I Play Video Games: Arkham Asylum

We’ll get into what’s going on with the running joke known as my review of Shadow of the Colossus another time, but for now let’s stretch the game-reviewing muscles with last year’s critical darling, roundly praised as the best comic book game ever made.

Because I’m nothing if not sensitive to the needs of our audience, I’ve taken a suggestion from the Baker and written a much shorter review than I did for Far Cry 2. However, because this is 50% my website and I ought to be able to indulge myself pretty much at will here, I’ve also written a much longer review, full of particulars that you don’t need to know about, and put it after the jump. I think everyone ought to be happy with this compromise.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Source: Retail
Paid: $20
Play Time: ~15 hours

Batman: Arkam Asylum is one of the best third-person action games I’ve ever played. It bashes up platforming, sneaking, and brawling in a something-for-everyone formula that almost never falters, especially in the “predator rooms” where Batman uses his speed and stealth to outmaneuver the Joker’s gunmen until they begin to panic at every shadow. The story and voice acting are top-notch, and the environment is varied, convincing and fun to navigate. Character models and textures are strangely exaggerated, but the game otherwise looks gorgeous.

The boss fights are probably the weakest segments, but they’re a small part of the overall game. Arkham Asylum is a must-play for Batman fans and those who enjoy action games generally; pretty much every gamer ought to at least try the demo.

Hit the jump for the long version.

Batman has captured the Joker (again) and returned him to Arkham Asylum (again), and everyone with the ability to add two and two is wondering why it’s better to leave the greasepainted Houdini alive for the sake of Batman’s paper-thin “I don’t kill people” moral system when he inevitably escapes (fucking again!) and kills dozens of people every few weeks. In a break from form, Joker escapes moments after Batman hands him over and rather than leaving locks down the whole joint, Batman and all, to turn it into a giant deathtrap. Batman must now fight his way past hundreds of the Joker’s psychotic goons as well as the super-powered inmates that are rampaging across the island, in order to discover and stop the arch-villain’s plan.

Leaving the Joker alive doesn't kill people; Batman kills people

The tale is surprisingly grim; maybe I was thrown off from hearing the voice talent of the G-rated cartoon, but Arkham Asylum abounds with electrocutions, devourings, and lethal face-bombings. The horror-heavy Scarecrow segments of the story in particular are surprisingly dark, even if they crib just a little too much from Hideo Kojima’s Psycho Mantis playbook. The final boss fight feels too little like Batman and too much like a video game obligation, but the ride is fun right up until then.

Arkham Asylum is a bit like a stew: it mixes brawling and stealth along with some mild platforming elements, then cooks them down so that the flavors of each wind up in the others. The result is a three-games-in-one feel that at its finest feels like a highlight reel of the best video games have to offer. This especially comes together in the “predator rooms” that trap a half-dozen gunmen in a room with Batman and task the player with using gadgets, vantage points, and hidden tunnels to pick each enemy off. I really got the sense of using fear as my weapon when the goons began to panic, turning on each other and wildly firing their guns into empty corners.

Arkham Asylum is too clever by half about re-using its few environments. There are only four main areas of the island, most with one or two sub-buildings, so backtracking is actually pretty frequent, but each time you pass through an area something has changed, be it a new enemy set or a path that has closed or opened. The careful emphasis on keeping the environments fresh is fortunate, because there aren’t actually very many unique enemies to fight. There are only around a half-dozen different bad guys (bosses excepted); the real variety comes in both the combinations and recombinations that you face (“Oh, you can handle the knife guys and the tazer guys? Let’s see you fight them while a sniper in a tower is taking potshots at you!”) and the environments in which you have to face them (“On an electrified floor!”). The boss fights are actually not all that fun compared to the rest of the game. Some have irritatingly gimmicky camera angles, and most are simple combat exercises that don’t dip into the intoxicating brew of genres that lends the regular gameplay such flavor. The 2.5D platforming of the Scarecrow levels is at least an amusing mix of stealth timing and grapple-jump acrobatics, but it still feels like it’s missing something that best predator rooms deliver better.

Of all of Batman’s many gadgets – explosive gels, remote-controlled batarangs, various flavors of grappling hooks and zip line launchers – the two most useful are available from the start of the game: the grapnel gun and detective vision. More on the grapnel gun later, but it needs to be said that detective vision is overpowered. It essentially color-codes the world to highlight usable objects such as vantage points and grates to open to reach tunnels AND shows you weak walls and floors that can be destroyed to find secrets or create new pathways AND lets you see enemies through walls, including telling you whether they’re armed or not. It’s too damned useful to ever leave off, and it means that a whole lot of texture work and environmental design ends up going to waste while Batman walks around in a blue and orange wonderland.

Arkham Asylum doles out a large variety of other gadgets through a two-pronged upgrade system. Many are granted to Batman through story progression. Some must be bought with XP that are earned by defeating enemies and grabbing collectibles. Enemies don’t respawn, and many collectibles can only be reached after certain story points gadgets have been acquired, with the end result being that it’s pretty much impossible to grind for gear. This has the double benefit of making the player’s choices among XP upgrades actually matter (since he can’t grind to get all of them at once) and keeping the emphasis on moving forward through the story rather than pumping up the gadget count. The pace of reward and new mechanics is kept steadily satisfying.

"Ah, see, your lymph nodes are a bit swollen. Probably a bit of a cold coming on. Take a day or two off and get some fluids."

