“*Insert epic Danny Elfman Batman theme here*”
There’s no question that Batman is a cultural icon, and has had numerous successes outside of comics in both TV and feature film. Tim Burton’s films brought a dark, twisted vision to Gotham City, while on TV the same vision was brought to the highly acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. More recently, Christopher Nolan rebooted the film franchise with similar (perhaps even more) success. There was also a thing in the 60’s and a couple of… ”somethings” …by Joel Schumacher that would be better off being forgotten by all. However, one medium where the Dark Knight has faltered has been in video games, where the bulk of games starring the caped crusader have been, let’s face it, utter crap. Sure he had a spark in the NES Batman game, but everything after that has been below-par beat-em-up’s that completely missed the point of walking in Mr. Wayne’s alternate shoes. I owned Batman Forever for Sega Genesis…that’s all that needs to be said right there.
However, in the year 2009, Eidos Interactive and WB games decided that enough is enough, and it’s time for the world’s greatest detective to get his video game due. Giving the reigns to developer Rocksteady (whose only other game credit was a mediocre Urban Chaos sequel for PS2), and using Gotham City’s famous nut-house as a backdrop, Batman: Arkham Asylum has finally been released to the masses. Batman’s about to get back what he’s owed in full…and then some.
WELCOME TO THE MADHOUSE!
It’s a typical night in Gotham City: The Joker takes the mayor hostage, Batman defeats him, and so it goes. Feeling a sense of un-easiness about the whole ordeal, Batman sees to it to bring his greatest nemesis to Arkham Island and to the famous Arkham Asylum himself, going so far as to actually help escort the Joker into the Intensive Treatment center in the facility. As luck would have it Batman’s feelings are spot on, as Joker breaks free, overrides all of Arkham’s security systems with the help of Harley Quinn, and essentially takes control of the entire facility. He then proceeds to let loose all of his goons that were recently transferred from Blackgate Prison after a mysterious fire forced them to be moved to Arkham. Knowing that Joker has more sinister intentions on his mind other than taking over Arkham, Batman ventures into the madhouse and into one of the longest nights he’ll ever have.
Loosely based on the 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and co-written by The Animated Series co-creator Paul Dini, Arkham Asylum’s story is basically what you would expect a typical Batman adventure to be: sharply-written, engaging, and very entertaining. It won’t break any molds if you’ve been a Bat-fan for many years (and the climax may seem a little iffy to those people), but it will definitely get you through this crazy night. Well, are you prepared to become the bat?
I AM VENGENCE….
You control Batman in a third-person perspective with a over-the-shoulder camera system that pretty much mimics Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space. You move the Dark Knight with the left stick and you can fully manipulate the camera to see your demented surroundings with the right stick. Holding the X button will cause Batman to run, which is still kind of irky to me in the age of analogue sticks. Holding down R2 will cause Batman to crouch, for getting through ventilation shafts or sneaking up on an unsuspecting foe. There is no jump button, as Batman does that automatically Link-style when you run off a ledge or such. Batman can shimmy and climb as good as Lara Croft, and you’ll have to perform some Bat-platforming quite a few times during the game, whether it’s because Harley Quinn blew the only elevator leading to the Joker up in your face, or because the decayed architecture can not support Batman’s Grapnel gun. Speaking of the Grapnel Gun, Batman can use it to hoist himself up to almost any object that displays the Grapnel symbol by pressing the R1 button, useful for reaching high places or making quick getaways. Finally, Batman can use his iconic cape to glide after jumping from a high area by holding the X button and using the left stick to guide him to the ground. Don’t worry if you forget to hold X after causing him to jump off of Arkham Mansion’s clock tower, as Batman will activate his gliding abilities automatically before landing safely to the ground. All of these basics feature very tight controls and work extremely well, making navigation through an insane asylum a breeze.
AA, believe it or not, flows pretty much just like a Metroid Prime game. You’ll seamlessly navigate through the famous Island and it’s buildings and complete objectives that range from saving personnel from Joker’s goons to tracking important people crucial to the Dark Knights success. This long night will take Batman from the Intensive Treatment center, to the outside areas of the Island, to the looming Arkham Mansion, to the subterranean caves below the facility, and many more areas I won’t spoil for you here. I do find it very cool that Batman was able to build his own mini-Batcave into Arkham Island in case of emergencies (can’t believe no one noticed that, actually). As you progress through the game (and once again, just like a Metroid or Castlevania game), Batman will gain access to more of his nifty multi-million dollar toys. He starts off with just his trusty Batarangs, which can be throw quick style with a press of the L1 button or aimed more carefully shooter style by holding L1 and letting loose with R1, which of course can knock a goon for a loop. Batman will also get to use exploding gel for taking out certain weak walls, a device that short circuits the Asylum’s many hi-tech security gates, the Bat-claw for pulling off vents that are hard to reach (or a goon off of a balcony), and various other gadgets that I’ll leave you to discover. Like a Metroid game, acquiring new gadgets will allow Batman to access areas that were previously inaccessible in earlier parts of the game. These areas more than often lead to the game’s collectables (I’ll get to the Riddler’s diversions later).
