Batman: Arkham Asylum

(originally posted on Bitmob)

Eyes survey the scene from a hidden perch high above a corroded steel walkway below as muscled thugs, clown-painted faces hiding the murder within their eyes, patrol the room. One of them saunters onto the raised, metal deck, the covered handrails boxing him in on his left and his right. A quick mental calculation tightens sharpened nerves before booted feet kick off of the gargoyle high above.

Without a sound, heels crash into the prey, sending him down to the floor where gloved fists silence his cries. A snap, a twirl of line, and the Bat was gone a moment later, leaving his friends to fear the shadows.

Batman is no stranger to video vigilantism with a gaming history that stretches back to the PC days of the eighties and right on through most of the next several generations of console hardware thanks, in part, to his cinematic and animated revival. With superhero cred on the silver screen taking him out of the comic box and back into the public eye and the fact that the Christopher Nolan’s directed reboot has wisely avoided the camp riddled horror of The Film That Shall Not Be Named Starring Arnie, it was only a matter of time before a good Batman game would also endear him to more than just the die hards.

The Caped Crusader’s games haven’t always given him the success on consoles as what might be expected from a detective who, at the time, should have been able to merge the stealthy talents of Garret from Looking Glass’ Thief series and the moves of Ninja Gaiden’s NES incarnation of Ryu Hayabusa. Most of his titles involved plenty of action and platforming, but painfully little of the stealthy detective gadgetry to show off the Dark Knight’s brainpower. But the nice thing about Batman is that as a comic book legend, he’s got more than enough stories to tell which means that developers have as many tries to get it just right.

A thug in Arkham considers a library card...

A thug in Arkham considers a library card...

But before I get ahead of myself, the one thing that a Batman game needs is a good story, and Rocksteady has managed to weave together a tale drawing in many of Batman’s worst enemies for a night of partying. And it all starts with the Joker.

It’s night in Gotham and Batman has finally caught his nemesis, taking the Clown Prince of Crime to the city’s home for the criminally insane, Arkham Asylum. Of course, nothing goes to plan once they get there, especially when the Joker had wanted to break in anyway. After a short tour takes the Caped Crusader through several of his thugs, it becomes clear that the Joker has plans for the place and none of them involve a padded cell. Electroshock therapy, on the other hand, will be a group activity.

Writer Paul Dini, whose work is well known to fans of Batman: The Animated Series, has penned a dark story filled with an edgy grit cutting loose its characters to explore their insanity in ways that the animated series hadn’t. Corpses will fill the hallways or hang from trees, thugs gleefully talk about what they’ll do to people on the outside, but all of this also  reinforces the heroically stoic mantle that Batman bears within the game. Thick with Batman mystique and lore, the nice part about the story is that it also does a fantastic job introducing it to a player that may not have watched every episode of the animated series or have picked up a comic thanks to the polished characterizations that fill out the rogue’s gallery of scum around them.

Rocksteady’s decision to base the game out from Arkham Asylum has also allowed them to work in as many characters as possible, especially The Joker, to taunt the player with. The facility serves as both a museum to their madness as well as an elaborate playground that Batman must survive. Small mementos such as personalized graffiti scrawled inside a cell, a floor littered with Arkham letterhead, cluttered desks, and even The Joker’s taunting face on every video monitor form Arkham’s cracked and stained walls.

Animated Series fans will also get a kick out of hearing many of  their favorite voices reprise their roles in the game alongside a well rounded soundtrack. Kevin Conroy’s Batman is as heroic and as unyielding as ever while the Joker’s irrepressible insanity continues to act as a purple-striped foil thanks to Mark Hamill’s ability to steal the show in as much as Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger have stolen theirs on the big screen. Arleen Sorkin returns as revamped mental moll, Harley Quinn, and everyone else performs as flawlessly in delivering their parts making the game almost feel as if it should have had the sub-heading for the Animated Series worked in somewhere. It’s not so much based off of the films as it is in just being Batman.

The Joker is welcomed into his new home away from home.

The Joker is welcomed into his new home away from home.

But enough window dressing. So how does the game make you feel like Batman? In a word: easily.

Rocksteady Studios’ take comes off as a light treatment of Sam Fisher’s stealthy spy moves from Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell mashed together with a heavy helping of the frenetic action of a 2D, side scrolling beat ’em up evolved into 3D. Batman can hide atop gargoyles, sneak in behind thugs and silently take them out like a ninja, or wipe the floor with several of them at once while looking for DNA traces with his fancy new cowl.

The “Freeflow” system allows the player to work Batman in seamlessly tagging enemies with punches or kick combos without having to dial any of them up. Simply point in the left stick in the direction of an enemy and attack. While smashing the face of one foe, tipping the stick in another direction and hitting the attack button again will launch Batman at the next victim and so on in a dervish of destruction as long as you can keep up with his foes. At first, against two or three of these guys, it’s easy going. But before long, Batman will be facing ten or more at once. Having him tag each one in turn without even skipping a beat becomes a critical challenge in keeping them from sneaking in a sucker punch.

