Two years ago, if you had told me that there was a Batman game being made, and it was a possible candidate for Game Of The Year, I would have told you to quit lying to me. A good Batman game? The very idea was preposterous: even the best of the Batman games developed by that point had been mediocre. Two years later, and here I am to gush about how awesome a Batman game is. Who'da thunk it, eh?
But yeah, I just finished Arkham Asylum after a tight 18 hours of gameplay: so let's get this review started with a BANG!
BANG! ...Ok, I won't try to be funny anymore.
Arkham Asylum's storyline starts out with Batman carting off Joker to the infamous madhouse. When you arrive though, you find that you've walked into a trap: Joker has had a small army of thugs under his control transferred there from another prison, and his partner in crime Harley Quinn has taken control of the security systems. Joker's army promptly takes over the asylum, and the Clown Prince of Crime goes and frees several of Batman's worst nemeses to boot. You're left to try and take the asylum back, with a utility belt full of tools and Batman's infamous ninja-like martial arts skills. The plot of the game is well-done, with quite a few twists and turns that manage to keep the narrative flowing at a good pace. The over-arching storyline has Batman rescuing hostages, beating down thugs, and capturing supervillains all the time: but thanks to the well-thought out level design, this three-part system never gets old.
Rocksteady went to town when designing Arkham Asylum, and it shows in spades. The infamous isle's unique character has been lovingly rendered in both design and atmosphere. Arkham has always been looked at by the comic books as being a horrific, traumatizing place: and the developer's rendition enforces that viewpoint in spades. Everything about Arkham gives you the feeling of being in a decrepit, aging facility for madmen: most of the buildings are old as dirt and reek of a horrible past... though there are a few newer-looking sections that enforce a very dark, Nazi-prison-camp-like motif. This is, from minute one, NOT a place that anyone sane would want to be, and as the game progresses you start to wonder about whether Arkham is really there to help rehabilitate the prisoners, or just torture them.
Why, hello there! Are you lost?
The level design is one of the best I've seen in a long time. At first, many areas of the isle are inaccessible to you: but as Batman collects various gadgets he can make his way into new areas by blowing up walls, getting to high-up ventilation shafts, and crossing enormous gaps (think Metroid, but Batman style.) There's all sorts of hidden nooks and crannies built into the island's facilities to explore, and doing so is encouraged thanks to the hidden trophies, psyche evaluation tapes, and other goodies scattered about by the Riddler as the most entertaining side-quest ever. There's not only collectibles to grab though: the mad genius has quite a few puzzles in store for you, which you must solve by taking a picture of an object that answers his riddle.
However, the design of the levels doesn't just shine when it comes to exploration: it's good for the combat elements as well. In the stealth sections, the level design and the paths/behaviors the enemy AI will take force you to get creative and use everything around you to take down the goons: particularly when the enemies have guns. These segments play like what I thought a Splinter Cell game would be like gameplay-wise: it's very open and non-linear, and you can use whatever method suits you to take on the thugs, whether it be setting explosive traps or swooping down from the ceiling to deliver a boot to the face.
There are situations where you're forced into open conflict, but these are just as fun as the stealth segments thanks to a simple, yet deep, control system. Batman's main attacks are all done by hitting the X button (he attacks in the direction you move the left stick), while Y is for counters, and B is a stun attack that temporarily confuses enemies (but does no damage.) It sounds simple, and rather boring to boot, but thanks to magnificent animations and the superb AI, it never gets old. While you do hit X a lot, you never feel that you're doing something repetitive, because as you switch between attacking Joker's thugs Batman will mix between punches, kicks, elbows, and all sorts of martial arts maneuvers. There are also special thugs with weapons that you MUST use certain moves on, and combo bonuses for using lots of different attacks, so you can't just use one strategy the whole game if you want to do well.
Great. Now after watching that, I want to play again.
That's not to say that Arkham Asylum does not have flaws though: there are some, and thanks to the overall awesomeness that the rest of the game exudes, they're all the more noticeable.
The boss fights in Arkham Asylum aren't handled very well, when they're handled at all. You never get the feeling that you're actually taking on most of the supervillains you meet: rather, you are fighting the environment around you or the villain's underlings. For instance, the game has a long segment leading up to a fight with Harley Quinn, but when you reach it you're only allowed to fight waves of the same old baddies: the actual capture is done via cutscene. The same goes for almost all of the game's villainous cast: you're never in direct conflict with them, or when you are, it feels half-baked. It's still fun most of the time, but it's definitely not as cool as it would have been to take these villains on in head to head combat.
There's also issues with times when you're talking to other characters in the game. When you ask guards about things, there's three problems: the character models are so inexpressive that they break the immersion, the minor characters have voice actors that can't portray emotions correctly, and Batman seems to not really give a shit about them in the first place. When he talks to Oracle, Gordon, or the villains, Batman's voice actor does a fine job: but give him a hostage and he sounds like he's phoning in his performance. Here's an example of how dialogue with the minor characters sounds:
Terrified(? Maybe giddy) Hostage: Oh, thank god you're here! Those guys were gonna kill me!
Batman: Where did Harley Quinn go?
Hostage: Er, I dunno... but there's some other hostages that you have to rescue, man!
Batman: I'll get right on that. But first: to the Bat-Cave for coffee, doughnuts, and a few Vicodin.
However, all of these things are mostly insignificant gripes in the end. The overall atmosphere, the level design, the combat, the excellent voice castings: all of these things group together to overwhelm the few complaints that I have about the game. This is a true blue work of art that anyone, even people who only like Batman a little, can enjoy. I purchased it off of Steam for $50, and I regret not a penny of it. Now that a good Batman game is out though, I have only one hope: that someone rescues his friend/rival in hero-dom, Superman, from his gaming grave. If Bats can make it as a game character, Supes can't be far behind, right?