It’s surprising how sparse Batman’s videogame resume is, especially when you consider how perfect a fit he is for the medium. Visually iconic, dextrous in both martial arts and gymnastics, he’s a character begging for an interactive experience only a videogame can deliver.
But the superhero genre is a perennial pitfall for this industry. The best examples of the genre, Crackdown or Infamous, aren’t licensed properties, as developers seem to struggle shaping preconceived characters and universes into their own mold. Would Batman: Arkham Asylum suffer the same fate? Or could the Dark Knight transcend his genre, once again?
Welcome To Arkham
Batman: Arkham Asylum shares no resemblance to the Christopher Nolan films, despite The Dark Knight’s success presumably influencing the game’s inception. It plucks a page from the comic-books, instead, with Batman capturing the Joker and delivering him to Arkham Asylum, Gotham’s resident nuthouse.
But Bruce Wayne is apprehensive. The Joker surrendered too easily, and his enthusiasm is worrying. Batman’s suspicions are confirmed when the Joker stages a coup, escaping from his restraints and assuming control of Arkham. He releases the inmates and dares Batman to enter.
Considering Arkham’s resident population owe their stint behind bars to the Caped Crusader himself, suffice to say Batman’s job, of rescuing the innocent men and women trapped inside and quelling the Joker’s nefarious plans, isn’t going to be easy.
Being something of a rarity in the superhero pantheon of not actually being superhuman, Batman must rely on his brawn and intellect to survive. In order to do so, he has a suite of gadgets at his disposal, from grappling-hooks to bat-themed shurikens.
But perhaps the most valuable tool in his arsenal is Batman’s ‘Detective Mode’. When activated, Arkham is transformed, rendered in a spectrum similar to X-Ray. Batman can see through walls, spot items of interest and even study fingerprints, blood-trails and alcohol residue. Enemies are also reduced to complex skeletons, visible wherever they roam.
The ‘Detective Mode’ segments are a welcome relief from the adrenaline-soaked combat scenarios. Simple but effective, Batman must find a piece of evidence and then follow the trail to his quarry. It highlights developer Rocksteady’s knowledge of Batman as a character. He’s as much a keen criminologist as he is a vengeful vigilante.
Fists Of Fury
But Batman is a capable combatant, too. Brawling with Arkham’s inmates is generally the crux of the game. The ‘normal’ inmates range from burly thugs to slobbering lunatics, who often swarm Batman en masse. Thankfully, the combat-system is fluid and intuitive, with Batman sweeping through crowds, countering and delivering thunderous blows.
Batman is a comic-book character, and as such he has a roster of eccentric villains. The Joker is the prime antagonist, tweaking Arkham’s strings, but he is joined by the likes of Harley Quinn, Bane, Killer Croc and Scarecrow, among others.
Boss-fights have a particular old-school slant, forcing you to evaluate your enemies’ move-set and rhythm. Bane, for instance, either charges you or hurls chunks of masonry ripped from the wall. Harley Quinn isn’t even directly engaged, staging her encounter on electrified platforms and pitting Batman against waves of inmates.
The Scarecrow ‘scenarios’, for lack of a better title, are among the best segments of the game. Trapped in a hallucinogenic nightmare, Batman must avoid detection from a colossal Scarecrow, replete with syringe-fingers, and shine a spotlight on him. The design of the Scarecrow scenes is brilliant, with warped corridors, rain falling from ceilings and detached portions of Arkham hovering above swirling vortexes.
"Warning! Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Patients"
Arkham Asylum is the true character of this game; Batman merely plays a supporting role. Like Rapture in Bioshock, a sense of place, of history, saturates Arkham’s grimy interiors and sweeping outdoors. Papers flutter, steam hisses from piping on the walls, and the Joker’s presence is obvious, a twisted bread-crumb trail of grinning murals, booby-trapped gifts and dead bodies.
Unlike Nolan’s attempts to realistically portray Batman and Gotham itself, Arkham Asylum is true to its comic-book roots. The villains are eccentric, their plans farfetched, but the story, evolving from the initial premise of Batman reprehending the Joker to uncovering the secrets behind the Titan formula, is delivered with such polish and aplomb it’s difficult to dislike it.
The voice-cast do a sterling job. Mark Hamill is pitch-perfect as the cackling, quip-prone Joker. Kevin Conroy, reprising his role from the original Batman cartoon, has a more subtle role to play, but he delivers the Dark Knight’s stern reprimands and soliloquies with poise. The rest do an adequate job. Commissioner Gordon is suitably gruff, Bane and Killer Croc both guttural. Harley Quinn, however, is simply annoying.
The Best Superhero Game Yet?
It may be hyperbole to claim Batman: Arkham Asylum is such a thing, but one fact is certain; the game delivers. The Bioshock reference is apt again, as roaming through Arkham’s twisted maze of corridors and rooms, collecting recorded messages and taunted via radio, was reminiscent of Jack’s journey into Rapture.
I could nit-pick about the game’s sometimes clumsy controls, the often hazy objectives and monotonous boss-fights, but it would be harsh to do so. Loose threads in a world-class tapestry. Rocksteady, before now virtual unknowns, have created a game of such polish, with refined mechanics, rewarding progression and an engrossing universe. They’re destined to be remembered as the first developers to truly realise the Batman experience.