'll face several different bosses over the course of the game and they all end up playing out the same. Batman faces off against a guy in a small arena type area, and hordes of enemies usually rush in to distract you. Even the method for dispatching these bosses stays the same throughout the game. The final boss fight, which has all the makings of an unbelievable showdown, even falls back onto the formula established earlier in the game.

Arkham Asylum is, without a doubt, the best Batman game ever made. By my estimation, it is also the best superhero game ever made. But by any measure, Arkham Asylum is an excellent game. The only legitimate complaint I can raise with the entire game is that the boss fights are formulaic, but those are so few and far between that I can't hold them against Rocksteady. Besides, the rest of the game is so unbelievably awesome, that it significantly outweighs this minor issue. It doesn't matter if you're a Batman fan or not, Arkham Asylum deserves to be played by everyone. It is, quite simply, one of the best games to be released in a long, long time.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 03/29/11

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

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