Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afra…yadda yadda yadda. Yeah, I know, that quote is probably one of the most often repeated from the Batman film franchise & so overused it’s almost clichéd. It’s sad when notable moments in a franchise’s history are equal to or less than the forgettable ones. Especially when you’re looking at Batman, an iconic super hero franchise that’s 70 years old now & has a ton of rich story telling opportunities. We all know that the films have been hit & miss over the last 20 years along with almost all the games being just a plain miss (Dark Tomorrow being one of the worst & Lego Batman being one of the best). Even the comics have had its own ups & downs (and in some cases, waaaayyy down). In fact, the transition of a property from one medium to another has been spotty at best, with the good ones only showing up in recent years. Typically, these transitions ended up being just another quick cash-in on a popular name brand with no regard to quality. So when The Dark Knight released in theaters last summer, it was a bit curious not to see it get a video game companion piece. Basically all Warner Bros said was that a game was not in development. A month after the theatrical release of The Dark Knight we found out why: Eidos was making Batman: Arkham Asylum. This was a game that would not be constrained to a specific storyline. It would run on Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 & would utilize all 70 years of the Bat-history. While concern & trepidation would appear in the minds of fans everywhere, it turned out to be the best decision that Warner Bros could have made…
The influences are everywhere here. From the comic books to the very successful Batman: The Animated Series, it truly does draw from all parts of Bat-lore (even though the Animated Series ties are very strong, from the writers to the character voices). The story starts off pretty typical for Batman. He’s captured the Joker once again & we pick up just as he is driving through the streets of Gotham to drop him off at Arkham Asylum (which is the facility that all the extremely dangerous criminally insane baddies from the Batman universe are sent to). Just as Joker is turned over to the guards, he breaks free (with a little help from his main squeeze) & flees deeper into Arkham. From there the chase is on as Batman follows his nemesis in an attempt to figure out what he is up to & how to stop him. Along the way, the Caped Crusader will meet up with many of his foes including Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, & Poison Ivy leading up to a faceoff with the Clown Prince himself. I really over simplified it, but I don’t want to spoil too much. Trust me, the story is much more fleshed out than the cliff notes I just gave you.
Right from the start, the high production values are plainly obvious. It feels like a film that David Nolen himself would have been proud of (Nolen is the guy who made the most successful Batman film of all time). The credits roll as Batman drives the Joker to Arkham & walks him not only through the front gate, but all the way to the patient transfer ward. You see, Batman knows something is up. The Joker pretty much turned himself in with little opposition, which is very…un-Joker-like. As the final credit treks across the screen, the Joker breaks free, taunting Batman as he makes his break, freeing a few small time hoods in the process to slow Batman down.
After you’re done gaping at how gorgeous this game is (which I’ll touch on in a few), you are thrown right into combat. This ends up being the first indicator of the quality of this title. Eidos’ “Free Form Combat” system is just plain wonderful. With a simple button press, Batman flies into his opponents with ease, punching & kicking them into unconsciousness (remember, Batman doesn’t kill). The feeling is glorious as you turn your Dark Knight into this graceful fighting machine, taking down multiple enemies from all sides. To add depth to it, there is a counter system along with a flip maneuver that will place you on the other side of your foes. As Batman is surrounded by baddies, it would seem pretty ignorant to assume that only one of them will attack him at a time. If another goon takes attemts to take a swing, just hit the counter button to flow right into another move which will stop him dead in his tracks. Don’t hit it in time & he will pop the Bat a good one. As your moves flow & you successfully counter, you’ll string everything together into combos. The higher the hit combo, the more exp you earn & a couple of other attacks open up, allowing you to gain even better scores with more variety.
Did I say experience? Yep, Batman gains experience. At the beginning, you get to play with what amounts to ‘Batman-lite’. He’s no slouch, but he will need other gear & abilities if he plans to combat whatever Joker has up his colorful sleeves. As you gain experience, you’ll unlock special moves, better armor (which is more bars on your health meter) & gadget upgrades. Experience is gained from fighting Joker’s goons & from finding various hidden objects placed around the island by a remotely located Riddler (my favorite Bat-villian). These items range from a standard question mark to investigating the environments to finding medical journal tapes of the different villains in the game (cataloging their sessions with the doctors at Arkham). To help you find the items you need to investigate, Mr. Nigma will give you riddles which will point you in the right direction. Some are pretty easy, especially if you’re familiar with your Bat-history. But others may tax your detective skills a bit. For some extra help, there is a map in each area that will give you the general location of each item there is to find (fortunately, this isn’t accessible until you are half way through the game).