In fact, the pacing is generally kept very brisk in Arkham Asylum, making it actually seem a bit longer than it is. The style of play is mixed up between exploration, puzzling, and fighting every few minutes. Batman’s next goal is always kept crystal clear with a combination of voice-overs, pause-screen banners, and a giant god-damned exclamation point on the map screen, all of which together feel a bit pedantic in a T-rated game, but certainly never leave you feeling adrift on the island. I ended up spending about 15 hours on my playthrough, but that included a lot of time spent back- and side-tracking to pick up collectibles.

Those 1000 points-worth of achievements that Microsoft has required every game include has forced many a desperate Lead Designer into including grinding collect-a-thons into their games, and Arkham Asylum includes its own. This one is at least appears to have had more though included than the low-water mark of such joyless slogs (the original Assassin’s Creed, if you were wondering). The Riddler has scattered 240 “riddles” about the environment. “Riddles” is in quotes there because most of them are actually just trophy objects that Batman can pick up if he stands on them, but every area includes several true riddles that merely hint at an object; the player has to figure out what the riddle refers to and then mark the answer to receive credit for solving it. The Riddler hunt is actually quite fun for completionist psychopaths such as myself, as it includes a great deal of voice work from the Riddler and many of the true riddles allude to franchise stalwarts such as Catwoman or the Penguin who are otherwise missing from the game.

Batman is easy to control in the exploration and stealth portions of the game, but Arkham Asylum doesn’t quite nail the hat trick of adding perfect combat controls into the mix. Fighting winds up being more button-mashy than I think was intended – Batman has a habit of darting over to enemies clear across the room in mid-combo, and this changes the feel of the combat from “I am in direct and skillful control of every strike” to “I am offering suggestions which the capey fellow on my TV may or may not choose to accept”. Also irritating, the onscreen indicator for the glide kick attack occasionally pops up when it oughtn’t, resulting in Batman silently swooping down to smash his foot into a doorframe or ladder and then dropping rather sheepishly to the ground next to an angry man with a rifle. Combat and movement are otherwise crisp and enjoyable.

As we discussed in our review of the the demo back in podcast #3, the grapnel launcher brings back some really fond memories of the original Tenchu game on the PS1. It just feels great to be able to zip up to tower roofs and gargoyles, cross ridiculous gaps, and generally go anywhere you can see. The grapnel will hook onto most ledges and projections, and the puzzle areas where it’s actually not usable have a different pace from the rest of the game, requiring a lot more looking about for potential handholds and leap-able gaps. I have to admit that as I’m now playing Assassin’s Creed 2 I find my self occasionally tapping the right bumper to make an easy grapnel shot up onto a building.

The camera in the game is generally positioned in the right spot, particularly when Batman sticks to a corner in order to keep an eye on enemies or spring out at them. It remains noticeably too close while Batman is gliding about with his cape spread, making it a little hard to see what you’re gliding towards. Additionally, certain mini-boss fights wrest camera control from the player to look at a nearby enemy, which can lead to cheap hits from other nearby foes.

If you can bring yourself to turn detective vision off, Arkham Asylum is a visual stunner. The various buildings that make up the asylum all have unique interior styles that set particular moods; once again, the Scarecrow’s creepy hospital section is a standout. The environments change gradually throughout the story but remain handsomely shadowed and vividly colored through each revision. The buildings, particularly the looming mansion, manage to be really gothic without dipping into the ridiculous tapering, hunched style that Tim Burton has slopped all over that word. Really, the island and asylum are the true stars of the game, with the characters supporting them with reasons to run around looking at stuff and climbing on it.

Harley's transformation from 2D to 3D; they grow up so fast

The Joker manages to duck a re-design, but the rest of the characters have been given a heavy coat of paint from the Image comics bucket. Harley Quinn’s “Busty Nurse” rework in particular is so egregious that if they hadn’t gotten the voice actress from the TV show I doubt anyone would have bought her as the same character, but Batman himself also suffers a noticeable and unnecessary roiding at the hands of the character designer. The designs aren’t really a big deal in the course of playing the game, but combined with the strange, rubbery sheen that some faces or clothes have they gives the characters a flavor that’s unique to Arkham Asylum‘s cutscenes, somewhere between that of action figures and pornography.

The voice performances are excellent and omnipresent – someone is talking almost all the time while you play the game and none of the actors are clunkers. Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn are recognizable from the cartoon series, and the rest of the cast stands up to their work. The only real complaint I have about the voices is that John “Bender” DiMaggio is too recognizable, and as he’s one of only two goon voices you’ll hear him a lot. It’s not a bad performance, just distractingly reminiscent of Futurama.

Arkham Asylum is a must-own at any price for Batman fans; the game’s affection for the universe oozes from every pixel. Those who enjoy both brawling and stealth games without preferring either – or requiring either to be very deep – would find this game a safe buy at around $30. For those harboring doubts, a demo that fairly represents most of the game’s mechanics is available for download from your platform’s online marketplace.


3 thoughts on “I Play Video Games: Arkham Asylum”

  1. Damn yo, that’s a good review!

    The collectibles without reward in Assassin’s Creed were the worst part of a game that I adored.

    And why why why do the female characters always have to turn out to be slutty? Feminist triggers ahoy!

  2. “Damn yo, that’s a good review!”

    I’ll presume that you’re talking about the short one.

    The terrible part of the vamped up revamping of the characters is that they *don’t* have to be slutty. See Alyx , Jade, Faith, [insert the rest of the small batch of non-sex-doll female video game characters that are always being cited in this argument here]. I think maybe we were dooomed to this sort of thing when a video game character design – already a field rife with Lara Crofts, Miranda Lawsons and the like – was farmed out to a *fucking comic book company*.

    Actually, hold that thought. I think I smell a post coming on.

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