If only all licenses were treated with the same respect Rocksteady have given the Dark Knight. This isn’t a Batman game; it’s a game starring Batman. Arguing semantics perhaps but it’s a crucial differentiation, one that leaves Arkham Asylum not only the definitive videogame based on a comic book, but also one of the best games of the year. Free from the shackles of tight film tie-in deadlines and a limited budget Eidos have created a quiet masterpiece; a third person adventure/stealth/beat-em-up hybrid as competent as Gears of War or Assassin’s Creed then enhanced by the vast portfolio of characters and locations drawn from 70 years of Batman lore.
Forget Christopher Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight, Arkham Asylum is an altogether different beast. Though Bruce Wayne, his alter ego at least, is similar in approach: a no-nonsense iron-fisted caped crusader more at home lingering in the shadows than caught in the middle of a firefight. The rest of the almost limitless cast are of a purer nature, infused with dark wit, colourful demeanours, and an altogether lighter tone. This is Batman as it was originally intended, more or less anyway.
Huge as he so notoriously is, caught between The Joker’s henchmen Batman is slick, deft to an intimidating degree. Vaulting between goons, every punch is an iron hammer aimed at the temple. Visually exhilarating as well, it’s some of the best melee combat out there. Best experienced as the game frequently slows the pace to emphasise weight of impact; if this were a Tarantino flick there wouldn’t be a head left in plain sight. It’s perfect, the power, speed, and venom of one of fictions greatest [super]heroes transferred without fault.
In terms of control it’s impossibly simple (almost to detrimental effect). Carefully timed attacks with the X button and counters with Y leave you free to enjoy the beautiful carnage, though it balances precariously on the verge of playing itself at times. And while button bashing will generally leave you stumbling from an unsuspected attack, blurry vision included (Batman isn’t superhuman and Eidos know it), early battles are infrequently challenging.
However the Joker’s limitless army are quick to discover the weapons lockers and encounters with armed foes require a different tactic. Stealth gameplay places Batman in all more familiar territory. Perched with intent above a room of henchmen, quietly swooping down to pick one off and back to watch as the thinning number of enemies grow tenser, more nervous, firing at noise and generally making themselves an easier target. It’s thrill of the hunt through and through, and until you realise there’s very little threat it is indeed thrilling. An arsenal of gadgets and weapons make these encounters all the more interesting, variations on the Batarang and the Batclaw are two of the best.
Foregoing the slow pace of true stealth games like Splinter Cell leaves Arkham Asylum in the firing line for one significant problem. Whilst there’s never huge waiting periods between being caught out and escaping (most rooms have conveniently placed gargoyles to hide on top of), it only takes two or three swings between these for the henchmen to lose sight of you. It juxtaposes the immediate thrill of being outnumbered yet so obviously being the hunter, and promotes a slacker style of play, rather than a focused tactical Batman way of thinking.
The Detective Mode aims to alleviate that somewhat. Batman’s very own nightvision with added features, it allows you to view and assess each room before you enter into futile combat. It also highlights the position of all nearby enemies functioning through wall and floor, bringing attention as well to weakened walls and generally advantageous positions of the map. It possibly leaves everything too far the wrong side of easy, but you’re never forced to use it, and for those without a pedigree in Sam Fisher related expeditions, it acts as a comforting partner.
There’s precious little at fault, though Arkham Asylum stumbles all too familiarly around the boss battle. Artificial and repetitive they’re at ends with the otherwise free-flow nature of the game, forcing you to fight the way the game wants you to. The final battle is all too similar to Bioshock’s and in no way does justice to an otherwise magnificent game and equally memorable adversary. It joins a growing list of fantastic games marred with unimaginative, contrasting, lamentable finales.
Playing on the harder difficulty heralds some more faults. Omitting the telltale counter-indicator transforms the combat from timed and fluent battles into stop-start affairs as your only indication to counter is the movement of the enemies themselves. Realistic perhaps but hardly helpful in a fight with a dozen or so armed enemies where two or three whacks to the head spells death. Adding to that, the strange health system (which replenishes depending on how much XP you’ve earned in a single fight) means repeating the combat sections is routine.
An additional challenge mode, split evenly between combat and stealth levels, enhances an already remarkable offering. Combat challenges offer chance to hone your hand-to-hand combat skills in small arenas. There’s full leaderboard integration and medals awarded, which only serve to frustrate further the lengthy loading time between restarts and compulsory Joker introductory sequences. Together they only last between fifteen and twenty seconds, but when you’re trying to achieve perfection, and the slightest fault spells restart, a quicker revert system would promote repeating challenges for leaderboard positions more.
The stealth challenges, which the game calls Predator challenges, are more interesting; leaving you alone in a room full of armed foes, they require a hazy balance between eliminating them all in the quickest time possible whilst attempting three goals unique to each challenge. They’re all variations on incapacitations (take down three enemies with one wall explosion for example) but make the Predator challenges more remarkable than its combat-loving cousin.
With a cast full of favourites: Joker, Harley Quinn, and Scarecrow to name but a few, and penned by Paul Dini, Arkham Asylum is a gift to console owning Batman fans. There isn’t a single comic book that’s received the same level of love and admiration whilst it’s been adapted, not even Spiderman. But it’s a testimony to the strength of the game itself, even for those without an interest in Batman, that Arkham Asylum still comes highly recommended.