The following is a playthrough and review of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Originally released for the PlayStation 3, XBOX 360, and PC in Summer 2009, the game was developed by then unknown British studio Rocksteady as an adaptation of the popular superhero. Initially not thought to be anything more than another quick cash grab videogame tie-in, the game actually had quite a lot of people already experienced in the Batman universe working on it. It was written by Paul Dini, who had previously worked on the popular Animated series from the 90s, often considered one of the best incarnations of the character. It also provided voice actors from that series, getting Kevin Conroy to play the Dark Knight, and Mark Hamill to play his arch-nemesis the Joker. The game also shared quite a few other similarities with that TV series, as I will go into detail on through this playthrough.
The game soon managed to pick up anticipation when the trailers for it were released, confirming to fans that it was going to stay faithful to the dark source material, and offered an intriguing premise about Batman trying to reclaim Arkham Asylum, where a good number of his enemies would be held for him to fight. And indeed, when it was finally released, the game was considered an immense success, managing to obtain many Game of the Year titles which was something previously unheard of for a superhero tie-in. This genre was previously considered to be nothing more than shelf filler. Quickly made products which existed primarily for game developers to make money off of a popular character, just like the majority of film tie-ins.
I myself remember having quite a few superhero games when I was, some of them still hold up fairly well such as X-Men Legends and Spiderman 2, but for the most part that would be an accurate estimation. Since I don’t really play fighting games, I can’t really judge that area where superheroes have been doing well apparently for a few years according to fans of those games, but right now it does seem that the success of the game, and it’s sequels, has inspired a new wave of Superhero games designed to step up their game. Most recently, Square Enix announced that it was planning to release multiple games about The Avengers, this coming after an unmade tie-in to the film a few years ago, which looks set to follow a deeper action-adventure oriented route. And a new version of Spiderman made by Insomniac was revealed at E3 last summer, showing that the future does seem bright for this genre.
This was largely what inspired me to replay this game, to take a deeper look into it than most of the simple reviews I’ve seen by recounting it step by step and analysing the specific aspects of it which helped this particular title to really “tick”. A such, be warned now that this series will contain full story spoilers for the game. And incidentally, I played the series on PC, which ended up being a major drawback in some places when I played the series, but that’s a whole other conversation.
The game begins with an appropriately atmospheric shot of the Gotham City skyline, with the familiar bat signal in the sky. This is followed by a lowering shot of the gothic architecture of the city streets, displaying the organic textures of the graphics which although not quite up to date with modern technology, are still impressive to look at. The overall atmosphere of the scene is reminiscent of BioShock, a factor which immediately sets the game apart from other Superhero titles which normally have a bland atmosphere in order to place more attention onto the action. We then see the Batmobile rushing past, carrying Batman as the driver, and the Joker in handcuffs at his side, as they ride off towards Arkham Asylum. The game doesn’t really need to inform us who the characters are through exposition because they’re so popular that even people who have never read a comic book before will know who they are and their roles in relation to each other simply through looking at them, thus saving us from needless exposition.
The fact that Batman has apparently already defeated the Joker at the start of the game naturally means that something is wrong. So we begin the game with a long and quiet sequence where we control Batman escorting the Joker to his prison cell. This is a very informative sequence, allowing the player to soak in the atmosphere of the game while walking through the Intensive Treatment facility, allowing us to see the environment we will travel through later in the game and listening to the humorous musings of the Joker, who is clearly planning something, occasionally basically spelling it out to Batman right in front of him in a way which really should have made him stop them there and then.
We hear the guards make casual remarks about the situation, informing the player of what has happened just before the events of the game about the specific mission in which the Joker was captured. The design of the Facility itself is realistically dirty and mechanical, displaying the gritty take on the mythos that this game has taken with swearing characters and an unnerving atmosphere punctuated by a repeating quiet alarm signal which we hear multiple times throughout the game. We get introduced only to the zoom in feature during this section, which allows Batman to focus in on smaller details which may be obscured by regular vision. And we get to see Killer Croc being moved, which is there to build up to his appearance later on in the game.
When I first played the game on PC, it had a terribly lagging movement which caused it to run slowly, but now it seems to have been pleasantly upgraded, as the movement is a lot smoother. One last thing I’ll mention is the character design of Batman, who has a suit somewhat similar to that of the Animated Series, only with a more realistic look to it, with minute details animated in such as nails to keep his armour in place, and the woven texture of the fabric still showing it’s strength. This is possibly my favourite iteration of the batsuit due to it’s realistic design while still remaining organic enough for my liking.
