Batman: Arkham Asylum – The Real Thing or Just a Shadow?

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na BAMAN! Ok now that that’s out of the way, on with my post!

For those not on Twitter, I do realise this is a day late. Believe it or not I had a massive migraine and started having weird visual hallucinations, which I assume is because I had been staring at my PC screen for too long that day or week or month or whatever. I know, right? If you’ve fallen out of your chair with shock I’ll give you a second to recover. Me? A gaming-related injury/illness? Who would have guessed? At least I don’t get those hand cramps anymore… Anyways, since the thought of looking at anything bright and glowing made my brain want to hemorrhage on the spot, I took a bit of time off (even though I ended up playing some Bordlerlands 2 as soon as the pain let up – oy!) Enough of my brain-related problems though, on with the post (again)!

Today I wanted to review a game that I’m ashamed to admit I only played recently – Batman: Arkham Asylum. I know, I know, you’d think that a self-proclaimed Batman nut like myself would have played a multi-award-winning Batman game that’s been around since 2009 and holds a Guinness World Record for “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever”. Yeah, beat that, right? The reason for this delay? Well, other than the fact that I was saving it for a rainy day, which turned out to be some years later, there was also that part of me that was skeptical. The truth is, nothing that’s come out of the Batman franchise other than the comics has ever truly impressed me. I knew it wouldn’t be as terrible the infamously cheesy 1960′s Batman TV series with Adam West or equally cringey old movies (much as they’re guilty pleasures of mine). However, even the much-lauded Batman: The Animated Series and Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight movies failed to really capture me the way the comics did. Don’t get me wrong, I used to watch the animated series obsessively and watched each of the new movies several times. It’s because I’m such a huge fan of Batman from the comics that I’m so particular when it comes to anything that’s added to the lore. That’s the problem though, really. None of it truly adds to or fits comfortably into the comic book lore and as a comic book fan that’s obviously something I’d be excited to see. Of course, I’m talking about the revamped Batman, the Dark Knight, not the previous versions like the 1940′s Batman who was even campier than Adam West (I confess I even used to read these somewhat terrible comics). Also, of course, there are many adaptations of even modern Batman, for instance Frank Miller’s Batman is different to Jeff Loeb’s Batman. However, although Batman has been revamped so many times, I feel there is a certain overarching look and feel to the modern Batman, who received a major facelift in the ’80′s and whose new look has been built on and adapted ever since. The movies captured the spirit, but I didn’t learn anything new or see another side of Batman that I’d never experienced before from the comics. Also, the movies were amazing, but it wasn’t really Batman in his true form. I loved the movies as a separate thing to the comics, because I just couldn’t reconcile the two of them in my mind. As an obsessed fan of the comics, I wanted something that truly captured the essence of Batman as I knew him. There’s nothing wrong with all the adaptations that have been created and as I said I’ve loved pretty much all of it, but as a Batman comic fan, I wanted that true Dark Knight experience from the comics for myself just once and to be able to share it with the rest of the world as well, so that they could so see why I’m so in love with this dark corner of the DC Universe. Above everything else, this game definitely does that. So, even if it turns out that everyone other than me has already played this game, I’m hoping that it might be interesting reading about the game from the perspective of a fan of the comics who used to creepily keeps busts and PVC statutes of Batman in her bedroom.

The official launch trailer:

It’s difficult to decide what my favourite part of this game was. In the end, I’d have to say it’s the sneaking. The truth is, I’m usually not a fan of sneaking in games. I usually crouch in the shadows for all of about a minute and then get bored and decide it would just be easier to kill everyone. However, it has really worked for me in some games, like Deus Ex. Now I can add Arkham Asylum to the list. It’s sneaking in just the way I like it – smooth, uncomplicated and with awesome results. Nothing makes you feel more like a badass than swooping down from the shadows (literally) and performing a silent takedown. The levels are designed to allow you to take full advantage of Batman’s arsenal of weapons and skills to take out enemies one by one. Gargoyles are concealed in the high ceilings, allowing Batman to crouch on them and brood in silence, waiting for someone to walk below so he can string them up by their legs and also present the perfect hiding places to grapple up to if things get too rough on the ground. Air vents and breakable glass ceilings provide even more possibilities. Sure you could just rush in and kill everyone, but that wouldn’t be half as satisfying. That’s something I rarely say about a game with lots of sneaking, it’s SATISFYING. Just as satisfying or even more satisfying than performing a flawless combo of devastating moves. The game mechanics and level design not only encourage you to sneak, it celebrates in it and turns you into the badass silent non-killer that Batman is.

