The prospect of a new Batman game split me in two. On one hand it could get Batman right, could know what Batmans about. On the other it could be all kinds of wrong – just another 3rd person action thing which does nothing but insert the right characters into the standard template. Arkham Asylum is clearly the former – it knows what Batmans about and it’s an utterly brilliant example of how to handle The Dark Knight.
Arkham Asylum starts with The Caped Crusader dropping off The Joker into Arkham – a high security mental asylum and home of the infamous Super Criminals of Gotham. Within minutes The Joker breaks free and takes it upon himself to capture and cause wanton chaos throughout the building along with his resident henchmen. Batman needs to fight his way around Arkham to find and defeat The Joker, discovering exactly what he’s planning along the way in a plot ably (though admittedly not that brilliantly) written by Paul Dini – writer of most of The Animated Series.
Coming to Jokers aid are the familiar faces of Batman; Harley Quinn is omni-present, followed by Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Szasz, Poison Ivy and Bane. The Riddler is present to a fashion – giving you challenges and items to find as you work your way through the Asylum – and the rest of the important characters are generally referenced at some point (Clayface even makes an appearance). All are backed with superb voice acting; Mark Hamill returning for the Joker and Kevin Conroy for Bats, so it’s a tidy Batman package from the outset.
Beating your way through the prisons worth of Henchmen is Arkham Asylums bread and bat-butter. It uses a special kind of combat mechanic that makes you feel utterly in control and simultaneously awesome. It’s a really simple concept – left click to attack, right click to counter, direction to do that thing in. How that attack or counter will go down is decided for you and it makes every single fight look excellent. The combat system gets how this combat needs to work – it allows you to jump in the middle of ten guys and just take them on. The more you chain up hits, the more momentum Bats will gain and what you end up with is a blur of cape bounding between goons, utterly destroying each and every one. It just works, perfectly and each punch and kick connects in the most satisfying and solid way. It makes you be cool, powerful and in control – exactly what Batman is.
Until guns get involved. Bats isn’t bullet proof so when those ten guys have guns it’s a different matter. Unsurprisingly fighting people with guns is entirely separate thing to fighting people without. Here you have to hunt them, silently, swiftly. You will probably do most of it from the ceiling – hopping around inexplicably placed Gargoyles then pouncing down onto a lone goon before flying back up out of sight before his buddies run to investigate. The best thing you can do here is string them up, letting them dangle from the same gargoyles only for their friends to find them. Net result is you hunting a team of henchmen as they get more and more terrified, more and more paranoid and steadily decreasing in number – exactly what Batman is about.
The look of Arkham Asylum is just about perfect too. It’s all dark, grim and gothic. Silhouettes and moonlight. If it wasn’t so right it could have probably ruined the entire experience for me, but it is so right. The sight of Those Ears and That Cape just out of shadow, perched on a ledge, with the twisted structure of the Asylum below captures the iconic look of the Batman world. It brings across just who Batman is – the master of this environment. Other stealth games have you in the shadows because you are weak compared to the guards in front of you, but here you are in them because it’s your look – because it feels like you should be.
As much as I can gush over Arkham Asylum though it does have a couple of problems. About 7 to be exact – the boss fights mainly. I have problems with boss fights at the best of times but here they fall into that trap of being those boss fights. Similar to the ones you have done before and the same variations of hitting something when it’s critical. They are hard, frustrating, and worst of all not particularly fun – even at the climax with The Joker I had to sigh and utter “really?” under my breath. It’s a shame because smacking goons around is continually entertaining but these are an unwelcome break which you dread appearing.
Also, you know how I said the Riddler is present, giving you challenges to complete – well that’s not particularly good either. It creates a conflict of interest that doesn’t really fit in with Batman. You have to wander around areas finding trophies, and this takes time. It’s time that you probably should be spending getting to The Joker but you need to get those trophies because they unlock stuff (character bios, trophies, challenge maps – which are bits of the game you can play individually and try for high scores) and because of that kleptomaniac side to everybody which tells you to get 100% completion so you are accepted by your equally pathetic brethren. There isn’t any narrative reason why The Riddler to put this stuff around, nor is there any for Batman to find and solve it – it’s just there because it’s one of those things games can do.
You can let the problems slip by though because overall Batman: Arkham Asylum is utterly brilliant. I can’t emphasise enough how much I adore it. It gets the Batman thing entirely and shines as a Batman game, not a game with Batman in. It has a grim maturity, solid and flowing combat, exceptional stealth sections, and an art style that screams atmosphere but more importantly Batman, and sections that are so unbelievably good I don’t want to mention for fear of spoiling them in the slightest. This is on to be my Game of the Year, it’s the Batman game that always should have been.