After this introduction sequence is done, Joker (oh my god I’m so shocked, seriously no one could have possibly seen this coming) manages to break free, and has evidently been orchestrating this so that his goons, who have been moved there after a fire at Blackgate, can break free at the same time to fight Batman for him. It is here that we are introduced to one of the most acclaimed aspects of Arkham Asylum, the combat. This is built on a very simple button pressing technique which involves the player punching and kicking their opponents, who are automatically locked onto once we are close enough to them, allowing for a limitation to out ability to beat them, for which we are rewarded with a combo points system, serving as a motivation to not make any mistakes during the combat. We also have a dodge system for when assailants try to attack us during the combat, which is useful considering that multiple times throughout the game we will end up facing multiple enemies at once. The developers put a lot of effort into the combat system, and it paid off considerably well. The final cherry on top being that the camera shifts to put Batman into the centre of the screen, allowing the player to take in the visual wonder of the action.
After this quick tutorial of the action, Joker invites Batman to follow him through the corridors, in what is clearly a trap to begin our exploration of the facility. Already the corridors are littered with dead guards, and inmates for us to fight to gotten out. Additionally, the Joker seems to have left some moving clockwork teeth on the floor, but are simply there for us to destroy with our batarangs as one of the many Riddler challenges, more on that later. The living guards we are able to communicate with, sometimes it’s part of the objective, other times it’s just a feature. The facial animations in the dialogue sequences leave more to be desired, as it is clear that some of the graphical fidelity was cut from these sequences to go into other areas of the game, as the faces of the characters often look emotionless, and unless it’s a named character Batman is talking to, most of them look distractingly similar to each other. For support we also have the voice of Oracle aka Barbara Gordon to help provide information to Batman throughout the game.
A sequence in which Batman has to rescue a guard taken hostage by Victor Zsasz is used to introduce the player to Predator mode, a form of stealth gameplay wherein Batman grapples onto Gargoyles in the room in order to hide from enemies, and is provided a multitude of what to do in order to defeat them. For this first part we are expected to perform a glide attack on Zsasz, wherein we automatically glide down to a targeted enemy and knock him down, not quite out though as we then have to quickly perform a takedown of the enemy while they are on the ground, which adds another layer of challenge to the gameplay, as later on when we enter Predator mode in more crowded sections of the Asylum we have to observe the surroundings and make sure that if we perform such an attack, it is done carefully.
In a following cutscene we are introduced to Harley Quinn, dressed in a fetish nurse outfit (groans) over the screen, having helped Joker to escape by infiltrating the facility, and has taken the warden hostage. After the fact, we are able to use our strength to apparently break open the ventilation shafts, which are conveniently just large enough to fit a crouching Batman inside. The grapple tool is further used in a sequence where we have to rescue the surviving guards above in a room filled with poisonous gas, helping to further integrate us into the superhero identity. We then go further into the corridors to pursue Joker, finally coming face to face with him as he stands atop some sort of container, from which he releases some sort of strengthened creature which the Joker describes as a “test subject”. We mostly spend this little section dodging the charges of the creature, and the bodies that it throws at us before it ultimately collapses on it’s own, serving simply as a practice for the boss fights later on in the game. In a short cut scene, the Joker challenges Batman to throw a Batarang at him to drop him to the ground far below and end his life, which he does not comply with due to his strict rule of no killing.
We then learn that Commissioner Gordon has been taken hostage, and so go back the way we came to retrieve him. While this is happening, in addition to the green arrow spray painted onto the facility, the Joker is now shown on the screens in the corridor, and is heard over the speakers to show us how much control he has taken of the Asylum at this point. Returning to the office room we were in earlier, Batman seeks to find Gordon, kidnapped by a rogue guard called Frank Bowles, using Detective Vision. This is one of the most unique aspects of the game, in which we are able to use a technologically enhanced vision to seek out evidence in a particular crime-scene through first person view, in this case isolated bourbon particles from Bowles’ breath and following the trail of it. We can also use it to seek out objects of interest such as Gargoyles, control panels, and parts of the Riddler challenges. We can also use it to see enemies through x-ray vision, those with guns being isolated in red. The device proves very much useful in many parts of the game, some people find it to be too useful as it would mean we could easily use it all the time. I myself never really encountered this problem, as I only used the Detective vision when it was necessary.