Another aspect of the game that I love are the silky smooth controls. Whether you’re fighting or sneaking or gliding down from rooftops or glide kicking someone in the face, the controls are intuitive and allow you to move seamlessly from one move into another without breaking the flow of the game. During combat, the controls allow you to shift from one move to another, from an attack to a block, from enemy to enemy, from melee to long-range with the least amount of effort. It takes a little bit of time to truly master the controls to get those high combos, but when you do it’s well worth the effort. Batman becomes an unstoppable juggernaut, with a range of special moves and gadgets that you unlock as you progress.

From a comic fan’s perspective, I love this game. What fan wouldn’t be pleased with how closely they followed the comics in terms of their portrayal of Batman as a rather stoic, possibly deranged crime-fighter as well as of the fairly true-to-the-original line-up of most of the Bat’s most prominent enemies. Indeed, insanity is a running theme of the game and is also a major part of the comics, but which has never been explored too much in any of the other adaptations. I mean we’re talking about a guy who watched his parents get murdered in cold blood when he was a small child and then proceeded to don a batsuit to intimidate and beat the crap out of dangerous psychopaths and serial killers. There’s a slight possiblity that Bruce Wayne himself might not be all there. That’s the major theme of the graphic novel ‘Arkham Asylum’ that this game clearly took inspiration from both in terms of the the look as well as actual lore. The game is littered with many references for fans of that graphic novel, including the Chronicles of Arkham, the stone tablets that you can find littered around that delve into the history of Arkham Asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham. If you haven’t read it, please do. It’s one my favourites and is right up there with classics such as ‘The Long Halloween’ and ‘Batman: Year One’. A slight warning though, it’s much MUCH darker, more brutal, more graphic and more disturbing than the game. I love that they don’t shy away from this topic, but embrace it as I feel any look into the life of the criminally insane at Arkham Asylum should do. I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say that the glimpses we get into Bruce Wayne’s somewhat disturbed psyche is one of the things I most loved about the graphic novel ‘Arkham Asylum’ as well as the game. In short, I loved the fact that they embraced the comics and their characters and more than that, often added something to the lore whether it was some interesting back-story on much-loved villains or just some depth to well-worn stories.

The classic soundtrack, dark colours, lighting and the iconic forbidding Gothic look of Gotham city in the background all add to the feel of the game. It definitely captures that dark, gritty look of the comics, while still managing to add its own elegant take on it. Everything from the controls to the atmosphere, the music and art style was all tuned into their vision of Batman and Arkham asylum and it worked.

Now, for the few issues I had with the game. The biggest problem I had was with the Detective mode feature. What Detective mode does other than bathe your screen in weird trippy colours is give you a sort temporary x-ray vision that allows you to see through walls and spot enemies from far away or around corners. It also allows you to see certain clues or solve puzzles that aren’t visible to the naked eye. It’s a special bat-vision if you will. Don’t get me wrong, I thought this was an amazing addition to the game that was a fun and clever way to lead you to the next objective or spot enemies rather than the traditional mini-map. The visual effect was also quite cool and sci-fi… for the first five minutes at least. The thing is, given the usefulness of this feature and the fact that you could walk by solutions to riddles or clues if you don’t have detective mode turned on, as Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw makes the point here, why would you ever want to turn it off? I walked around most of the game with it on, which really detracted from the beauty of the environment and the incredible amount of detail the artists put into it because I was viewing it through some weird x-ray lens. I actually had to make an effort to turn it off once in a while, just so I could enjoy the intended look of the game, but of course I’d have to turn it on again in a couple of minutes in case I missed anything. That was the biggest irritant for me about the game, everything else was pretty minor.

