How is it that in over thirty years of electronic gaming history that crafting an accurate, definitive Batman game has eluded developers? While I can understand characters like Superman not translating well to the interactive medium (how does one make a physically vulnerable avatar from a demigod?), Batman is essentially a ninja with an arsenal of gadgets that would make James Bond swoon and a rogues gallery of colorful villains even more interesting than the hero himself. If that isn’t pure game fodder, I don’t know what is.
To be fair, some games have flirted with greatness: Sunsoft’s Batman for the NES helped me while away the hours in my parents’ basement as a child, and Lego Batman was a gloriously fun romp (although that can be attributed just as much to the Lego license as to Batman), but even these standouts missed The Caped Crusader’s biggest appeal: his role of ‘World’s Greatest Detective.’
Enter Rocksteady Studios, a London-based developer whose slim back catalog includes nothing more than the PS2/Xbox shooter Urban Chaos: Riot Response. How did this fairly green development house do with one of the most beloved franchises of all time?
Better than any of us could have hoped.
Set in a sprawling, open-world version of Arkham Island, Batman: Arkham Asylum finds our eponymous hero bringing his greatest nemesis, the Joker, back to the titular madhouse after capturing him. However, something doesn’t sit right with the Dark Knight, who feels that the Joker allowed himself to be captured. His instincts are proven right when the Joker breaks loose to execute a mysterious plot, with Batman being the only force who can stop him. The story, written by Batman: The Animated Series vet Paul Dini, lacks the gravity and emotional punch of storytelling high-water marks like The Killing Joke or Death in the Family, but it’s still a surprisingly layered tale with plenty of intrigue, twists, and the welcome involvement by a sizable cross-section of Batman’s villains.
You navigate the story and the island from the slightly-offset over the shoulder perspective made popular by Resident Evil 4, with the perspective changing at certain key actions. It’s from this perspective that you execute the meat of the game, which is more adventure than action, using your arsenal of Bat-gadgets that you upgrade over the course of the game, Metroid-style. Old standbys like the grappling gun and batarangs are joined by more specialized tools like explosive gel (to knock down weak walls), or the line launcher that aids you in horizontal travel by shooting a zip line. You will use all of these abilities not only in your main quest, but also to uncover hidden ‘Riddler Challenges’.
This game-within-a-game, set up by a show-stealing Edward Nigma, has you seeking out trophies and using your detective skills to solve a series of 240 riddles, which in turn can unlock anything from character bios, character trophies (basically an in-game model viewer), and other features. It’s shocking that it’s taken this long for a Batman game to put his detective skills front-and-center, and it’s immensely satisfying when you find the solution to a particular head scratcher. Rocksteady even incorporated a heavy stealth element into the game, where Batman can dispatch his foes strategically. It’s amazingly fun to play the part of “the invisible predator,” with Batman’s more confrontational nature making the game feel more like The Chronicles of Riddick than Metal Gear Solid, and there is no feeling more satisfying than dispatching the final enemy in a room with a well-executed silent takedown.
However, there are times when Batman will need to get his hands dirty and use the game’s free flow combat system, which is an absolute revelation. Instead of relying on surgical precision on the part of the player, the game itself acts as a co-pilot, helping you take down a whole gang of thugs with satisfying ease. Foes telegraph their intentions, giving you the opportunity to counter or evade their attacks in true Batman fashion. It’s one of those systems that can’t be accurately conveyed through description, but instead has to be experienced to be understood. Bar none, no other game has been so effective at making you feel like a complete bad-ass in this regard, and the several “challenge maps” that the game features, quick four-round gauntlets of fisticuffs against increasing waves of enemies, are wholly welcome additions to the game. Additionally, Playstation 3 owners get the added bonus of exclusive Challenge Maps where they play not as Batman, but as the Joker battling the asylum's guards.
Arkham Asylum’s greatest achievement comes from the game world itself. In virtually all media representations of the infamous sanitarium, we see little outside of an exterior shot of its foreboding gothic architecture or a quick peek in its cell blocks. Even famous stories set almost completely inside its walls like Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s appropriately titled Arkham Asylum leave a lot to the imagination. However, Rocksteady crafted a world that practically breathes with its own manic life. Victorian and Gothic architecture mix with slipshod technology and medical equipment that would make Dr. Mengele shiver, creating a distinctive look that’s memorable and unsettling.
After a few hours you find yourself remembering all of the twists and turns of the hallways as if it were a real location, and a voice cast full of familiar throats like Mark Hamill (am I the only person who finds it strange that one of the best Joker actors is Luke freaking Skywalker?), Kevin Conroy (reprising Batman from the 90’s cartoon), and industry heavies like Stephen Blum and Fred Tatasciore complete the illusion, making Arkham perhaps the most “real” fictional environment I’ve ever experienced.
The whole game is so polished; it makes virtually all of the game’s flaws inconsequential. The complete lack of a compass will force you into the automap more often than you should have to, and the game’s conclusion is predictable and rushed. Even its much-hyped Collector’s Edition was a bit of a letdown, with it almost 3-foot long custom case holding a surprisingly lame plastic Batarang and a “doctor’s journal” that’s of passing interest at best. I don’t normally pick on the lameness of Collector’s Editions, but when they literally cost a hundred bucks, I can’t help but feel a little cheated.
But that’s all splitting hairs, really. Batman: Arkham Asylum does for the video game franchise what The Dark Knight did for the movie side: craft an experience that is appealing to fans of the medium as a whole, not just Batman fans. Sure, the fan service guarantees that Batman nerds will get more out of the game than your average gamer (after all, name dropping C-list villains like The Ratcatcher and Maxie Zeus isn’t for the Batman casual), but a great game is a great game regardless of character.