I am vengeance. I am the night — Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

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Welcome to the madhouse, Batman!

Everyone likes Batman. It’s a scientifically proven fact. Another scientifically proven fact is that licensed games based on the Dark Knight have been mostly terrible. Aside from a few minor highlights such as the Sunsoft NES game and the Animated Series game on the Genesis with the dark electronic music by Jesper Kyd, the history of Batgames has been a fairly dark one filled with absolute clunkers such as the infamous, Mortal Kombat engine powered Batman Forever on the SNES and the dismal Batman Beyond on the N64, as well as — get this — Batman & Robin on the Tiger Game.com. Talk about a match made in Hell. However, in 2009 a game by an obscure British developer (Rocksteady Studios, previously known for Urban Chaos: Riot Response) came out and changed all that. This game, of which nothing was expected in the months leading up to its release, was Batman: Arkham Asylum, released for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC by Eidos.

I have to reiterate the fact that no one really expected anything from Arkham Asylum. It was a licensed Batman game by an unknown developer, after all. Yes, sure it had some of the voice cast from the Animated Series reprising their roles (Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin as Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn respectively) and TAS co-creator Paul Dini writing the story, but even then none of that would have mattered if the game itself turned out to be the same kind of generic schlock as all the other recent attempts at a Batman game.  Fortunately, Arkham Asylum turned out to be anything but, and suddenly Batman was a triple-A video game superstar.

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Arkham Asylum begins with the caped crusader hauling the Joker off to the titular looney bin for the millionth time. Turns out this was all in the plan for the Clown Prince of Crime, though; he has orchestrated an elaborate trap for Batman, locking him up in the asylum with all the crazies running free. Batman’s job is to get through the night alive, take down the escaped villains and stop whatever the Joker’s villainous plan is this time. Sounds simple enough, and indeed the story doesn’t really try anything too special, but it’s a solid Batman story and the fantastic voice acting (Mark Hamill, in particular, is incredible as the Joker) and Paul Dini’s writing help sell it. The tone is darker and grittier than the standard Animated Series fare, but Arkham Asylum definitely has a feel of a long episode of (or a movie based on) the series and fans of the show will feel right at home here.

While the presentation is nice, the gameplay is what makes Arkham Asylum stand out from the previous Batman games and most licensed games in general. Rocksteady did not simply churn out a generic third-person action game and call it Batman, they made what I like to call a Batman simulator. I don’t remember another licensed title off the top of my head that does such a good job putting you in the boots of the protagonist and delves so deep into the mythos to fill the game with fan-pleasing secrets, easter eggs and references, creating a huge love letter to the franchise (while still having all this stuff make sense from a gameplay standpoint as the Riddler’s challenges and not seem like cheap pandering). In essence, Arkham Asylum is a third-person action adventure with brawling and stealth elements and a Metroid-like structure, but even that doesn’t really do justice to the whole experience.

The first thing the game introduces after the lengthy opening scene that establishes the setting and characters is the combat system. Called “Freeflow” by the developers, the combat in Arkham Asylum is primarily based on two buttons: attack and counter. Instead of memorizing button combinations, the combat emphasizes timing and, well, flow. While you can go in mashing the punch button and not have too many issues in the earlier fights, the proper way to play this game is to make your attacks, counterattacks and gadgets count and build long combos where Batman gets faster and stronger the more hits you get in. Once you’ve learned how the system works, you feel like you can take on as many thugs as the Joker wants to throw at you and wipe the floor with them. While Batman doesn’t have as many combat options as he does in the later Arkham games, there is still enough depth here to make the experience not feel repetitive and to give you a whole bunch of ways to beat up goons. Every fight gives you experience points that can be used to buy health bonuses and various upgrades and special techniques for Batman, which doesn’t really make that much sense when you think about it (how does Batman upgrade his armor and gadgets on the fly and learn all these new techniques all of a sudden?) but works perfectly well in a video game context.

