It’s easy to forget that before the release of Rocksteady’s belter Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009, the Caped Crusader’s history in terms of Video Games was underwhelming to say the least. The movie tie-in for Batman Begins in 2005 had some interesting ideas, but was ultimately unremarkable. As someone who owned the game the less said about Batman: Dark Tomorrow the better. As we entered 2009, the best game starring everyone’s favourite mentally-unbalanced billionaire was arguably LEGO Batman – and while it may have had a DC skin, its formula was ultimately the same tried-and-tested mix as previous LEGO titles.
But then, Arkham Asylum happened. And as Mr Freeze would say, it was ‘pretty cool’.
By now, I imagine most people reading this are at least familiar with the Arkham games, and many will have played at least this entry themselves. The series certainly catapulted to popularity relatively quickly, with Arkham Asylum spawning a much-loved sequel, a somewhat controversial prequel (which incidentally is the next game in my backlog, and might be getting an article of its own in the coming weeks) and…well, and Arkham Knight. We all remember the Arkham Knight incident, but Asylum remains the first and arguably the best.
Yes, even better than City.
Much has been written in the past on exactly why the Arkham games are so good to play; the tight and responsive combat, the array of gadgets that take practice to use but can turn a mob of confident criminals into a single panicking bad guy crying like an anime fan on prom night, (admittedly, City did this better than Asylum, but that doesn’t mean the first game lacked) and – Dunkey fans brace yourselves – how it makes you truly ‘feel like Batman’. I won’t harp on that particular point, and there’s little else I can say about the mechanics of the title that hasn’t been repeated ad nauseum. But Arkham Asulym is also one of the relatively rare games for which the whole package adds to those mechanics rather than distract from them, and I think that is worth some discussion and summary.
For starters, let’s go back to that point I just said I wasn’t going to talk about – how the game puts the player smack-bang in the Batman universe. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of gameplay, though I should say that those who criticise the combat as ‘mash Y/Triangle to win’ are over-simplifying reality and missing the point that Batman SHOULD be smashing his way through packs of unarmed thugs. By ‘putting the player in the Batman universe’, I’m talking atmosphere and setting. And holy Christmas, does Arkham Asylum have those two qualities in spades.
The Asylum itself may be relatively linear, but here that works entirely in the game’s favour. Even in areas where there’s nothing obvious to see, the tight winding corridors of the medical wing, penitentiary, or particularly the mansion still ooze a bleak, near-Gothic charm. Batman is one of the rare comic book characters who can operate either at the campy or brooding ends of the spectrum without losing his credibility, (well, as much credibility as a man who dresses up like a bat and pops out the dark can have anyway) and Asylum opts for the latter while remembering to make things FUN.
The plot is brisk, but considering it takes place over a single night this is no bad thing and its packed with enough twists and turns to keep players engaged. It doesn’t get bogged down in its own perceived cleverness like other games can, and it strikes a rare, fine balance between a simple-but-engaging story and copious amounts of fan service. You don’t have to be a Batman fan going in to enjoy Asylum, (in fact, this game introduced me to much of the lore and characters, and the series overall is still my personal ‘canon’ of the Batman mythos) but going back after reading comics such as A Serious House on a Serious Earth – fascinating if hard-going reading – will have you appreciating just how much for Batman fans the folks at Rocksteady managed to cram in. The Riddler puzzles ensure that no matter where you go, there is something to see and some connection to the wider universe and history of the comics. The return of voice actors from the legendary animated series, Kevin Conroy as Bats and Mark Hamill as the Joker, was an inspired choice that certainly paid off. To reiterate, it’s a game made with clear love – but it never uses love to cover up for its mistakes and to try and distract the player. It has fan service by the bucket load, but it doesn’t rely on it. Asylum focuses on being a quality game first and foremost, and all its many inclusions for Batman fans only make it more-so.
Actually, let’s talk about those Riddler puzzles. Many action games have collectibles nowadays – and trust me when I say I’ve considered writing articles consisting of little more than screaming for 700 words at the Assassin’s Creed franchise for how much sheer stuff it expects me to collect for 100% – but rarely have they been integrated as well as they have in the Arkham series. Unlike those items in the aforementioned Creed games, the Riddler trophies and puzzles never intrude on the core gameplay; it’s entirely possible to finish the story without ever collecting one (bar maybe the first where the mission is introduced). You may not be able to 100% the game without them, and you may not have access to as many Challenge maps, but the entire story can be completed without paying the side-mission any mind. Ultimately, that’s what a side-mission should be; Arkham City’s extra content could sometimes feel somewhat disjointed and forced in, ultimately amounting to little more than traipsing round the map hoping to stumble across something to possess. Arkham Asylum has its share of tricky puzzles, but they never feel like they get in the way or slow down progress.
It’s not all perfect, and to prevent myself from sounding like a demented fanboy I’ll briefly discuss something I’m not so keen on – the bosses. With a rogue’s gallery as expansive and famous as Batman’s, you would expect some truly titanic boss fights – and while I won’t spoil all of who’s present, it’s safe to say that a good number of them are underwhelming. In this aspect at least City definitely has one over on Asylum, but the rest of the game makes up for it with its tight, refined nature and clever level design, the tight spaces giving far more room for mischief than the wide-open streets of Arkham City.
And of course, there’re the Scarecrow sections. Oh lord, the Scarecrow sections.
There’s more I could say, more reasons why I could go into detail about how Arkham Asylum is legitimately one of the finest games of the last ten years. It knows precisely what it’s trying to achieve, and it achieves it – it’s a perfectly focused, perfectly formed, love letter both to Batman and to good game design. It might not count as a ‘hidden’ gem, but it’s a gem all the same. If you’ve never played it before, then it gets a full recommendation. If you have, then consider giving it another look-in – with the upcoming Spiderman game for the PS4 that seems heavily based on the Arkham franchise, you might just find it quite the refresher.