Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Review Date: 1/22/10
"Batman: Arkham Asylum" takes a fresh look at the caped crusader in this original story that draws inspiration from the entire franchise. The result is a strange mixture of cinematic photo-realism combined with comic book aesthetics and cartoon logic. The premise of the game is similar to the "Arkham Asylum" graphic novel where The Joker arranges for Batman to get trapped inside of Arkham Asylum (which covers an entire island in the game) and then unleashes all of the inmates on him, including several of Batman's greatest foes. Through the course of the game Batman faces Scarecrow, Bane, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and The Joker, and matches wits with The Riddler as well. In addition to tracking down and solving The Riddler's challenges, Arkham Asylum holds numerous dark secrets that Batman can expose, which lends additional depth and texture to the sinister setting.
The first thing you notice about the game is its presentation. It's gorgeous. Everything looks great and sounds great. Excellent character design, motion capture, architecture, level design, lighting, and textures, but the whole thing is unsettling. The developers decided to go with a photo-realistic approach, but the side effect is that the more you try to bring the Batman mythology into reality, the less credible it becomes and the harder it is to suspend disbelief. I found myself constantly trying to apply real world rules and physics to the game setting, instead of accepting the comic book rules that it employs. Cartoon Batman can do anything and get away with it, but I expect a realistically human looking Batman to be affected by mass, gravity, and Newtonian physics. This was a constant mental hurdle for me, but fortunately the logic is self-consistent and the game is fun enough to play that it never became a sticking point.
The next thing you notice is how slow the pacing is, and how for the first 4-5 hours it's a carefully scripted hand-holding exercise that tries to keep you focused on the primary objective. I found it very frustrating to have this wonderful environment to explore and play around in, and have Batman remind me to stay on task whenever I deviated from the path. In hindsight this doesn't seem so bad, because after you finish the game you're free to roam around at your leisure to track down all of the challenges that The Riddler has hidden throughout the island. And by the end of the game you have all of the tools necessary to do so, whereas in the beginning you're not well equipped to go exploring. Still, it annoyed me at the time.
Batman is an impressively imposing figure and his combat skills are quite fearsome. Combat uses simple combinations of attacking and countering, but the results are fluid, cinematic, and satisfyingly brutal. Batman can also employ stealth techniques for taking out foes, which are equally satisfying (he even looks a bit like Sam Fisher). Walking and fighting in Batman's shoes is a thrilling experience for the most part, except when interacting with civilians. Batman is a scary and violent vigilante, and yet everyone treats him as just a normal guy. "Oh, hi Batman! I'm glad you're here. I saw some inmates headed that way. Is there anything I can help you with?" This totally deflates his outlaw status and enigmatic presence, and brings him back down to a human level (which in turn disrupts the suspension of disbelief). Fortunately, as you progress through the game, there are fewer people to talk to since most of them wind up dead.
The character design is quite good for the most part, and employs lots of exaggerated comic book aesthetics. Batman is rough and rugged, and sports outrageously bulging musculature (although that may just be the body armor). The Joker definitely recalls Brian Bolland's rendering from "The Killing Joke," and Scarecrow, Bane, and Killer Croc have larger than life stylings as well. Poison Ivy seethes with raw feminine sensuality and is exceedingly sexy. She basically wears a tight sweater and a form-fitting crotch-piece made of leaves. She moves with seductive grace and her alluring voice flows like honey. Quite impressive. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with Harley Quinn's presentation - especially since she's my favorite character. Thankfully she is voiced by Arleen Sorkin ("Batman: The Animated Series"), but she's ditched the classic harlequin outfit in favor of a trashy Frederick's Of Hollywood costume. She pretty much looks like a strip club reject and comes across as a tramp. How unfortunate. However, she also gets the best line in the entire game, which is also one of the most shocking things I've ever heard in a video game. I actually had to double-check the rating on the game to see if it was Mature instead of Teen. One of the tools at Batman's disposal is a Cryptographic Sequencer, which vibrates wildly when he uses it. Upon seeing it, Harley remarks "a girl could have hours of fun with a toy like that..."
Production wise, the game is top-notch. The graphics are superb, the level design is smart, functional, and compact, the controls are tight and intuitive, the map is quick and easy to access (not to mention extremely useful), load times are minimal, and the gameplay is fun and addictive. The game offers multiple difficulty levels, and the easiest setting is very accessible, allowing me to play through the entire game with minimal frustration. However, one sticking point is the checkpoint system. The game auto-saves your progress at each checkpoint, but if you quit the game, the last checkpoint may not be where you restart at. This caused me a lot of confusion, and I spent a lot of late nights ensuring that I was 2-3 checkpoints past the point where I wanted to quit. The music is quite good and reminiscent of Hans Zimmer's score from "Batman Begins" (2005). The story was written by Paul Dini ("Batman: The Animated Series"), so it has a definite comic book flair to it. It even references and recreates some of the moments in his award winning story, "Mad Love." Along with Arleen Sorkin, the game also features Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill from the animated series as the voices of Batman and The Joker. They are both superb, but hearing their voices attached to different physical representations is a bit disconcerting (which goes back to the whole presentation issue I discussed earlier).
Overall, despite my minor criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed playing "Arkham Asylum" and had a hard time putting it down. While the main story arc is very enjoyable to play through, it's also extremely fun to wander around and find the 240 challenges that The Riddler has scattered about the island. That's probably what I obsessed about the most, even though there's no real benefit in doing so. The game starts off slow, but definitely picks up in the second half and manages to stay fresh and engaging throughout. I fully recommend it for Batman fans and action/adventure fans alike.