Batman: Arkham Asylum Impressions

Liked

Everything – The review isn’t going to be this glib but in essence this was how the game felt.  I can’t remember the last time I was so awed by every facet of a game that I just wanted to tell everyone and, more importantly, keep playing.  I played until I had found all of the Riddler challenges and gotten golds in all of the challenges.  That gave me 100% completion for the file.  I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that in a game before.  Damn you, 499/500 agility orbs in Crackdown!

***minor spoilers follow***

Atmosphere – To specifics, now, and the atmosphere generated in the game.  From the moment you step into the asylum everything feels dense and oppressive.  This is accomplished by wise choice of colour palette, with a heavy green hue as well as the artistic design of each room.  Everything feels dirty, dank.  Even the outside feels cluttered due to very uneven terrain, heavy foliage and the look of the asylum buildings and guard posts towering overhead.  The graphics themselves are amazing, really showcasing what the unreal engine can do.

Character Redesigns – Everyone looked good.  Batman’s light armour, Joker’s purple suit, Harley Quinn’s sexier new look, Ivy’s college dorm girl look and the scarecrow’s sinister new duds.  It all feels a little bit darker, a little bit more twisted now that they’re aiming at a slightly less mainstream audience than the Chris Nolan movies but a more adult one than The Animated Series.  In fact, a lot of the audience for the game will have grown up  on the animated series, so maybe the new looks are aimed at us, only grown up.  Importantly, it all feels consistent.  Everyone has been designed with the same goal and feel in mind.

Story – The story is ultimately disposable, but I mean that in a good way.  It’s a great romp from start to finish.  An elaborate plan to destroy Gotham, slowly unravelled by The Dark Knight’s detective work, a setting that allows the inclusion of an arbitrary number of villains, but the creators have wisely kept the cast of recognisable enemies down, so as not to clutter the experience.  There’s no stretch made to ensure everyone’s part of the Joker’s plan either, so nothing feels forced.  There may be no deep insights or shocking reveals (not that stories like this in comics always have something to offer the reader) but it’s full of great lines, wonderful character moments and lots of charm and respect for the mythos.

Voice Acting – Whenever we heard that one of the Batman games was going to have Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin we were all giddy with excitement.  There has never been a better Batman than Kevin Conroy.  He captures the toughness and sinister nature of Batman’s voice without sounding absurd and his contrast between Bruce and Batman is nigh perfect.  Mark Hamill’s Joker is always excellent, expertly flitting between playful and deadly and always a joy to listen to.  And there has never been another Harley Quinn, although Sorkin wisely drops the pitch a little bit.  We knew these people were good in the series but they’re just as good here.  It’s so good you almost don’t notice it, it just feels like you’re wrapped up in that world you fell in love with as a kid, but it never feels like it’s shooting for cheap nostalgia.  This is an event unto itself.

Harley Quinn – As a side note I feel I have to mention that as the game went on I found myself intensely attracted to this version of Harley Quinn to the point of discomfort.  I applaud the vision of the designers to accomplish but hope they don’t do it again so that I don’t have to admit to it.

I’m fucking BATMAN! – What I mean by this is you play as Batman.  Batman.  He’s not just your avatar.  You are Batman and it’s not Year One or any bullshit.  This simple idea seems to have been the central design philosophy for a lot of the game as well.  You get a small, but enjoyable, versatile and more grounded set of gadgets too.  The grapple hook and several types of batarang as well as a couple of others you pick up later that are a lot of fun.  The “detective mode” allows you to identify and track enemies, since Batman would always know where everyone was, through a sort of X-ray display.  Everything you do, you do as Batman.  I loved that.

Combat – I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun with the combat in a game.  This is literally the best combat system in an action/adventure game that I’ve ever come across.  It plays to the above sentiment: You are Batman.  That means that it’s perfectly conceivable that you should be able to defeat 24 thugs at once without taking a single awesome and being incredibly awesome, and oh you will. You have attack, instant counter, cape stun, evade, special moves that you have to earn and some gadget moves.  The idea is to string them all together in as long and varied a combo as possible and it’s difficult, but rewarding.  Most moves can be counter with the instant counter, but knives need the cape stun and electric batons need the dodge.  It’s so much fun.  It’s difficult to describe exactly but play it and you’ll know what I mean.  You’re really playing against yourself, to see how impressive a combo you can pull off, as opposed to trying to defeat the enemies.

Silent Predator – In the combat sections all (or nearly all) of the enemies are unarmed.  The other parts of the game have you moving undetected around a room taking out armed, patrolling guards.  There are myriad way of incapacitating the guards, from a simple batarang to the head followed by a ground takedown to ledge takedowns and suspending them upside down from the roof.  The challenges become more complex and remaining hidden more difficult as the game goes on.  As with the combat mode, the onus is on the player to make the experience enjoyable and impressive.  It’s easy to tag enemies with the batarang and then swoop down but it isn’t rewarding.  There’s a room where you can throw a batarang through a metal detector to set it off, which distracts two guards giving you room to deal with the third silently, but it took a few goes, some where I cleared the room but restarted anyway, before I was satisfied.

