Batman is a smart comic book hero. He doesn't need superpowers – just give him a gadget, a cape and a face to punch and he's a regular Einstein. With a cape and iron fists.
Gadgetry and ass-kicking are a big part of what makes Batman unique among other comic book heroes. While other mutated monsters and masked miscreants waste time yelling incoherently or waxing philosophical about emotional issues, Batman busts out his gadgets, embraces his emo and kicks ass.
Batman: Arkham Asylum aims to deliver plenty of both and a bit more besides. With most of the original voice cast from the animated series of the 90s reprising their roles and Emmy award-winning writer Paul Dini behind the script, the value of the game extends well beyond a mere 12 hours or so of distraction. It's a fusion of all that is Batman.
But does that carry an entire game?
The Gameplay: Arkham Asylum relies on about 30% gadgets and 70% ass-kicking to get Batman through the twisted halls of Gotham's overtaken mental institution. The gadgets range from the familiar Batarang to the funky Cryptographic Sequencer that blows up electronic locks. The combat is a punch-and-kick throwdown that rewards you for combos and for final knockouts with spectacular slow-mo and zoom-in vision. Both function beautifully, and the latter provides so much entertainment, it gets its own gameplay section in Challenge Mode. Also, you can switch up the gadget-to-combat ratio by using gadgets mid-ass-kicking or as a means to set up traps for goons who then get their asses kicked. Batman is all about variety.
Mark Hamill: Say what you want about Star Wars and Wing Commander -– as far as video games are concerned, Mark Hamill as the Joker is the performance of a lifetime. He's funny, he's sinister, he's scary… he's everything Joker is supposed to be. Even if you're watching the same Joker-mocking-you game over screen for the fifth time, it's just such a joy to hear Hamill at work you almost don't mind the loading screen to get back to the game.
The Production Values: Playing this game is like watching a movie -– and not in a bad Metal Gear Solid way where you could order a pizza and eat it during a cut scene. Arkham Asylum's scenes are eloquent and often witty, and the gameplay for the most part is entertaining and fast-paced. It's definitely a game you'd want to have an audience for, especially if you're not up on your Batman trivia and need some help with some of the Riddler Challenges.
The Riddler Challenges: The Riddler challenges provide Arkham Asylum an excuse to let you wander the grounds, scouring every nook and cranny for interview tapes, Riddler trophies, maps of Riddler challenges and obscure pieces of scenery to scan in Detective Mode. Far from being tedious, this is actually where most of the fan service in the game appears (because sadly, they couldn't work Catwoman in anywhere else) and it rewards you with experience points to spend on upgrades. The Riddler Challenges make the game worth a second play through just to find them all.
Scarecrow: Paralyzing fear of spoilers prevent me from saying anything other than the fact that he's in the game. But yeah, he's easily the best part of it.
It's Really, Really Batman! Almost everything about Arkham Asylum jibes perfectly with what Batman is, was and continues to be in the comics, the movies and the animated series. The gadgets, the combat and the characterization of the entire cast all fit together to form a seamless representation of a superhero most Americans are more familiar with than they are with the President of the United States. Even if you've never read the comics, seen the movies or watched the cartoon, Arkham Asylum is comprehensive and effective enough to be a good place for a newcomer to start.
The Camera: The right stick controls the camera, but that doesn't mean it will always do what you want it to. Maybe Batman moves too fast, or the camera moves too slow – either way, you'll find yourself fighting it in certain environments or cursing it during boss fights in tight spaces.
The Loss of Pace: The last third of the game drags noticeably—particularly the Killer Croc's level, one is the most repetitive and the least entertaining, standing out as the lame duck of the Arkham Asylum. It's not enough to throw the whole game off balance, but it is a letdown. Part of it comes from the fact that being a superhero is a lot of work; but most of it is that not even Paul Dini is infallible when it comes to plot resolutions.
Pyrrhic Victories: There are several parts of the game where you begin to think that Batman's "I work alone," phrase has a second unspoken part about people always dying when he tries to help them. Oh, the angst!
The Last Two Bosses: For the most part, Arkham Asylum reconciles video game tenets to Batman lore. But some parts –- particularly the last two boss fights -– just can't hack it. In these sections, Batman's intelligence is chucked aside in favor of knockdown, drag-out fights we're more used to seeing in God of War or Resident Evil. That's not to say Batman hasn't had knockdown, drag-out fights in the comics; but the two characters he's matched against in these fights don't really make sense in Batman terms. You might even catch yourself wondering if you're facing off against a Marvel Comics villain instead of a DC one. Ten points to you if you name the one I'm thinking of.
I really enjoyed this game, so much so that I would have its babies if such a thing were possible. Sure, the last two boss fights sour the attraction a little, but all relationships have problems. Just look at Batman's list of lovers and Robins if you want examples.
Seriously, though, Batman: Arkham Asylum is an excellent game. Buy it, play it and bask in the glow of the brightest Batman game to date.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was developed by Rocksteady Studios and published by Eidos Interactive / Warner Bros. Interactive for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. Released August 25 for 360 and PS3, retails for $59.99 USD. Completed story mode and played challenge mode on the Xbox 360. Found about half the Riddler Challenges in one play through, but only because I was looking around frantically for a Zatanna Zatara reference.
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