Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009, PC)

By 47pik / May 07, 2010

I don't think anyone really expected this game to be that good. To say that Arkham Asylum is better than the average superhero game is an understatement. It is much, much better than even the above average superhero game. In fact, I'd be willing to go so far as to say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best superhero game ever made, and one of the finest titles that 2009 had to offer.
   Batman: Arkham Asylum finds Batman going through one hell of a night after the Joker takes over Arkham Asylum, freeing inmates, executing doctors, and cooking up a plan to attack Gotham City. Assisted by several allies, such as longtime villain Scarecrow and the freakishly devoted Harley Quinn, in addition to a small army of criminals busted out of jail, the Joker is quite the threat, playing puppet master somewhere on Arkham Island. While the story isn't anything particularly gripping, it's more than adequate, and the game is quite an enjoyable 8-12 hour romp. Even someone who knows almost nothing about the vast Batman canon can appreciate the game, though I suspect fans will enjoy it even more. It's a very accessible game for fans and non-fans alike, and the way that the developers at Rocksteady pulled this off is quite marvelous. By the end of the game, even though I knew very little about Batman going in, I felt quite connected to the characters due to the great writing and dialog. Character bios, along with patient interview tapes were also great, offering an often chilling look into who the antagonists are. All in all, the production values here were very high, the game looks great (environments are highly detailed and a joy to take in), it sounds great (there is some really great voice acting throughout), and it keeps you immersed all the way through.

   The game has an unusually high amount of variety packed into its story mode, something which is increasingly uncommon as of late in the industry. Unlike in most games, you won't be doing the same thing for hours on end here, rather the game consists of many different elements which you will see evolve over its course. Arkham Asylum is indeed quite a breath of fresh air. It combines elements of platforming, adventure, stealth, hand-to-hand combat, and Metroid-style exploration together to make something that plays like a mishmash of the best that gaming has to offer. You might think that a game that spreads itself out so much might be a jack of all trades, but master of none, yet Arkham Asylum nails all these elements very well, creating something truly wonderful. Special mention goes out to the combat and stealth portions, which truly make you feel like Batman.
   Arkham Asylum has a simple, yet extremely satisfying combat system, which, for all intents and purposes, mostly revolves around only two buttons. One is for an attack, and one is for a counter. There are no combos to memorize, but the animations produced have a very high amount of visual appeal and variety, meaning every fight looks different. What is most astounding to me is how easily the counter integrates into the fighting. If one of Joker's henchmen is about to attack you from behind while you beat on a different guy, merely tap your counter button, and you stop the attack without breaking your current combo. Supplementing the base of the system is the ability to dodge, stun enemies, execute special moves and use items like the Batarang mid-combo. It all integrates so well into one extremely smooth combat system that is a joy to watch, and to play. Reading about this freeflow system doesn't do it justice though, it needs to be seen, and to be experienced.
   The "Predator" stealth parts of the game are also superb. Often you will come across a room of armed thugs on patrol. Going to fight them hand-to-hand would be suicide since they have guns, and even Batman can't stand up to bullets. So you must take them out, one by one, from the shadows, using an assortment of tricks. There are so many different ways to approach any one situation, and the possibilities just expand as you gain more abilities and items. You could use explosives to collapse a wall on a foe, grab him from above, and hang him from the ceiling, crash through that glass ceiling and land on him from above, or a number of other things. There are so many possible ways to dispose of enemies you'll often be discovering a new way to take them down, a way you never thought of before.
   These two types of mechanics are also the subject of the Challenge Mode. Freeflow Challenges task you with defeating four waves of enemies, as you attempt to get the high score by getting large combos, and using as much variation as possible. Predator Challenges, meanwhile, task you with defeating all the armed guards while completing level-specific goals, such as "Use the Batclaw to pull an enemy off a ledge". There are 16 challenges in total: eight Freeflow Challenges and eight Predator Challenges. Half of the challenges are just "Extreme" versions of previous challenges, however, but to be fair an Extreme Freeflow Challenge has different (harder) waves of enemies, and an Extreme Predator Challenge has different (harder) goals. Some of these challenges truly are brutally difficult, and while I almost always felt that the Predator Challenges were fair, I find that Freeflow Challenges are much too difficult for their own good. It's very hard to attain a high score on even the easiest Freeflow Challenge, and especially in the Extreme versions, the enemy waves become downright unfair. Predator Challenges on the other hand are much more entertaining than they are in the story mode, because you're forced into doing all kinds of things that you may not have even thought of doing on your own, and are the highlight of Challenge Mode. If you want to compare your scores to the rest of the world, and see just how much you suck/own, Challenge Mode includes online leaderboards for every challenge.
   The story mode also has a significant amount of replay value. Apart from simply playing through again (which you may want to do, as it is highly replayable), you can also explore the asylum to find all the collectibles, solve all the riddles, and track down the Spirit of Arkham. These are the "Riddler Challenges", issued by the nefarious Riddler, who is testing Batman's detective skill. There are a lot of these challenges, and it will take you quite a while to complete them all. I suppose I could complain that the so-called riddles aren't actually riddles, more clues as to what you're supposed to look for, but it's a minor thing that really isn't that important. If you like collecting things, you're going to enjoy yourself. These goodies often are tied to unlocking things like character bios, interview tapes, and levels in Challenge Mode, so you aren't collecting aimlessly.
   Batman: Arkham Asylum blows expectations away. It's not just a great superhero game, it's a great game period. It packs a ton of service to Batman fans, while not alienating those who don't know Harley Quinn from Harvey Dent. The game has phenomenal presentation, immersing you in the titular setting of Arkham Asylum. The characters are voiced very well, the dialog (especially Joker's) is superb. But best of all are the mechanics which make the player feel like the Dark Knight himself, and contain a variety rarely seen in the artform. It's not often a game with such sensibilities comes around, and Batman: Arkham Asylum is a treat. Sure, it's got a few flaws; Freeflow Challenges are frustrating at times, the controls aren't quite as good as they should be, and Detective Mode is way too visually unappealing. But in the big picture, these are really minor complaints, and are very easy to look past; they won't hamper your enjoyment much. Batman: Arkham Asylum is a must-play title, and really proves that there is no reason a licensed superhero game has to suck.