Batman: Arkham Asylum

So, the day after I purchased my Xbox 360, I went down the road to the Camden branch of Cex and acquired five new games for the console, games that I wanted but were not available on the Wii. Batman: Arkham Asylum is the fourth game on that list that I’ve played and I think the second that I’ve completed from beginning to end.

When the game was released what – five years ago, it achieved close to perfect scores in its reviews and I have to say, I don’t disagree with that assessment. It blends a wonderful concoction of most of the interpretations of Batman (comics, TV, films, animations) into one coherent storyline, co-written by Paul Dini who has been involved in some of the best known recent tales of the Dark Knight.

So the plot – not unlike Metal Gear Solid. Take one character with kick-ass fighting abilities, “wonderful toys”, put him in an enclosed hostile environment with a sadistic hoard of foes and sit back. Of course, the Rogue’s Gallery of Batman is probably the best known and explored so there’s quite a lot probably already familiar to the player. But to restate: Joker, having engineered around 200 of his gang onto Arkham Island, engineers a riot and sees every prisoner escape trapping the staff of the Asylum, Batman and Commissioner Gordon. In the melee, well let’s just say that the Joker has a wonderfully convoluted plan and he plans on using his fellow inmates to keep Batman busy whilst it comes to fruition.

Even though the game is (currently) five years old, I still think it worth protecting in terms of spoilers. Sufficed to say, Batman fends off the challenges of the Joker and Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Zsasz, Poison Ivy, Bane and (heard but not seen) the Riddler. Other characters are referenced in the Asylum, seeing their cells and impact upon the good people of Gotham. Even some of the minor comic book characters pop up in the context of the story.
The gameplay is a mixture of third-person platformer, beat-em-up and puzzle and takes place in three dimensions thanks to Batman’s ability to use his grapple gun to reach new heights and glide across the island with his cape. The main quest guides the player through the island in a linear fashion though there are sandbox-lite qualities, particularly when it comes to gathering up all the hidden items. Now this reviewer likes a sandbox game but when the collectables are so far off the beat and track as to make acquiring them a significant diversion – that can be frustrating. This game doesn’t really suffer from that but if you want to go for that elusive 100% score, you will be going back and forth a bit to achieve perfection.

Naturally Batman has an array of toys at his disposal which are used to get around the island, defeat enemies and solve the puzzles. They are unlocked during the game – either through upgrades earned by racking up experience points or at key points within the story. Perhaps the most important gadget is “Detective Mode” which replaces Batman’s sight with a “Tron” like view of his surroundings, highlighting NPCs, items, interactable background objects and the like. And some of the Riddler’s puzzles can only be solved through using Detective Mode.

So the graphics – nice and as always, it’s the little touches that please most. The characters of the game are drawn as if the Animated series had a spectacularly large budget. They have a toon-like quality but are otherwise within the range of “reality” one comes to expect from modern games. Backgrounds are well drawn with a decent sprite collision detection routine when interacting with them. Detective mode when active shows what the player can directly affect and not which is handy as you feel like exploring all of Arkham Island when playing the game.

The reimagining of some of the villains is pretty good – the Joker is the least changed of the lot maintaining his basic image from the Animated Series but with a Heath Ledger grin and a Cesar Romero jacket. Harley Quinn has gone all leather nympho but strangely enough it works. The Scarecrow has had a bit of a tweak to his outfit whilst Killer Croc is definitely the “Hush” interpretation of the character. Bane is the least changed whilst Poison Ivy has undergone significant changes, retaining her green skin but with a more floral motif. As for the Joker’s mooks – I think he’s been raiding body building competitions for his hard hitters.

The heroes themselves are tweaked – Batman is armoured but more akin to an exoskeleton rather than what Christian Bale was wearing in The Dark Knight Rises. He’s a fairly angry character this time around and doesn’t really trade barbs with the villains. When he interacts with the NPC guards and asylum workers, he can come off as somewhat unsympathetic which doesn’t feel in line with the traditional interpretations – a bit too much Goddamn Batman. Commissioner Gordon has clearly hit the gym since we last saw him and looks pretty good for a guy who works 18 hour days and smokes like a chimney…

As for the little touches – things like setting off security scanners when walking through them, when using zoom mode, requiring a second for Batman’s eyes to adjust to the zoom is just class. Also seeing Batman’s attire slowly deteriorate during the course of the game just works so well.
The sound – again a hybrid of the music you expect from the films and the animated series, from Tim Burton to Christopher Nolan’s films. It avoids direct riffs but some of the melodies are so familiar, you can’t help but be transplanted into a cinema or in front of the TV on a Saturday morning. If I had one whine, it would be the Arkham Asylum sales speech every time you enter the Medical Centre which you just want to wreck the PA system.

And lest we forget, the voice acting – many of the old favourites from the Animated Series are picking up the mike – Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn…if only John Glover was available to voice the Riddler. But the voice work is great, particularly for the other characters in the game who have never really found a voice in the Batman universe such as Zsasz, Aaron Cash and Killer Croc.

Replayablity and Lastability – Playing the game on easy suits the player who wants to punch his way through the game as mooks line up to be smacked down. I think that playing the game on harder difficulty modes forces a more intelligent, stealth like approach to defeating the Joker’s plans so you get a different experience each time it is played. And as an adjunct to the main storyline, there is Challenge mode which tests Batman’s fighting and stealth skills with bonus awards for particular proficiency which really only help in unlocking Achievements.

The XP system also gives twenty upgrades to Batman and the player can unlock them in any order depending on what sort of a game they wish to play. Collecting all twenty within the course of the game is fairly simple but relies on some judicious collecting and chaining of attacks when beating up mooks. Again, this enhances the replayability as each experience will be unique.

The game does progress in a linear fashion but there are sandbox-like qualities once Batman breaks out of the Intensive Treatment section of the Asylum and like most games of this ilk, once it is finished the entire island is unlocked so that you can go back and complete the Riddler Challenges missed the first time around (and frankly, that’s essential). The game unlocks the various gizmos as you progress which can be a real doozy the first time you play as you see a Riddler Token and half kill yourself trying to get it, only to discover that a gadget (the line grappler is the worst culprit) will enable easy collection.

If you’re a collector and an Achievement grabber, then this game is perfect as it doesn’t take too much effort to score the bulk of the items and achievements and only a little effort to scoop up the rest. And there’s a great deal to like for novice gamers as the combat system is fairly simple but fun, the puzzles and “predator” parts of the game test both brains and brawn. Advanced gamers will look forward to the Challenge mode and achieving the top scores.

All in all, Batman Arkham Asylum, particularly now where a second hand copy goes for next to nothing, represents fantastic value for money. A typical game will last twelve hours and there’s plenty to keep the player amused in the Challenge Modes. Between the Joker’s barbs, exploring the weird world of Arkham Asylum and running around after what the Riddler dumped around the Asylum, there’s more than enough for a solo experience.