Release Date: August 25, 2009
Systems: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Metacrtic Score: 91 (PS3)
Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Night” is seen by some as the best superhero movie ever made. 1992’s “Batman: The Animated Series” is seen as one of the best superhero cartoons of all time. It’s almost odd that the two best pop-coulter representations of Batman had nearly nothing in common except for the title character. The Animated Series was..well…a cartoon. It allowed itself to play with comic book or cartoon logic, where as Nolan’s take was much more grounded. Both of these, while good, seemed to compromise the character. The cartoon could never have allowed the Joker to do most of what he did in the “The Dark Knight”, but you would never have seen batman do battle with someone like “Clayface”, “Man-Bat” of even “Poison Ivy” in Nolan’s take. One take is almost held back by being a cartoon, where as the other is embarrassed by the fact. It seems to me that Rocksteady Studios saw this as an issue as well, and went into development for “Arkham Asylum” looking to bridge this gap. While the complete fulfillment of the “realistic yet comic bookie” idea wouldn’t be truly met until the sequel, “Arkham City”, what we have here is a near perfect first attempt, one of the best batman games of all time, one of the best superhero games of all time, and one of the best superhero story’s of all time.
The game opens with Batman having just caught the Joker and is taking him to Arkham Asylum. Upon arriving he mentions to Jim Gordon that the arrest seemed to easy and the whole encounter could easily be a trap. As it turns out, the instincts of the Worlds Greatest Detective are right on the money, and the Joker soon escapes. But who would want to brake into a prison? Or asylum, I should say? It’s your job to find out, as well as take down the Joker and restore order to the asylum.
One of the reasons the games story works so well is that Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) reprised their roles from the ’92 cartoon. On top of just being two of the best voice actors for their characters, the instant connection to the cartoon and the darker story line really make this feel like the cartoon has grown up with me. In the cartoon when the joker planted a bomb or took someone hostage we all knew that batman or someone on the GCPD would dismantle it or save the day. Here that’s not so. If batman is too far away to save someone, they don’t get saved. Poison Ivy has killed hundreds of people, Killer Crock eats people and the Joker…well, you never know if he is going to kill you or play one of his dumb jokes. It also helps to make the more cartoonish parts of the game seem plausible with more grounded aspects of the game. The more realistic character models and darker undertones to both the writing and villain’s actions make the idea of a giant crocodile man and a drug that turns it’s user into a beefed up luchador almost feel possible. To sum up what by now is just over long rambling, the story is grounded in a consistent logic that isn’t too far away from either “cartoonish” or “realistic”, and the game overall is better for it.
“Batman: Arkham Asylum” is a “metroidvania” style open world. For those of you who don’t know what that means, the game starts out very linear, but as you progress and gain more equipment that open more path ways for you to explore. However, most of these extra paths lead to trophies and other extras, but there was never really any change in the actual progression of the story. Because of this, how much you get out of the experience is really up to you. Do you want to go back and find the unlockables you couldn’t get to before, or do you keep pushing on with the story? Either way, moving about Arkham Island is an enjoyable experience, even if the small size doesn’t allow it to live up to the same expectations as “Arkham City”.
The combat is separated between two modes; brawls and the “invisible predictor” mode. In brawls you are in a room with several of the Arkham inmates and have to mostly one-on-one until they are all incapacitated. You have three basic movies you can use, “attack”, “counter” and “stun” as well as the ability to dodge. In the earlier levels you can almost always get away with simply attacking and dodging every now and again, but as the enemy numbers increase and as they gain more powerful tools, like knives, cattle rods and even guns, you do have to switch up your attack plans in order to cope. Often, before interning a fight, i’d use the “detective vision” (i’ll get back to this later) to find out who had the gun, then take them out first then deal with the rest of the gang. The ability to plan like that is one of the games biggest strengths. Batman is meant to be this bad-ass who can take out a room full of baddies, but he is also meant to be smart. One of the main reasons most Batman games don’t do so well is because they only focus on the “bad-ass” part. Where as here, I didn’t just feel stronger than the average goon, I felt smarter. Maybe i’m just a narcissist with a major superiority complex but I do have to say I enjoyed feeling smarter than my punching bags.
That feeling of superiority is only enhanced in the “invisible predictor” sections. In these you inter a room silently, and use the gargoyles or other architectural elements to hide from and quietly take out the goons. The goons you take out, the more afraid and sporadic they become. Once, when I was down to one guy, he started shooting and I thought he had found he, but instead a pipe had burst and he thought it was me. Hearing him freak out afterwords was a joy. And I do have to say, taking out an entire room without any of them catching you is an euphoric high that has been almost unmatched in any other game i’ve played.
The other main game play gimmick are the “detective” sections. Here, you have to find someone, so you go somewhere you know they were and find something that can lead you to them. Finger prints, tobacco, pheromones, so on and so forth using the “detective vision”. However, they just kind of pop up for you, so there isn’t a lot of “brain work” involved. With how well the game makes you feel smart and intellectually superior to your foes, it does kind of stink that the one area that could really benefit from making the player think chooses to not do so. But all in all, the game play here really does make you feel like Batman, and that says a lot.
Game Play: 4/5
Music and Sound:
While I did mention Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (who are, by far, the highlaghts in terms of voice actors), it wouldn’t be right to ignore the other members of the cast. Everyone did a great job, and no one felt miss cast, but the ones I loved hearing the most was Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn) and Dino Andrade (Scarecrow). Rocksteady created a design for Harley Quinn that showed her as sexy without going overboard on her outfit, and Sorkin’s vocal performance fits perfectly. She sounds childish but not weak. It also made the relationship between her and Joker seem more legitimate: the abusive nature of their relationship is always one of the first topics to come up in descriptions of the two characters, and Sorkin’s performance absolutely seems fit for someone who would stay in that kind of environment. I am glad to say, however, that those issues aren’t that prevalent in the game. I wouldn’t be against it (I believe games should be free to explore any issue it feels the need to), but as games continue to handle major themes poorly, i’m glad Rocksteady didn’t really give themselves the opportunity to miss handle the subject.
Dino Andrade’s Scarecrow is also great, and is, frankly, much cooler than the one in “Batman Begins”. Part of me wants to say that the character is underutilized, but having heard that he is going to be the main antagonist for “Arkham Kight” might make up for this. If you haven’t heard about the Scarecrow segments of the game i’m not going to spoil them for you, but know they are one of the highlights of the game.
One more critique that I feel the need to bring up, although it doesn’t bother me very much. While the script is often very good, there is a very liberal use of the word “bitch”. I didn’t notice it until someone mentioned it, but it is there a lot. Due to my own life experience i’ve never thought of the word as “gendered”, but as most people do, it should be taken into consideration.
The score was good, but unremarkable. There’s nothing as iconic as the theme from Tim Burton’s 1989 film or the 1992 cartoon, but there is also nothing as bad as Han Zimmer’s score, so I can’t complain too much.
Music and Sound: 4/5
Overall score: 4/5
Who is this game for:
Batman fans, comic book fans, and geeks in general. The more you care about Batman the more you’ll get out of this, but even if you only like him in a passing fashion, there still enough great game play to keep you entertained.