Review – Batman: Arkham Asylum
Metroidvania/3rd Person Action
A good Batman game? Sounds like insanity.
It’s hard to find a good Batman videogame, so hard in fact that if you were inclined to play one you’d have to go all the way back to the late 80’s to find a really good one, probably by Ocean or maybe Sunsoft if you’re in Americaland. Well that’s not the case anymore because after more than two decades of poor Batman games like Batman: Dark Tomorrow or Batman: Vengeance we’ve finally got a game staring the dark knight fit for the modern age and before you wonder, no we weren’t given anything by Eidos for this review.
The game begins with all the brooding darkness you’d expect not to mention a great bombastic score that takes it’s queues from both the classic 1989 Danny Elfman Batman soundtrack and the modern Zimmer/Newton Howard Batman Begins and Dark Knight. Bats has re-captured his arch nemesis The Joker once again and had dragged him back to Gotham City’s newly rebuilt Arkham Asylum on its own self contained island in the Gotham Bay until he inevitably escapes again to go on another rampage. However it quickly becomes clear that the Joker has decided to break this ongoing cycle and has deliberately allowed his capture to actually trap Batman in the asylum’s grounds as part of his grand scheme that you’ll discover as you play through the game.
The gameplay is best described as being a 3rd person Metroidvania game but with the emphasis on hand to hand combat rather than shooting. At the start of the game you’ll have access to a few iconic gadgets such as batarngs to stun enemies, grapple gun for scaling ledges and high roof tops and Batman’s detective vision to scan the area for forensic clues as well as highlighting useful information such as proximity to enemy goons and points of interest such as access points to the ventilation system or handy gargoyles that you can perch on.
As the game progresses you’ll gain access to new gadgets and upgrades to existing gadgets that’ll let you throw more and new types of batarangs, packs of explosive gel for blasting through weak walls to access new areas (along with stunning any goons caught in the blast), new combat moves and extra armour to increase the amount of damage you can take.
With the asylums security systems almost exclusively under the Jokers control and every area of the island patrolled by gangs of his goons you’ll have to tread carefully as it only takes a few bursts from a goon’s gun to kill bats or something as simple as a bodged takedown to alert the whole gang who’ll soon come gunning for you. Rockstedy have described it as â€œpredatorâ€ gameplay were you hunt the goons to isolate the strong and intimidate the weak and I’d have to agree as I found it extremely satisfying to perch on a gargoyle and slowly pick off the goons one by one using silent takedowns and even stringing them up to lure other goons into an ambush.
When stealth fails and you’re forced to fight but unlike something like Tenchu or Thief you don’t feel at a disadvantage because once used to the game’s combat system you’ll be taking on dozens of goons without hesitating. You have three basic moves: attack, stun and counter with more advanced moves becoming available with upgrades or if your situation makes them viable. The early fights with just a few easy goons soon give way to huge gangs armed with clubs and knives who’ll easily overbear you if you give them the chance but with a little practice you’ll be throwing batarangs at the first wave of goons then tumbling over the next goon to throw then before countering the club goon behind you then stunting the knife goon then finishing of the last goon before tripping the first goon who was getting back upâ€¦ From time to time the combat won’t flow if say you get stuck in a corner or if the camera decides to be an arse but compared to what passes for beat ’em up action these days it’s a simple to learn but hard to master mechanic that’s just a part of the whole package that’s full of class.
That’s not to say you’ll just be fighting non-descript goons as what Batman story wouldn’t be good without a memorable villains and Arkham Asylum has tons of them. There’s the obvious fan favourites like Joker, Poison Ivy and Scarecrow (who I won’t talk about because his appearances are often subtle and unexpected) but even lesser know but great adversaries like ZsasZ, Bane and my personal favourite Harley Quinn. They might not get as much screen time as Joker and his goons but they all make a great impression thanks to some great script writing by Paul Dini who was the driving creative force behind the 90’s animated adventures of Batman and the original voice cast who all reprise their roles with the exception of Commissioner Gordon who’s voice casting to a little too gruff not sage enough.
I have to admit I’m a big fan of the goddamn Batman and I was really looking forward to this game for a long time. Then the demo was released a few weeks back and really made me want this game. I did have some reservations thinking that it was just going to end up alternating between fighting and sneaking, with very little in-between. Thankfully the game isn’t quite as linear as it seemed from the demo.
For a start there are many times you have to figure out the way to get to the next area. Whilst it is always a linear path, but if you are going to find all of the Riddlers puzzles and trophies, then there’s a ton of exploration. One thing I did find was that you end up spending most of your time with the detective vision on, so you do miss out on some of the great graphics on display.
The meat of the game consists of either fighting, which whilst very simplistic is extremely slick. Once you get the hang of it you can rack up some really big combos, once you get the combo up you can pull off more powerful moves. The stealth sections of the game are also very well done. As the game progresses you get more tools to use and these change how you complete them, so they never really get stale.
One other thing that is really good are the sections that involve the Scarecrow. These are 2.5D platforming sections, which were something I wasn’t really expecting. Add to all of this the great atmosphere this game has and you have a very enjoyable game. The main faults are the short play time of the game and the combat can be frustrating on times, because it can be difficult to see what’s going on.
Secondary Score: 8/10
The entire setting of Arkham Asylum is steeped in the Batman mythology not just the recent film and carton versions but also the original comics with every character in the story be it hero or villain having a full and detailed biography and even the odd extra audio clip to listen to with interrogations with Killer Croc or psychoanalysis with the Riddler to be found.
As PEOWW’s resident DC Comics nerd I’m happy to report everything is as it should be, right down to appearances of 3rd stringers like Scarface and relatively new characters like Hush or Great White Shark. Other background info can be found in the hundreds of Riddler challenges found across the island from statues hidden in obscure vents and on high ledges to objects and items that need scanning like a pair of Catwoman’s IR goggles or Bane’s childhood toy! These challenges while granting extra experience points to upgrade Batman’s arsenal also encourage exploration across the distinctly different areas of the island all of which are handled by the games graphics engine.
Like many games today Arkham Asylum uses 3rd party software tools (over half a dozen!) to create it’s environments. The main one being the almost industry standard Unreal Engine 3 which is thankfully free of the usual complaints of texture pop in but still has my usual gripe of everything looking a bit too shiny, rendering all of the admittedly highly detailed character models like giant action figures rather than living, breathing people. Any other problems I have with the game all relate to the game’s longevity and lack of replayability. Sure the game is longer that you might expect, clocking in at roughly twenty hours but all the Riddler challenges and metroidvania backtracking can’t hide the fact that once played through more than once there’s not going to be anything new to see. Maybe I’m being too hard on it but playing it the week after I’ve reviewed Shadow Complex makes the longevity problems even more obvious to me.
All in all it’s good, not just good for a licensed game within a franchise that hasn’t exactly been treated well over the years (Gotham City Racer anyone?) but good for a new game that you’d expect to slap forty quid down to play. It looks good, sounds good and plays good but don’t expect to have the same pleasure replaying it over again as by its very nature the first play through with its rich exploration gameplay will soon have you hankering for something new that the game can’t deliver.