Home > Comics, Games, Reviews > The Dark Knight Is Nuts

The Dark Knight Is Nuts

batman-arkham-asylum-boxartWelcome to Arkham Asylum: check your sanity at reception and settle down for the craziest outing Batman has had in a while.

Developed by the UK-based Rocksteady Games, Batman: Arkham Asylum is the first original game to star the Caped Crusader in over five years (we’re not counting Batman Begins becuase it was a movie tie-in, and fun as it was, Lego Batman slipped under many a gamer’s radar.) Although graphic novels and mini-series have carried the name of Arkham Asylum, the game has a fairly original story as written by Paul Dini, one of the head writers of the award winning Batman: The Animated Series from the 1990s, and taking its cue from the series, the game is surprisingly deep and mature, while also incredibly fun.

Arkham Asylum, the mad-house and prison  for many of Gotham’s worst criminals, is the setting of the game, an island separate from the city proper with several buildings, caves and the obligatory sewer system underneath. When Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon arrive at the asylum with the Joker in tow, they find that they’ve been played, with the Joker all along planning to be captured so he can arrange to take over the island. With Gordon kidnapped, Batman searches for a way to stop his enemy’s plan, but the Joker isn’t working alone, and is being helped by fellow inmates, with Bane, Killer Croc, Zsazs, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow and, of course, Harley Quinn to help him out.

batman-arkham-asylum-20080815104654684_640wThe game retains much of the feel of the animated series, and rather than providing all-out action, the game explores the psychology and motivations of its characters (but don’t worry, there’s still action.) With incredibly well-realised characters, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game for both hardcore Batman fans and newcomers to the franchise: even if you are not aware of some of the villains, Batman has access to their personality profiles, and might even come across interview tapes, dotted throughout the island’s sandbox, on which the villains discuss (or refuse to discuss) their madness with the asylum’s doctors. With such a focus on character, the voice acting is a huge part of building these characters, and Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn) return to the roles they first voiced in Batman: The Animated Series.

Delving into the psychology of its characters, the game proves somewhat darker than your standard Batman fare, and the Dark Knight himself is not immune to such psychological probings: sharing scenes and dialogue with both Joker and Scarecrow, players are left to draw their own conclusions as to Batman’s motivations, but the Joker is quick to point out that Batman is no less crazy than any of the inmates. But the game also aims to make players uncomfortable, and there are moments where you may even doubt your own sanity: admittedly, these are all when Batman falls under the effects of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, but there’s a palpable sense of fear within these scenes, and the suddenness with which they begin is somewhat unsettling.

batman-arkham-asylum-20081222092819074_640wBatman: Arkham Asylum plays like a Batman game should: the game is equal parts combat, gadget-use and tactical strategy; Batman is a surprisingly bulky character, giving him a sense of power and strength in combat situations, mostly using three buttons, an attack, counter and cape-stun. Batman can also toss out a batarang to help him out when fighting. More powerful moves (and achievement points) are unlocked by stringing attacks together, although when surrounded by ten goons, it’s an acquired still to counter all their attacks. Jumping is context sensitive, and rarely used, to the point that it shares the same button as used for running: for the most part, Batman uses his grapple hook to gain height, mostly jumping when in combat to avoid or dodge.

Batman also has access to a variety of gadgets, some that he upgrades himself as moving around Arkham and others that he picks up from a substitute Batcave on the island. Some of these are combat-related, like many different types of batarang and others have more environmental effects, and are specific to helping the caped crusader get around, like explosive gel (to blow up walls) and a nifty gadget that allows Batman to turn off sonic gates or power supplies around the island.

batman-arkham-asylum-20080815104639184_640wOther gadgets still aid in the tactical side of the gameplay, which proves to be the game’s most enjoyable aspect: with various henchmen running around the island, Batman has to get past them (or defeat them) to move onto the next area. It’s easy enough to do when these villains are unarmed, but more than one area is over-run with gun-toting criminals who will quickly gun Batman down if they see him. Moving overhead, through air ducts or sewers, Batman can take these criminals down, delivering a gliding kick, stringing them up from gargoyles or using his sonic batarang to single them out and take them down individually.

Batman also has access to a detective mode, which will help him to identify environmental aids or an X-Ray mode which identifies armed enemies and singles them out. This detective mode contributes to some of the puzzle-solving elements to the gameplay, with Batman following fingerprint or DNA trails to find guards or Gordon or through the optional extra puzzles with the Riddler leaving clues and trophies around that will unlock new costumes or challenges.

scarecrow-batman-arkham-asylum-game-character-artworkGraphically, the game looks stunning: Arkham Island is fully realised, even down to graffiti on cell walls, and the look of each character reflects their personality with Joker and Scarecrow being suitably terrifying while Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn fulfil their roles as twisted, sultry femmes fatales. If you really wanted, you can play through the game using only detective mode, looking at everything through an X-Ray and muted colours with no adverse effect on the visuals or the gameplay.

There’s little negative to be said about Batman: Arkham Asylum and what small nitpicking we can do is mostly rectified within the game. The game has an autosave function, and at no stage is there a point where you can save manually: for the most part, this works well, and if you die, it will reload from a fairly recent checkpoint…but that also means there’s only certain points where you can put the game down, so keeping an eye out for the save icon down the bottom left of the screen becomes a chore. This auto-saving also means that you can’t go back to revisit levels or areas that proved particularly enjoyable, although most of these can be unlocked in the game’s challenge mode anyway, and there are further downloadable challenges available, including levels where Joker is playable (exclusive to PS3.) All of the boss fights are challenging, but most are easy enough to defeat once you figure out exactly what to do, sometimes a bit too easy. Batman’s cape-stun move is necessary against some goons, but painfully underused at other points, and might have done better as a grab/throw button rather than the underused stun.

These faults do little to affect the overall game, however, which is instantly replayable and contains enough variety to ensure that the game remains interesting. Other sites might already be calling Batman: Arkham Asylum the game of the year, but we’ll reserve judgement until we’ve had a chance to play everything that will be coming up closer to Christmas. But other games will have to do an awful lot to even come close to the standards set by Batman: Arkham Asylum and it bodes well that maybe, just maybe, we can get some other equally good comic-based games before too long.

Zombie Rating: A+

Batman: Arkham Asylum is out now on XBox 360 and PlayStation3.

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