Challenge Mode – In the main game there is a certain pressure in the combat and predator sections since you need to move on and progress the story, but by completing Riddler challenges you unlock a Challenge mode, where you are given particularly tasks to complete within a room in the game.  There are combat and predator challenges.  The combat ones are a great place to maximise your combos.  You can earn up to three medals on any challenge.  For combat, it’s simply points, but you’ll need to string large combos and use every move Batman has to reach them.  The predator medals are awarded for carrying out certain moves whilst you take out the enemies in the room.  Some of these are extremely satisfying.  The challenge mode is a great way to explore the depth of both of these excellent systems.

Exploration – The game was surprisingly Metroid-like but I loved this as well.  The ability to move freely between objectives searching for Riddler puzzles or just getting a feel for the map, how everything links up.  It expertly teases future locations before revealing their significance.  Searching for these little puzzle didn’t  take me out of the experience, either.  Arkham Asylum understands that it’s a game.  Besides, there’s a nice little narrative payoff when you find complete all of the Ridder Challenges.  The size of the map is also well-judged.  It’s not meant to be an open-world experience, so the pressure of making the map function by itself isn’t there.  It’s still an intricately designed experience, but the ability to move through it is welcome.

Riddler Challenges – The challenges themselves are really enjoyable.  Finding the trophies is fun and destroying three sets of joker teeth with the multi-batarang always looks cool and never gets old.  The patient tapes and chronicles of Arkham are a nice addition but I didn’t give the character bios much time.  The other types of challenge are to find particular things in the environment, but most of these amount to little nods to the wider Batman universe which I enjoyed immensely.  Ultimately you get the point where if you see a Batman reference, scan it and you get a Riddler challenge.  Pod pointed out that it was better than Metroid Prime because the things you scan are interesting and draw your attention, instead of just being any fucking thing under the sun.  The Riddler challenges also include finding a map that leads to the other challenges in that area.  I liked this map.  Although there isn’t the same sense of achievement (or disappointment or frustration) as collecting everything in a Metroid game it made me want to play longer and longer.  I was happy to get all 240 as part of my first playthough.  That’s the other thing: You can’t miss any!  I hate that in games.  There is an achievement you can miss.  And you will miss it if you care anything for the atmosphere and drive of the finale.  Very unfair achievement.

Scarecrow Levels I won’t spoil them here, but there are several sections in the game where Batman falls under the influence of the Scarecrow’s fear toxin.  The sequences are disturbingly brilliant.  There’s some great imagery (but nothing oblique) and some great gameplay tricks.  There’s also an effect that I don’t think I’ve seen before, where a library corridor gradually transforms into a street, so it starts raining inside and the wet brickwork gradually impedes on the wallpaper and carpet as you walk along the corridor.  These sequences are almost entirely removed from the main game and offer a welcome break from the main story.

It’s a great GAME – Finally, I have to say, that this is really a great game in its own right: Not just a great Batman game, not just a great comic book game.  This has an appeal beyond Batman fans although that added to the experience for me.  It isn’t just a game with Batman stuck in it, though.  The designers really set out to create a unique and extremely enjoyable experience

Didn’t Like

Perspective PuzzlesThere are certain puzzle where you need to align the camera to display a Riddler question mark in two parts.  These are not described well and the first time I came across one I didn’t know what to do.  Later on, there’s one in the sewer which is very difficult to find.  Although it’s cool when they line up, the difficulty in finding some of them is too great.

Grappling Hook Inconsistency – I only noticed this in the challenge maps when you need to be pretty quick in some places, but often you’ll be focused on a ledge to grapple on and then as you press fire the point of aiming will change.  It doesn’t happen too often but it can be very frustrating.

Strike Aiming Inconsistency – Again, I only noticed this in the challenge mode, but sometimes in the freeflow combat, when you direct the stick to aim your strike it doesn’t quite do what you tell it, which is frustrating if it breaks a particularly long combo.

Lengthy Restart Time – The challenge maps require, by their nature, a lot of repetition.  I don’t mind that: it takes time to master something and you WILL have to restart a lot if you want to get all golds, but when you select restart in the option menu it takes a while to actually get back into the action.  It’s a minor presentation gripe but one that irks me.

Final Boss – I found the last fight a little easy and a little underwhelming, particularly coming off the more challenging one beforehand, although the last boss itself does look extremely cool.

Jim Gordon – This was the only character I didn’t think they got quite right.  His model is extremely beefy and his voice in incredibly gruff.  I didn’t think they captured the fatherly warmth of the character or got his relationship with Batman quite right.

Everyone who works in Arkham is Steve Blum – Given that this is a top-tier title I was surprised at this, but the vast majority of Arkham staff are voiced by the same actor, whose voice I recognise instantly thanks to Cowboy Bebop.  Given the quality of the rest of the package I would have expected them to be able to spread a bit of variety about the minor characters.

Originally Published 28 December 2009

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