There seems to be an underlying problem with the majority of comic book-based video games: they don’t appear to receive the love, care and respect that they deserve. While there are some quality titles, such as Spider-Man 2 and The Punisher, they’re inevitably followed up by dross like Catwoman and (Oh, Christ) the abominable Superman 64. As a result, there was some consternation when Batman: Arkham Asylum was announced. It had a lot to live up to: it would need to please both fans and newcomers alike, make up for all the dire Batman efforts previously unleashed upon the public conscience and single-handedly raise the bar for all comic-book videogames to come. Developers Rocksteady relished the challenge and succeeded spectacularly, creating the finest comic book title to date.
It’s been a long night for Batman and, having captured The Joker, things looks set to end as he escorts the clown to Arkham Asylum, Gotham City’s local loony bin, after his night spent terrorising the mayor of the crime-ridden city. Once they’re inside, however, The Joker initiates an island-wide lockdown while simultaneously freeing the inmates in an attempt to dispatch The Bat once and for all, setting in motion the events of the game.
There’s one thing that’s immediately evident during the opening cinematic. This isn’t the usual comic game based off a film based off a comic: this is a comic book game based on the comics. The developers weren’t limited to the contents of a movie, being free to play with all the characters and backstory that had been established over the comics’ 70 year history. As a result, there are hints and references to the comics peppered throughout the game, from the opening cutscene to the horrifying finale. This richness and eye for detail ensures that your interest is grabbed and held for the duration of the game.
Arkham Asylum is a masterclass in games design. Every aspect of the title, from the gameplay mechanics down to the smallest detail, has obviously had time spent pondering over them to try and make them the most interesting they can be. The combat mechanic, arguably the crux of the title, is the optimum balance of skill and ease. Using only the most spartan of button combinations, it’s simple to take out a bunch of bad guys, but difficult to do it stylishly and effectively. Time your button presses correctly and you’ll be kicking ass with a combination of martial arts kicks, punches and precisely thrown Batarangs. The fact that each final takedown is emphasised by a slow-motion zoom only serves to make every brawl a whole heap of fun.
The greatest weapon in Batman’s arsenal is his fear tactics: make it into a room with gargoyles and you can zipline between them, picking off goons one by one via a variety of stealthy maneuvers. Dropping down behind enemies and silently taking them out and delivering flying kicks from the rafters are both viable (and satisfying) methods, but the coolest has to be the inverted takedown: hanging upside down from the rafters, Batman swoops down and grabs an enemy before hanging him feet first from the dark recesses of the roof. Naturally, his pals will come to investigate, and one well-thrown Batarang will result in a game of upside-down human bowling. Your other gadgets can also come in handy here: rigging sections of the floor with explosive gel can result in volatile crowd dispersal, while the Batclaw allows you to pull weak walls down onto enemies’ heads. It’s fun seeing enemies start to panic as you pick off their friends one by one. The thought-provoking nature of these sections and sheer variety of takedown methods, along with your ability to use your zipline to traverse to virtually any ledge quickly and quietly, succeeds brilliantly where other efforts have failed; it makes you feellike the hero.
It’s not just generic mooks you cross swords with either. Where would The Dark Knight be without his rogues gallery? This being an insane asylum, and with the majority (if not all) of Bats’ foes having some sort of mental disorder or other, you’ll come across a lot of villains from the comics over the course of the story. While The Joker naturally steals the show (and so he should: Mark Hamill imbues the role with the perfect mix of crazy and creepy, giving Heath Ledger’s celluloid counterpart a run for his money as best actor for the part), you’ll come across villains both popular and obscure, including Harley Quinn (in new hyper-hot mode), the frightful Killer Croc, the back-breaking Bane and, in more than one unnerving encounter, the Scarecrow.
While each character plays their part in the story, it’s the Scarecrow’s sections that are by far the most compelling. With a new needle-fingered image, gasmask-concealed visage and potent fear gas, Dr. Jonathan Crane is more frightening that ever, particularly showcased in the game over screens that follow if you fall victim to his toxins. Serving up more than one unexpected trip into Bruce Wayne’s nightmares, alongside one moment of genuine panic in the greatest mindfuck in gaming history (you’ll know it when you come to it), the Scarecrow portions are among some of the best of the title.
The Riddler, even though he’s only heard and never seen, is also a foe you’ll have to conquer, although this time you’ll need to use your intellect. Having hidden numerous challenges around the island for the caped crusader to overcome, it’s your job to find hidden Riddler Trophies, collect audio interview recordings of certain inmates of the asylum and solve cryptic riddles set by Mr. E. Nygma himself. While the tapes are interesting to collect, each detailing an innocent psychiatric reviews’s descent into horror, it’s the riddles that are the most rewarding to solve. Putting your detective skills to use, it’s up to you to find an item in the levels that correspond to a certain friend or foe from Batman’s past. Finding these clues unlocks a specific character profile, a subtle and fitting nod to the rich history of the series. Also worth discovering are the Spirit of Arkham artefacts, documenting the mental decline of the asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham. It’s extremely satisfying solving each of The Riddler’s puzzles and you’ll finding yourself wanting to collect every last one, even if it is just to make him shut his condescending mouth and chuckle as his inferiority complex kicks in.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a thrill ride from start to finish. The combination of an excellent combat mechanic, tactical stealth and cryptic detection results in the most satisfying, exciting and faithful comic book game available. The skillful integration of aesthetics from both the comics and the films, alongside the multitude of reference to the source materials and the retention of voice actors from the animated series, make it playful yet dark in atmosphere, appealing to all generations of Batman fans. It’s not perfect (the same boss battle rolls itself out numerous times, it’s occasionally easy to get stuck and there are some fiddly platforming bits) but these are well compensated for by several nice touches (such as Bats becoming visually more and more battered and exhausted as the story progresses) and the numerous crowning moments of pure brilliance found throughout the story (the ending is guaranteed to make you smile at just how brilliant it is). The Riddler’s brain-teasers and challenge rooms only serve to add to the already lengthy playtime of the title. Arkham Asylum shows other comic book games how it’s done, making itself essential in the process. Once again, The Dark Knight reigns triumphant.