Why yes, I did just post a review for a game that’s three years old. That’s either post-modern games journalism or post-relevant games journalism.
This review originally appeared on X, a site I now pretend I never created. You can read my full review below the fold.
I’ve always been a big fan of the Dark Knight in almost all his forms. That Batman has seen so many variations baffles and intrigues me.
Although my taste may indeed have been tempered by the fact that I was a teenager and didn’t know any better at the time, I would highly recommend the No Man’s Land series of graphic novels. They have an interesting if not far fetched setup with Gotham City cut off from the rest of the states and being carved up by the wide variety of Batman villains, it puts well known characters under unusual stresses, and the ending…well, it’s disappointing. The point is there were some great moments there, some extraordinary artwork, a few gems of good story telling and the first two volumes were probably what pushed me off into the deep end of trying to draw my own comics, be that for good or ill.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
It’s the oldest story. Child witnesses the murder of his billionaire parents, grows up tormented by the trauma, dresses up in a costume and then fights crime under the name Batman.
The many tales of the Dark Knight shows just how unique the Batman property is. To say it has frequently experienced jolting tonal shifts over the last 70 years would be putting it mildly. When you have the same source material transformed into a live action TV series and series of films that look and behave like cartoons as well as a series of cartoons that look and behave like mature and compelling efforts at story telling, trying to figure out where a Batman video game is going to fall on that scale is practically impossible. That Batman: Arkham Asylum could fall anywhere between Adam West and Christian Bale, it was with this in mind that it took me a long time to commit any time to Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’m a big fan of Batman, be it trying to be dark or being a little silly, or being a little silly by trying to be dark, and it’s a massive shame when someone just doesn’t get it right. I’m not even sure what “right” is, but I know wrong when I see it.
Released in 2009, Batman: Arkham Asylum pits you as Batman against Gotham City’s favourite loony bin full of the comic’s iconic rogue’s gallery. The Joker and a gang of armed thugs stage a breakout at the asylum and it is up to you to punch, kick, sneak and battarang your way through to restore order and distribute straight jackets all round. Nothing terribly complicated, no convoluted plot twists or revelations, just a nice simple setup with plenty of room for comic-book style instalments and set pieces.
So Arkham Asylum gets it “right”. That they had bagged Animated Series veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill for the voices of Batman and the Joker should really have been my first clue. Commercially, they were pretty lucky. Although the game is based on the Batman franchise as a whole, meaning it didn’t have to be rushed to meet a filming schedule or carry any motion-picture oddity baggage, it can’t have hurt that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knightfrom a year earlier was still very much in people’s minds when they saw this appearing on shelves.That spectacular timing is by no means undeserved. To say Batman: Arkham Asylum is well crafted would be a disservice to the developers at Rocksteady. They resisted what I can imagine must have been a strong urge to make the asylum island completely free roaming and instead present you with a series of linear modules to play through. This allows for some truly engaging gameplay with triggered events never feeling too forced or overly scripted and I never felt myself stuck in an endless series of cut-scenes or extended busy work. Instead, I felt that all of the story beats and plot development took place in the form of a highly interactive and well designed graphic novel.
Paragraph six is normally when I remember to actually reference the actual act of playing the game, often with a wishy-washy way of saying “yeah, it’s ok” or “fairly solid” but with Batman, I can conclude the combat is pretty much perfect. There’s no requirement to rote learn a long list of combos or very precisely line up all your punches and kicks, it is for the most part entirely contextual and the game does most of the running around for you. Responding to onscreen cues from your assailants with the appropriate button presses at the right time feels more like Guitar Hero than it does a traditional brawler and somehow, despite an scepticism that description might invoke, it works perfectly.
There’s plenty of fun to be had wading into a mob of thugs, picking off the most dangerous ones first and mopping up the rest after, but the real place that Arkahm Asylum excels is in the opportunities for stealth. Modern game design gets a lot of flak for including obligatory stealth sections that either make no sense or highlight just how incapable the game is at dealing with such matters. Arkham Asylum has it built into its very core, which is probably one of the reasons that it feels “right” – Batman is after all known for a) punching bad people very hard and b) scaring the be-jeezus out of bad people from the shadows. Creeping around a room of armed thugs, picking them off one by one and being able to hear them get increasingly freaked out and panicked is joyful, increasingly so when you start to spot the AI being more jittery and cautious when you’ve knocked out more of their friends. It’s fluid, it’s quick, the levels are designed in a way that you don’t have to wait painful amounts of time for enemies to expose a blind spot, and best of all, with a few exceptions, if you’re spotted you can recover and try again without trashing your careful efforts up to that point.
There are a couple of things that do bug me about the game. A common complaint that I have to sympathise with is that I saw a lot of Arkham Asylum through a blue filter. One of the key mechanics of the game is that Batman can switch on ‘detective vision’ to detect enemies, spot breakable surfaces, clues, finger prints and so on. Doing so turns your field of vision blue and exposes your enemies skeletons. This is invaluable in stealth sections to see through walls to where the thugs are moving around to and although it’s easy enough to turn on and off, turning it off becomes less and less desirable the longer you play, which is a shame because the environment artists have made the locations look extraordinary, in spite of everything being dark and atmospheric.
The boss fights are also largely formulaic and tend to follow the pattern of 1) dodge large thing running towards you 2) punch large thing that has run into a wall 3) repeat. That said, some spectacular set pieces from Scarecrow and an interesting fight against Killer Croc more than made up for it in my book. I suppose if one was to be mean, you could say the game is quite straight forward and easy, but I found enough friction to keep me interested and not everything has to be Dark Souls. Thankfully.
Let me address an elephant in the room, or at least a very small elephant sitting on my desk staring at me with big round eyes and a quizzical expression on it’s trunk: Isn’t this game a bit old to review now? Why have you committed a review to it three years after its release when every other site blog and magazine has already said it’s a good game, that it’s game of the year 2009, and that the sequel is pretty good too?
Mostly it’s because I didn’t get around to looking at it at the time of its release, partly because it took me a while to get into, but most of all it’s because it is good and considering it can be picked up for very little money in various sales from time to time, the next time one of those sales comes around I strongly recommend that you take a look.
Verdict: Batman: Arkham Asylum sets the gold standard for linear game design and mixes rhythm-based combat with exceptionally satisfying stealth. It is also well written and Batman. To be perfectly honest, I’d normally be very happy with any one of those things.