Title: Batman Arkham Asylum
Batman is a franchise that lends itself beautifully for a videogame adaptation. And there have been many, but few were any good. The last really good Batman game probably was released for the NES. But Rocksteady has brought back the Dark Knight into the spotlight in a spectacular way.
The game takes place entirely on the island of Arkham with its asylum that seems to be filled with all the villains that Batman has ever caught. Its main attraction, the ever cheerful Joker, has been brought back for the umpteenth time by Batman. But even before he can be brought back to his cell the inmates are running the asylum. What follows is an over-the-shoulder brawler with platform and puzzle-elements thrown into an exiting and addictive mix.
The fighting looks extremely fluent. Attacks from the inmates are blocked in one smooth motion as Bats kicks and punches them down. The actual input is very straightforward as the left-mouse button is used for attacking, and the right-mouse button for blocking. But the trick is the correct timing and if timed properly this results in knuckle sandwich ballet. And although this combat isn’t deep it is challenging enough and demands quick decision making. Singling out the most lethal opponent first, or making sure you don’t stand in the middle of a group, makes sure that the battles can’t be fought on autopilot.
Stealth also plays a big part in taking out the baddies, especially when they have guns. In that case it makes more sense to remain in the shadows and pick them out one by one. And the game offers plenty of large halls filled with conveniently placed gargoyles for Batman to perch on like a predator waiting to swoop down on the preys underneath. And the responses of the bad guys as they realise that their number is dwindling is a lot of fun to see from up high.
From the high placed gargoyles to the shadowy corners, broken tiles and blue and green hues the asylum is an intensely gothic complex seemingly designed to drive the inmates even crazier. Courtesy of the Unreal engine the models are detailed and the textures are crisp, although the beautifully rendered characters suffer from the metal-waxed-with-butter-look that seems to be inherent to the engine. The astonishingly designed environments are filled with more than two hundred hidden collectables that, when found, reward the player with session-interviews, bios and even in-game models of the characters. And even though you will have to cross the same locations repeatedly this never becomes a chore, partly because you try to find a missing collectable, but also because throughout the game the asylum gets ‘decorated’ by the villains.
And the villains are numerous. Of course the Joker is the madman with the plan, but along the way the Bat has to battle with Harley Quinn, Bane, Scarecrow, Victor Zsasz, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy. Background knowledge of these characters is unnecessary as the game is pretty explanatory when it comes to defeating them. Besides more than half the time this boils down to fighting more goons. The bosses may not be the game’s most original part, but they are never too frustrating either and offer a good challenge.
The same level of detail that Rocksteady put in the gameplay shines through in the story as well. Every little bit just oozes quality. Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin reprise their roles as Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn from ‘Batman: the animated series’. And since the Joker can be heard throughout the game through the asylum’s intercom system this was as very wise choice. Although there is absolutely no character development in the Joker at all, Hamill plays him with such infectious joy that even dying in the game has its own reward.
The lack of character development is probably the only thing that holds the game back. And this is the dark side of using any superhero license. On the one hand you have this wonderful cast of characters, but all they do is pop up, do their thing, and get thrown in the cell again.
Batman himself is an amazing character, filled with gadgets and highly trained in martial arts. Unfortunately he’s also really dull. The Scarecrow segments of the game open up the psyche of the man in tights, but this doesn’t go further than reliving the death of his parents. And since that’s hardly news to anyone, apart from the most Batman deprived person in the western hemisphere, the impact is not that big. What that leaves us with is solidly voiced, but ultimately bland main character with wonderful toys.
But what matters most in the end is that Rocksteady nailed the Batman experience. It’s a high quality show crammed with literally hundreds of hidden collectables and an impressive amount of spoken dialogue backed up by a soundtrack that shifts from gloomy to epic whenever needed. The controls are tight, the gameplay is diverse and the story, although hardly groundbreaking, throws the player from one challenge into the next. It’s not just a great superhero game; it’s a great game period. This is one asylum that any player would be crazy to pass up.