However, Batman’s coolest gadget lies in his cowl. The world’s greatest detective needs a tool that will help him in his detection, and pressing the L2 button will activate this tool and Detective Mode. Activating this turns the entire game world a darkish blue color and allows Batman to see through walls and even see his enemy’s and ally’s skeletons! It will also point out structurally weak walls, vents that can be torn off, switches that can be manipulated, and pretty much anything else needed to help move Batman along in his quest. During objectives where you have to track someone Detective Mode automatically picks up a trail for Batman to follow, such as the scent of a certain alcohol or Commissioner Gordon’s favorite brand of tobacco. It’s very tempting to keep detective mode on for the entire game, but you would missing out on some cool scenery if you did. Tying everything you do in the game together is an experience point system that allows you to upgrade Batman’s combat moves, health, and gadgets by completing game objectives and defeating enemies.
Of course, Batman isn’t only a great detective. Trained in pretty much every type of martial art known to man and in top physical condition, Batman is easily the world’s greatest fighter and Rocksteady knows this very well. Joker’s goons populate every inch of Arkham, and Batman is going to need to bust some heads if he wants to complete his quest. The “Freeflow” combat in AA is both simple and deep, as Batman will be facing off against multiple opponents at any given time. Technically, Batman’s only true attack button is the square button which can be chained into various combos, and Batman will attack whichever goon you point him to with the left stick. When goons come in for an attack, wavy lines will appear above their heads and a good timed press of the triangle button will cause Bats to counter the attack with various bone-crushing maneuvers. Batman can also stun enemies for a time with his cape by pressing circle and jump over/redirect them by double tapping the X button towards them. The thing about the freeflow system is that all these maneuvers can be chained together into one huge combo against the multiple enemies. The higher the combo the more experience you get, so it’s important to keep your attacks and counters coming and not get hit. Joker’s goons can usually be pushovers for someone like Batman, but as you progress through the game you’ll face harder foes that use knives, tasers, and even guns that force you to use a little more finesse and quickness to survive. There is no health pick-
ups in the game, as Batman will only regain health after certain events and successful battles, so keeping up with the rhythm of the battle system is important. Thankfully, you’ll be able to unlock new maneuvers like a throw and a special attack that can take out an opponent instantly when you reach a certain number of attacks in your combo. Some may find the combat to get somewhat repetitive as the game goes along, but I found seeing Batman finish off his final opponent in a battle in slow-motion to never get old. Long story short, the battle system is fast and extremely fun once you get the hang of it.
Unfortunately, there will be parts of the game that Batman can’t destroy his way out of, such as coming across rooms full of fully armed goons. Batman may be a lot of things, but one thing he isn’t is bulletproof. Get caught in these situations and its “holy full of holes, Batman“! In this case, it’s time to utilize Batman’s stealth capabilities and silently take out your enemies in these “Invisible Predator segments. You’ll have to utilize your environment, including floor grates, vent shafts, and the conveniently placed gargoyle statues high above the area to sneak around and pick off the Joker’s goons one by one. Batman can perform a silent takedown by crouching behind an enemy and pressing triangle, a gliding kick from up-high by pressing square when a symbol flashes above a goon’s head, and (probably everybody’s favorite) an inverted takedown that has Batman hanging upside-down from a statue waiting for a goon to pass directly underneath so you can grab him with triangle and hang him from the statue. The true joy of these segments is that by utilizing batman’s moves and gadgets, you can complete them in pretty much anyway you want. Use batarangs to draw goons to certain areas, the explosive gel to set traps, or the batclaw to knock them out from long distance. This is also where the goon AI shines the most, as they’ll start off the segments confident that they will take out the bat…but then slowly become more and more terrified as they get picked off. The more terrified they become the more they jump at shadows and stop working together as a team. It cool to see them start shooting at boilers and such that make even the slightest sound. As the game progresses, the segments will throw more challenges at you, such as introducing goons that wear collars that make a sound when they are taken out that alert the other goons, or the Joker booby-trapping those gargoyle statues with bombs to keep you off of them and grounded to the floor. If the gadgets and combat didn’t make you feel like the bat, then these segments certainly will, as they are a whole lot of fun to complete.