A sequence in which we use the environment to our advantage can be found in the next setpiece, where a broken lift forces us to use the grapple hook, and our ability to hang from a ledge. The environment is actually designed in a way which for the most part makes puzzle sections such as this seem believable and not just a way to add to the game play. A great strength of this game so far is how it’s tutorial section, and really the whole game, keeps adding new elements to the gameplay, expanding the player’s horizons in the process, like the next scene, which uses the aforementioned predator mode to perform stealth attacks on enemies, displaying the silent takedown where we crouch carefully behind enemies and knock them out with what I assume is chloroform. The process is a good way to keep our whereabouts hidden to the other enemies, and is still appropriately challenging as it takes slightly longer than an ordinary takedown, forcing us to time our attacks carefully.
We get a more detailed look into this in the next setpiece, where we are put inside a large room teeming with armed inmates for us to take out in any way we choose, as each method has it’s own advantages and drawbacks. You can go with either the aforementioned glide attack, the stealthier silent takedown, you can throw Batarangs at them and knock them out while they’re on the ground, or beat them there and then which will instantly alert the others to your location but can be done quickly. You can also acquire an upgrade early on in the game if you choose, where you can hang upside down from the Gargoyles, and when an enemy walks directly underneath your location, you can hang them from the Gargoyle. Once again this method alerts others to your location, forcing you to quickly swing onto another Gargoyle.
After finding Bowles’ corpse, we get a transmission from the Riddler, introducing us to the challenges of the game. These are a set of multiple different challenges scattered across the game’s entire location. These take up multiple different forms, I’ve already spoken of the Joker teeth, but there are also these Scarab Beetle stones we see sometimes which we can scan with holding the button for Detective vision to reveal a number of cryptic messages read in the voice of Warden Sharp, initially appearing to tell the story of the Asylum’s founder. We can pick up patient interview tapes, telling us backstories about the different villains we encounter through the game which provide some interesting insight to their individual personalities. The one introduced right here is the riddle challenge, where in seemingly every location of the game there is some sort of riddle related to an object, normally relating to a character from the batman universe not seen in the game, or simply a quick visual pun. This is my personal favourite of the challenges, as it requires intelligence to complete from piecing the riddle together, essentially keeping in character with the Riddler. But the most obvious and most abundant challenges are the Riddler trophies, the aspect from the entire series which fans initially enjoyed, and became increasingly sick of as the games progressed. These trophies are scattered all across the island, in some locations more obvious than others which require really in-depth puzzles to solve. For this game at least, they offer a decent distraction from the main quest but are hardly something I would call a great feature to the game. I’ll talk more about them towards the end of the game but for now I’ll just say that the developers did at least put a lot of effort into putting them in locations where we wouldn’t directly see them, while still making their presence obvious even to the least observant players, and providing some challenge to their completion.
Being unable to find Gordon here, Batman opts to go outside through the backdoor, into a cave where we then see the immense scope of the outside, with it’s gothic architecture and green sky. More accurately just the East side of the island, which makes the cinematic view more impressive in the cutscene which for me signifies the true start of the game. In this section of the island, we see the guards who are still firmly in control of it before we are motivated to move to the North side of the island to get to the Batmobile which is apparently being attacked by inmates. Although because I decided to take in as much detail as I could for this playthrough, I decided to explore this brief section of the game where we are in a peaceful place, because it does feel so detached from the rest of the game. The guards didn’t really provide anything of note to say, and the two buildings in this area which we will access later can be entered, but are largely protected by electric fences, with only interactive guards inside them.
So we make our way over to the Batmobile, and after taking out the assailants, get some extra support by adding a new gadget to our utility belt from the boot of the car. This is the explosive gel, a logical anomaly of a gadget which is apparently gel we can spray bat symbols onto fragile wall surfaces and create a controlled explosion with in order to gain entry to otherwise inaccessible areas. I don’t know how that’s meant to work, but I do know that it is at least a useful tool, as once we track Gordon down to the Medical Facility we have to use it to gain access. We learn this after entering through the front door, and seeing Harley Quinn guarding Gordon behind the electric door, speaking directly to Batman in a way which wasn’t necessarily uncommon in games in 2009, but was certainly uncommon in Superhero titles at the time, once again distinguishing Arkham Asylum.
Continued in Next Part