Even then, catching them in a counter is as simple as pushing a button if the timing is right, and it looks as natural as the fighting. If you had played through Assassin’s Creed and watched in awe how seamlessly protagonist, Altair, climbs, jumps, and rolls without so much as a transition, that’s pretty much how fluid Batman’s melee skills appear onscreen once you have a good combo going.

But enemies will also get smarter and figure that if they can’t beat Batman down, they’ll fill him with holes instead once they get their hands on shotguns and assault rifles. He’s not Superman, just a very smart and skilled individual shaped by his choice to dedicate himself to justice. And Batman doesn’t kill as part of his credo, so anyone hoping to turn this into Gears of War: Gotham Edition won’t find any joy here. But he can still mess with their heads.

Batman will almost always be outnumbered and outgunned but he’s never without alternatives. Gargoyle heads mounted near the ceiling and hanging off of tall columns and walls provide safe, discreet cover for him to zip up to and leap down from to catch enemies unaware while a bag of tricks allows him to get the drop on more stubborn foes. Even these high perches aren’t always safe and if enemies can track him, they’ll start shooting. Batman will need to do some fancy swinging to lose them up there, or find a nice spot to lure them over to and take them out one at a time while they search the room. Sneaking through air ducts and later, blowing through walls to get the drop of bad guys, are all part of being Gotham’s personal paladin.

But ass kicking his way to the Joker also provides experience points that can be used to buy upgrades allowing the player to further personalize their experience. Chaining together hits by not missing a beat during his beatdown of the inmates also translates over into combo bonuses that can add up along with critical hits and special abilities like throws or instant knockouts. Upgrades like improved armor, a new throw ability, and even tweaks to his tools such as allowing him to use three batarangs at once are only a few of the things that Batman can use.

"Nikes?!"

"Nikes?!"

Inevitably, Batman will also be facing some of Arkham’s worst in its own set of ‘boss battles’, not all of which require him to duke it out. The fear-mongering Scarecrow, in particular, isn’t a fighter, but he certainly knows how to screw with Batman’s sanity which brings its own set of unique challenges. One or two of the other confrontations are melee mashers, and there are patterns to figure out, but on the whole, they weren’t bad if not a tad routine.

As the World’s Greatest Detective, Batman also has a “Detective Mode” that switches his vision into a kind of scanning view of the world allowing him to detect fake walls, interactive items of interest, or occasionally follow a trail of clues such as alcohol hanging in the air. If you want to find foes using this, they’ll come across as animated X-Ray skeletons which is both bizarre and cool at the same time.

There are many hidden secrets in Arkham Asylum and even these take the form of a bonus storyline that plays out with the Riddler who mocks the Dark Knight by challenging him to find all of them. Several of these also take the role of riddles that will have many completionists searching high and low for their meaning which was just as fun. Not only do these reward you with extra experience, unlock additional bios and art on Batman’s foes, or give you insight into their twisted minds through recorded interviews, but as you find more of these, the Riddler’s growing unease at your success only makes it even more worthwhile than having to go after a hundred pigeons.

The relatively open-world nature of the game allows Batman to revisit previous locations in order to snag missing items that he might have not been able to get to until he finally discovers the right tool during the course of the story. Only particular events will occasionally block off areas and the sandbox can sometimes give way to the linear progression of story related events which some players may not appreciate as much, but the reasons for why are always clear and not simply because someone had decided to drop an invisible wall into place to prod the player forward.

The Joker has won every smiling contest that he's been in. Having someone else backstab his opponents has also helped.

The Joker has won every smiling contest that he's been in. Having someone else backstab his opponents has also helped.

Checkpoints keep track of your progress, although some of them aren’t as spaced as closely as you might think requiring a little repetition in certain areas. And there’s only one way to go with checkpoints: forward. If you’re hoping to save and reload an earlier point in the game to repeat a mission that you had particularly enjoyed, your only recourse is to replay from the start.

Batman’s latest outing can be as short or as long as you want to make it. Following only the story missions and heading off without taking the time to find any extras or explore may only take a particular player seven or eight hours to finish the game. However, snagging the extras and figuring out the Riddler’s challenges can easily add on a few more to that total. It ends as only a Batman game can…by providing enough of an incentive to expect a sequel. The only other downside at this point is that if you want to explore the adventure again with everything earned, you can’t.

Batman works alone so there is no multiplayer, but there are leaderboards for the Challenge maps that are unlocked during the course of the game. Challenge maps are one room areas based on those found in the campaign that either ask you to sneak in and take out everyone in the shortest amount of time possible, or mix it up with several waves of baddies. PS3 owners get the additional benefit of being able to download the Joker who, as of this writing, is still an exclusive to the platform, providing him as an alternative choice to play these maps through with his unique abilities.

Being a superhero isn’t easy, but finding the right game where being a superhero doesn’t feel like a chore is even harder. Fortunately, Rocksteady Studios’ appreciation for the material and the clearly passionate attention to detail have given comic fans and fellow would-be Caped Crusaders a chance to experience Gotham’s darkest cesspool from the safety of an armored cowl, all the more impressive considering that this is only the independent studio’s second title to date. Even if you’ve never heard of Bruce Wayne or Two Face but are hungry for an action packed adventure story, you need only commit yourself to Arkham Asylum.

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