HIGH The Scarecrow encounters.
LOW The omnipresent hint system that can't be turned off.
WTF Poison Ivy over Mr. Freeze? Seriously?
The greatest failing of all the Batman games that I have ever played is, aside from just plain sucking, their inability to capture Batman's distinct style and mannerisms. Batman is unique in the superhero world in that he doesn't charge into a nest of enemies while bullets bounce off his chest, pummel his foes with grand displays of power, or use mindbending psychic abilities to solve mysteries. Nowhere to be found in the previous games is the subtle, predatory nature of the Bat, hiding in the shadows and pouncing on evildoers when they least expect it. Batman: Arkham Asylum, from relatively unknown developer Rocksteady Studios, is an attempt to change all that, to make the Batman experience more than just a straight brawlfest. Can they succeed where so many others have failed?
At the beginning I was skeptical, and after the opening level I was even more skeptical. Initially I was presented with yet another set of impossibly muscular characters featuring cut-and-paste enemies that I could defeat by quite literally hitting one button over and over. And to top it off, the game was very, very eager to tell me how to solve problems—as in "hit this button now to do this" messages popping up all over the place. Oh, god, I thought. Was this game really going to be that big of a disappointment? Thankfully, that proved not to be the case. As the game progressed nearly all of my fears were dispelled and I came away with a wonderful experience that does the one thing that a Batman game so desperately needed—making the player feel like they are playing a Batman game.
The button masher combat feel that I feared at the game's outset actually becomes an asset, as the "FreeFlow" combat system is a simple and intuitive setup that really helps combat feel streamlined and control smoothly. Batman can do one of three things to an enemy in hand-to-hand combat; attack, stun (through a cape wave), and a complete takedown under certain conditions such as sneaking up behind them. This simplicity, while a bit disconcerting at first, is a far better alternative to what would likely have been a jumbled attempt at emulating more complex combat systems found in other similar games and also allows for a very polished set of controls. And as Batman faces larger quantities and different types of enemies at the same time, using counters, takedowns, dodges, and Batman's other moves effectively becomes much more of a challenge, relieving most of my early hesitations. Hand-to-hand fighting also serves to compliment the stealth or "predatory" method of combat, which is thing single most defining element of the Batman gameplay experience.
For example, near the beginning of the game I was presented with a situation where I had to get past several armed enemies in order to unlock a door into the next area. Enemies armed with guns can make quick work of Batman despite all that armor, so they must be handled carefully. As I took out the guards one by one, they grew more agitated and started yelling things about how I wasn't human and such, adding to the aura of coolness that surrounds these incidents. There are a lot of these situations throughout the game, with each one getting more challenging than the last, be it due to more enemies, fewer hiding places, or enemies that have a tendency to look around a little more thoroughly. While the number of convenient hiding places for Batman can make things awkward at times, stalking and taking out enemies in this manner is immensely satisfying and central to the player's immersion in the Batman persona.
The game has a Metroid-esque feel to it, as Batman acquires various gadgets throughout the game that enable him to access more areas, and there are numerous times where I had to revisit certain areas either as part of the main game or looking for some of Riddler's hidden goodies. Batman's cowl visor also lends itself to the Metroidy feel, as it functions in a similar way to the visors in Metroid Prime, revealing hidden paths, presenting possible solutions to problems, and pinpointing enemy locations. However, the hint system I mentioned is a consistent problem throughout, as the game has an extremely annoying propensity for giving me the solutions to things I would rather figure out on my own.
While other iterations of Batman have seen him trapped in Arkham before, this particular story is an original one, not being based on any particular comic, film, or TV series. After foiling the Joker's latest plot, Batman takes him back to Arkham Asylum, only to have him escape within the asylum and spring his true plan—a takeover of the facility with the help of several other members of Batman's rogues gallery. Dini's writing and the presence of Conroy and Hamill give Batman: Arkham Asylum the feel of being right in the middle of an episode of the classic Batman: The Animated Series, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and the Joker respectively. Conroy's Batman is much smoother and sincere than any Christian Bale-produced growling in the recent films, giving Batman a voice that denotes his silent, willful nature while being able to break every once and a while into an emotional state that is capable of expressing Batman's underlying conflicts and struggles. Mark Hamill's iconic portrayal of the Joker is also as good as ever, effortlessly switching between amusing and horrifying in an instant while appropriately depicting Joker's childlike fascination with Batman. Joker is always front and center to the player, orchestrating the grisly fates of everyone trapped in Arkham, and Hamill's wonderful performance makes the game all the more engrossing for it.
That being said, there is less character development on the part of Batman himself than I would've hoped. Being stuck in Arkham with all his old adversaries is a excellent chance for both his and their histories and conflicts to be borne out, but I rarely saw this. The only cases where Batman really shows any insight is during segments with Joker and with Scarecrow, with everyone else being just an obstacle along the way. Each individual villain's portions of the game fit his personality well (Riddler's involvement is particularly appropriate), but this group presents little opportunity for any in-depth look at Batman's character. However, the biggest disappointment I have with the assortment of villains in the game is with Poison Ivy. To put it bluntly, Poison Ivy is one of the worst if not the worst villain in Batman's mainstay, as she really has no semblance of character beyond being a token female enemy with a deadly kiss. Poison Ivy's appearance in the game does nothing to change this, and encounters with her feel forced and unnecessary.
If Poison Ivy is the game's biggest strikeout, then Scarecrow is a towering, 500ft home run over the center field wall. His design looks like Gollum and The Pyro had some twisted love child, and the encounters with him provide the best look into Batman's character in the entire game. Batman is one of the most psychologically interesting superheroes ever created, and with the game being set entirely in an insane asylum this was an ample opportunity for a villain like Scarecrow to shine. I was afraid (no pun intended) that his appearances would be punted on in favor of more Joker segments, but they absolutely nailed Scarecrow's presentation. I certainly don't want to spoil one of the game's best moments, but let's just say that I was very, very satisfied with what they did with him. Ultimately, Batman's supporting cast is as essential in crafting a Batman game as the Dark Knight himself, and while the excellent performances of Joker and Scarecrow really help push the player into the Batman universe, everyone else falls a little flat.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game that, at its beginning, seemed like it was daring me to hate it. The opening was dripping with things that I thought would make me give it a thrashing in this space, such as what I thought was a too-easy combat system and game hints that were far too eager to give away the game's secrets. But as I got further and further in, the game kept growing on me until I realized that I had become immersed in being Batman, and most of the little annoyances had ironed themselves out. Simply put, this game effectively captures the gameplay experience of being its main character better than any other comic-based title I have ever played, but surprisingly the character development side feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the PlayStation 3. Approximately 13 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed once on normal difficulty. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, mild language, suggestive themes, violence. Arkham is a very creepy place, and characters like Joker, Scarecrow, and Killer Croc can give the spooks to small children.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All spoken lines are subtitled and there are no significant audio cues.