Of course, being Batman means you’re also going to lurk in the shadows and give the cowardly and superstitious criminals something to fear. Bats can always sneak around and silently dispatch thugs, but the bulk of the stealth gameplay takes place in specific “invisible predator” rooms where you’re up against several rifle-wielding goons. Taking on armed guys head-on is suicide, so you need to use the environment to your advantage and pick them off one by one as they get more and more terrified (you can even use Batman’s visor detective vision to see their heartbeat go up and status change to “Nervous” and eventually “Terrified” as their buddies get taken down). Much like the combat, the stealth gameplay is less refined here than in the later games and you don’t have as many options to scare the shit out of the goons, but the good old “string a guy upside down from a gargoyle” trick is always fun, as is smashing through breakable glass or just sneaking up behind an unsuspecting thug. Some of the later predator sections get extremely tough and feel more like you’re exploiting flaws in AI routines than actually being stealthy, but for the most part these sections are still enjoyable, make you feel like The Goddamn Batman, and will only get better in the next game. Predator sections also give you EXP, and there are various stealth upgrades to unlock along with the combat ones. If you want to mess around with the combat or predator gameplay outside the main story, there are challenge rooms you can unlock and try your hand at. Personally I don’t much care for the challenges and haven’t delved too deeply into them, but they’re a nice diversion if you just want to screw with some goons for a bit.

The progression, as mentioned, is reminiscent of Metroid. As soon as you start exploring Arkham, you find paths you can’t enter and items you can’t get, and as you get further in the story and unlock more gadgets and abilities the game world opens up and you can explore more and more freely. If you decide to take a break from the main plot, there is a total of 240 Riddler challenges to take on.  These consist of e.g. scanning specific background objects (effectively, anything that is a reference to the Batman mythos) with Batman’s detective vision, collecting interview tapes from various supervillains and finding question mark trophies that are hidden around the Arkham island and require Batman to utilize his gadgets to find them. Completing Riddler challenges also nets you fairly sizable EXP rewards, so grabbing the trophies and solving the riddles is in your best interest even if you’re not going for a completionist playthrough.

Sounds like the perfect Batgame so far, doesn’t it? It’s close. Many publications chose Arkham Asylum as their 2009 Game of the Year, and reviewers heaped glowing praise on the game. All of which was absolutely deserved, mind you. This was not one of those overhyped AAA titles that get 10/10 reviews but turn out to be the same old shit you’ve seen a hundred times. That said, all of the reviews complained of the same thing I’m about to now, and that is the design of the boss fights. Over the course of the story, you get to take on various supervillains as well as a bunch of superpowered henchmen juiced up on the Titan supersteroid, and unfortunately the design of these encounters is lacking. Bane is the exact same fight you’d have with the Titan goons (batarang him as he charges, punch him a bit, goto 10 until you win) and the fight against Poison Ivy’s giant plant thing goes on way too long and has a weird fixed camera angle to screw things up. Even the final encounter with the Joker is a massive disappointment and should not have been in the game in this form. Arkham Origins by WB Montreal, for all its faults, did the last Joker encounter pretty much exactly as I wish Rocksteady had handled it in AA.

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The few genuinely good parts involving a supervillain boss fight in this game are the sections leading up to Scarecrow’s segments, as you get some great stuff with Batman tripping balls on the fear gas and even some proper Eternal Darkness shit in one particular bit. Unfortunately, the actual segments are frustrating forced stealth/platforming levels where you’re trying to make it through the level while avoiding Scarecrow’s spotlight gaze, which really isn’t fun in the slightest. Still, the fear gas bits are really great and I can’t help but be insanely excited about Rocksteady’s upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight where Scarecrow is once again playing a major role.

Shitty boss fights aside, Arkham Asylum is a fantastic video game that showed licensed games don’t need to be generic crap and laid the groundwork for the bigger and better sequel. Well, better from a mechanics standpoint, as the quality of life improvements they made to the exploration, combat and stealth are something I definitely missed as I was replaying AA. As far as the game structure goes, I still sort of prefer the more contained Metroid style to the open world we got in Arkham City. Speaking of which, I’ll be posting a writeup of that game at some point as well, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I can’t come up with a good conclusion for this review, so here’s the Joker talking about boners instead.

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