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Impressions: Batman Arkham Asylum

Posted on August 31, 2009 at 1:19 PM


Having spent the entire weekend on the latest comic book videogame effort, I can describe it in one word: satisfied.


Wait, that would be unfair to you, the reader. "Satisfied" isn't an impression other than presenting my final feeling on the game. You still want to know the "why" to that, don't you? In that respect, I suppose you can consider this the first game review from me.


At its core, the entire world and mythos of Batman is perfect fodder for a videogame. Since the original NES Batman, the world of pixels and polygons have been pretty good to Batsy (Better than to the Bat than, say, Superman or Spiderman). After a solid 15 hours with Arkham Asylum, it's easily the best Batman title since that little NES installment, exceeding it to be honest, and, possibly, one of the best comic book-based videogames of all time, not that those are particulary great segment of gaming. It does this thanks to one major factor: authenticity.


For a fairly new developer with no track record or gage of quality, Rocksteady in this case, the bar is always low. Well, they not only raised the bar for themselves to lofty heights but to adventure/stealth/action/beat-em-up/comic book games in general. It really covers all those elements, proof again that videogames are increasingly become a convergence of genres, and hits the nail right on the head. Let's look at the story, written by Batman veteran Paul Dini, is a combination of the "Dark Knight" essence from Frank Miller (or Christopher Nolan) with the more comic-book elements found in the Animated Series, which Dini was the writer for and, I'm sure, had an influence on getting Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy and Arleen Sorken to reprise their classic roles as The Joker, Batman and Harley Quinn all of which do a top-notch job. It's standard fare in terms of plot with a lot of cameos, references and twists to keep things moving along through the halls of Arkham Asylum.


 


Those halls could have been just cold facades, but Arkham Asylum is shown to us as a character itself. It lives and breathes, it's detailed more than was needed, actually, and evolves over time as the landscape changes and the story progresses. From notes on a desk, to inmate cell writings, even Arkham Asylum letterhead scattered on a desk in a gothic room. Everything is designed beautifully and with a keen eye and extreme polish. The atmosphere is astounding as the gothic look of this massive Asylum and its various external buildings is given a haunting quality with the ambient sounds and the small brooding music cues that come when you're walking down a hall, or the orchestra that will play when you drop into a circle of enemies and dispatch them. It's gritty and real, like the character designs themselves (Batman showing some wear and tear as the game goes on).


With polish on the technical and artistry, and an engaging story, the developers could have stopped there and called it a day by just pumping in a standard beat-em-up. They took it one, if not three, steps further. The action elements are incredibly fun and absolutely brutal. It's a button-masher, but a fun button masher. However, it's not as straightforward as that. Rocksteady implemented diversity in how you can approach each situation. You can run in and beat everybody up, or stay stealthy and hidden. Each way has numerous paths you can take. Running in and fighting isn't always the answer, especially if an enemy has a gun or there's a lot of weapons. If one only has a gun, you can sneak up and take them out, then beat everyone, or knock them out with a batarang, or set a trap for all of them. For the stealth elements, there are plenty of vantage points in the ceilings, floor grates and ventilation shafts for you to maneuver through. How you do so is at your discretion.


Then you have the ways to take them out in a stealthy fashion. Hanging on a ledge and waiting for one look over the railing, sneaking up with a silent takedown, the floor grate attack and, of course, the inverted takedown you unlock through gaining experience.  You gain experience through unlocking secrets, finding hidden items or just pummeling foes. While not overly deep in how you use your garnered points, you get enough upgrades to your health and armor and gadgets, as well as fighting moves, to at least feel as though you're growing and learning. It's unfortunate more quality boss battles aren't found to take advantage of all the new things you gain and learn, but the fights that are there are pretty solid. There's also the investigation, such as tracking blood trails and fingerprints. It's not so much as solving a crime as it is following the glowing areas to your next encounter or cutscene. Fun, although underused, but it's at least a nice homage to the detective side of things that we love about Batman and reminds us he's an investagor at heart.




Those aren't the best assets you have in the game, the best would be the great "toys" that Batman plays around with and the way they are upgraded and improved. As you advance, you get new toys and abilities which allow you to explore even more or Arkham. As the entire setting of the asylum is at your disposal and you can go anywhere, it gives you incentive to do a lot of backtracking and exploration. Much of the story and world is found through audio tapes (not unlike Bioshock) where you listen to interviews with the more famous inmates, many of whom you meet along the way. Many have compared this to a Metroid game, and I would be inclined to agree as the traits are very similar, although Arkham Asylum doesn't give you as much of a purpose to explore more outside of finding secrets whereas Metroid had more to do with progressing the entire game itself.


The entire rogues gallery for Batman is represented in some form. Most are unseen, but you see traces of them. Even obscure ones like Calendar Man. The biggest are obviously the Joker and Harley, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc (who's sadly given such great buildup but a disappointing finale), Bane and the fantastic Scarecrow who, surprisingly, even steals the show from the Joker from time to time. The sequences involving the Scarecrow and his hallucinations are some of the best bits of videogaming you will ever experience. They're surreal, disturbing, amazingly directed and can really, really mess with you not only as Batman, but as a person who is just sitting and playing the game. The Genesis game, X-Men, comes to mind for me quickly where you're told to reset the system in the game. You had to literally hit reset on your Genesis console. Or the Metal Gear Solid series which plays with the player in a similar fashion. Scarecrow is a perfect fit and, if not for the Joker, he would have made a great villain for the entire game.


The other prominent villain, although you never see him, is the Riddler. He makes the game more than just going around and beating people. You have to use your head a bit on his riddles to unlock secrets, most are pretty easy to solve but some will really get you thinking (especially when lining up puzzles using the environment, this is a little hard to explain here, though). Most of them are tasks or searching for hidden Riddler trophies to unlock character trophies, profiles or game challenge modes as extras. The best ones, as I mentioned earlier, are the tape reels with psychiatric interviews and profiles or the frightening history you can discover with the asylum and Amadeus Arkham, its founder (I only found a handful of these when there's a few dozen to gain). The Riddler's side missions is what gives Arkham Asylum that sense of authenticity I described. There's so much detail, love and care and so many references to everything "Batman" that it seems almost endless. Hell, maybe it was, spending hours hunting I still only managed a 70% completion.


Yet, despite only getting a C-Average on finding and unlocking everything, Arkham Asylum really doesn't give you much of an incentive to replay it. It's a fun and well-polished game that has a lot to offer and exceeds itself on many occasions, but once you get enough experience by solving riddles and hunting down treasures, then fully upgrade, it's a clear path to the end. If you're a fan of Batman, you'll want to continue hunting and unlocking, the game balances itself incredibly well for the intense fan with the casual gamer market, but the repetition of the fighting (as fun as it is) and the end of all the detective work with the mystery solved and twists revealed, doesn't quite make you want to jump back into its depths.


Arkham Asylum is a highly recommended game from a rather fickle gamer. It's worthy of a great time for a weekend playthrough or rental. Unless you're a die-hard Batman fan, in which case I recommend you buy immediately because you'll be spending days trying to fully complete it and will enjoy it immensely. It's a fully satisfying experience from beginning to end, easy to get into and occasionally hard to master, but one of the best games in a while and from a fairly new developer, who could have taken the easy route here, that is going to get people to take notice and turn heads. It could have easily just been "another" game, but Arkham Asylum shows that if a little craftsmanship, love and care and just plain effort is put into something, you can make a little magic happen.


 

Signing Off,

-JC

 

 

 

 

 


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