Once the player is finished with the main storyline, there are 16 challenge maps to work through, each with 3 medals to be earned. These are divided up into Combat & Predator maps (8 of each). Combat maps are exactly how they sound, with Batman fighting 4 rounds of enemies. Medals are score-based & can only be achieved by combo strings. The Predator maps are a bit different, providing Batman with various challenges in order to get the medals. For example, on one of them, he must take 3 enemies down with Explosive Gel using 3 different walls, at the same time. If you master them all, there’s a leader board for each map so you can work on besting the time & score of your buddies or the world.
Really, there is just so much here that I could gush about, that I’m having a hard time structuring this review. Visually, the game is stunning. Fans & non-fans alike will appreciate the almost archaic Victorian style of Arkham’s architecture & all its detailed glory. Each villain is rendered so well that you’ll wish you could pause the game just to gawk at them (which you can, but as an unlockable extra). As the story progresses through the night (all this takes place in one night), you’ll notice small details like cuts & scrapes on Batman & his costume. In fact, if you watch closely, you’ll see he’s clean shaven at the beginning of the game & has a stubbly 5-oclock shadow by then end of the final showdown. The music felt no different than watching a film, matching & enhancing the emotional draw of the story & the environment. The voice acting was fantastic for the most part. Mark Hamill’s Joker is second only to Heath Ledger’s in my opinion & is a much better performance over his Luke Skywalker, the role he is best known for. My only complaint as far as the voice acting is concerned is the non-villain performances in the journal entries. I didn’t like Harleen Quinzel (Harley Quinn before she became a villain) at all. Some of the other doctors didn’t sound right to me either. But in the end, those were just minor complaints compared to the overall product. The story was very well written with plenty of action, drama & emotion that closely rivals some of the best storylines in the comics.
There’s a ton of history & trivia for the fans including references to many other villains in the Batman universe that don’t make an appearance in the game. You’ll find character bios from the lesser known villains like Humpty Dumpty, Killer Moth, & Black Mask to the more popular ones like Hush, Ra’s Al Ghul, Mr. Freeze & Penguin (the non-Danny Devito version). Two-Face makes a cameo in name only & perceptive detectives will notice Clayface is still incarcerated there in Arkham (apparently he is one bad guy that isn’t worth enough to break out). The journal tapes you find throughout the Asylum not only provide the back story on how the villains got to where they are now, but also show a bit of just how uniquely insane each one is. There is a huge difference between the calm, clinical demeanor of Scarecrow vs the random insanity of the Joker vs the bestial, primal attitude of Killer Croc. You’ll learn how these villains escaped & how Joker devised his plan along with how the employees of Arkham view these patients. Some honestly think they can be cured.
Batman’s gadgets include the Bat-Claw, Bat-Grapple, Explosive Gel, & of course the ever-famous Batarang (even though he only starts with the Batarang; the rest are unlocked at the story progresses). All his gadgets can be upgraded with new abilities which will allow players to access certain areas they couldn’t do previously. You’ll use the gadgets to get around more often than not, but in those instances where you have to just do some old fashioned platforming (like jumping or running), it’s a single do-it-all button just like combat. That one button sprints, jumps, climbs, etc… Just hold it down & Batman will do the rest. It worked really well for the most part, even though there were times that I felt it was a bit imprecise.
One thing that is lacking is multiplayer. With that said, Arkham Asylum is similar to Bioshock in as it doesn’t really need it. I guess they could have implemented something, maybe staging it during the breakouts prior to the main story line, but I can’t help but think that the quality everywhere else would have suffered from it. This is one of those few games where the single player campaign stands on its own so well that multiplayer would be an unwelcome, unnecessary addition.
Batman: Arkham Asylum has evolved the super-hero genre. The bar has been raised. This is a game that future titles will be compared to. The visuals & sound are both top notch. The gameplay is intuitive & natural yet has enough depth to make it challenging for all skill levels. The characters are interesting & fleshed out. The storyline felt like it was taken straight out of the comic book. I only had a couple of extremely minor complaints (occasional imprecise jumping & a few instances of bad voice acting) that were immediately overshadowed when the game was looked at as a whole. It’s not only the best Batman game ever, but probably the best super-hero/comic book-based game ever made. I can comfortably say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is without a doubt one of the best games I have played this year & should easily be a 2009 Game of the Year contender. This is a must-play title that every gamer should have.