However, AA isn’t perfect, and unfortunately the biggest flaw comes from the games boss battles against the chosen few of Batman’s rouges gallery. Besides the Joker, Harley Quinn, and a few powered-up henchmen, Batman will face tough opposition from Bane, Mr. Zsasz, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy. The thing is though, you only really get into a actual boss battle with two of the rouges, with the other battles consisting of fighting waves of goons while getting off hits on the super-villain with basic patter-memorization that just doesn’t seem as imaginative as the rest of the game. The final boss fight in particular is pretty underwhelming and disappointing considering the build-up to it. However, one villain that rises up from the rest is the Scarecrow, who uses his fear toxin in certain parts of the game to…know what, I won’t spoil these very awesome segments for you. I’ll just say that if you are a fan of the game Eternal Darkness or of the Metal Gear Solid series more surreal moments, then you’re in for a treat.
I AM THE NIGHT….
Running on the Unreal Engine 3 (who’s PS3 “problems” seem to be well behind it), Arkham Asylum looks absolutely gorgeous, with art direction that easily rivals the best out there. The facilities and buildings of Arkham Island are expertly designed, ranging from high tech areas to gothic structures. Character models (designed by Wildstorm Productions) are highly detailed and very good. I like how Batman becomes more and more beat-up as the game progresses and it shows on his suit and cape. Cut-scenes are pre-rendered using a slightly upgraded version of the in-game engine, and all are fantastic. Animations for combat and the like are above-average. Except for a few framerate stutters and off lip-syncing with some of the actual in-game cut-scenes, Arkham is one of the pretty games on the PS3 yet.
Voice acting is phenomenal, even more so with the inclusion of actors from the animated series, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. However, It’s Mark Hamill reprising his role as the Joker that steals the show. With a voice that will be forever attached to the Joker, Hamill delivers his lines perfectly in humorous and terrifying fashion, as it should be for the character (the iconic laugh helps, too). The games music is also very good, sounding like a combination of the music featured in the movies and in the animated series. Sound effects and such also get the job done in 5.1 surround. Nearly flawless (the sound dropped out for a split second a couple of times).
FINALLY, WE ARE BATMAN!
The games main quest is normal sized, taking about 8-10 hours to complete. However, early on in the game Batman’s in-cowl communicator gets hijacked by none other than Edward Nigma, AKA The Riddler. Always trying to best Batman in a game of wits, Riddler has hidden 240 challenges for the Dark Knight to complete all around the island that include finding hidden question mark trophies, destroying chattering Joker teeth, and solving area riddles that have you finding a certain item in the environment that seems unique or out of place and scanning it with Batman’s detective mode by holding down the L2 button. Solving all these riddles and collecting everything will add another 2-3 hours to your game time, although after you finish the game you can reload your last save and have free reign over the entire island, allowing you to solve and collect at your leisure. These collectables will gain you extra experience and unlock various extras like character model trophies you can view and an impressive list of character bios that include cool illustrations and biographies on almost any Batman villain and ally you can think of. The collectables will also unlock the game’s challenge rooms, which are accessible at the main menu. There are 16 of these in all, 8 for combat and 8 for invisible predator challenges. Performing well in these by getting high scores in combat or speeding through and performing certain tasks in the predator challenges will earn you medals towards certain trophies and possibly a place on each challenge’s online leaderboards. PS3 owners can even download free challenge maps that have you playing as the Joker himself, complete with his own set of combat and predator moves. Fun for a little drop-in action.
If you haven’t figured it out already, Batman: Arkham Asylum is easily the best Batman game of all time, quite possibly the best superhero game of all time, and one of the best games of the year, and it’s worth playing and replaying just for the experience. Some flaws keep it from utter perfection, but finally you can say that you have BECOME Batman! Go and seize the night!
+Entertaining and gripping Bat-story
+Tight and intuitive bat-controls
+Fun as hell Bat-combat!
+Imaginative Bat-predator segments
+Excellent Bat-graphics and Bat-art design
+Phenomenal Bat-Voice acting and sound
+Lots of Bat-unlockables and replay value!
-Boss fights are Bat-disappointing
-Some slight Bat-tech issues
-More Bat-villains would have been nice.
-The Bat-experience eventually ends
Score: 9 out of 10
Game Release: Batman: Arkham Asylum (US, 08/25/09)