This next issue might just be a personal thing, but while I generally enjoyed the riddles (purely optional, but if you’re a completionist like me, you’ll spend hours scouring the map for those damn Riddler trophies) and found many of them pleasantly challenging, I disliked the fact that so many of them consisted of simply walking around with detective mode on and aligning clues in just the right way. A significant chunk of the riddles were just not that fun to complete and were more frustrating than anything else , consisting of jumping around the entire map looking for that one sweet spot.

Another minor point is that I felt the overall effect was still a bit vanilla for a true to the comics and strictly for the adults Batman game. I just feel that it could have been even grittier. Though there were quite a few deaths and the whole thing takes place in a dilapidated asylum, it still came off as a bit… well, Batman: The Animated series to me. True, many of the voice actors for the main characters such as Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn were taken from the animated show, but I don’t think it was that. Also, I very much applaud the voice acting in this game, especially Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill (yes, Mark Hamill) as Joker. I thought they portrayed their characters very well. It was the writing I had a slight issue with. There was a lot of Batman being Batman and swooping through the air and a lot of classic characters being introduced left, right and centre, but there wasn’t a lot of depth in Batman’s interactions with his most hated foes. Sure, even in the modern Batman comics, there’s often a lot of banter, but that’s not all there is. Audio recordings dotted around the facility give you an insight into their criminal minds, but I would have liked to see a little more of them than their fleeting interactions with Batman allowed. Also, I thought they could have capitalised on the whole insanity theme more, what with being perfectly set up for it since it took place in an asylum. I find the whole – Batman might be crazy idea to be quite an interesting one and the parts where they explored that (I’m trying not to give too much away) were some of the most poignant and personal parts of the game. In short, I guess I just wanted to know more about the Bats and who he is.

In the end though, any problems I had with the game were by far overshadowed by the incredible gameplay, breath-taking environments, interesting characters and the way it really both ran with and added to the Batman universe as I know it from the comics. Batman: Arkham Asylum is as it should be – Batman, the lone crusader with nothing but his wits, his fists and an arsenal of deadly gadgets at his disposal.

NOTE: I just bought an HD PVR so I can capture footage from my Xbox, but I haven’t set it all up and played with it yet, so unfortunately I’ll have to add screenshots to this post at a later date. I could scrounge some from somewhere on the internet, but I prefer putting up original screenshots that I’ve lovingly captured especially for you guys, so they’re coming!

4 responses to “Batman: Arkham Asylum – The Real Thing or Just a Shadow?

  1. Totally agreed with your issue with the Riddles. SInce solving them actually takes some thinking, it annoyed me to no end that a lot of them were simply “go everywhere with detective mode on while straining your eyes” easy.

    And I love how the game (and the Nolan films) explore Batman/Bruce Wayne as a damaged individual. He’s almost like Dexter except he doesn’t kill. But he enjoys the hunt, the detective work, and making other damaged individuals pay for their crimes.

    But hey at least your favourite superhero has a great game to his name. Mine’s got a busload of crap-tastic games (including Superman 64 ugh…) and for some reason, developers can’t seem to get Supes and Metropolis right. Unless he’s part of an ensemble like Justice League, MK Vs. DC, Injustice etc.

    • Exactly! It was because so many of the riddles were done so well that the easy ones where you just had to walk around a bit were so irritating and tedious to me.
      I definitely agree with you that a major part of the appeal of this game as with Nolan’s Batman movies is the look you get at Bruce Wayne as a person and you get to see what an incredibly damaged person he really is. Unlike a lot of other superheros who do it just for the sake of doing good, he certainly does seem to relish the work to some extent and in taking revenge on Gotham’s criminal element.
      Haha, yeah I have no idea why they can’t seem to get Superman right. You’d think such an iconic superhero would have loads of awesome games to his name. It’s bizarre! I’m not a big fan of Superman I admit, unless it’s in the Batman/Superman comics where they work together, because I love the way they are with each other. They make an awesome team! And they’re kind of friends, even though Batman would never admit it. I would be interested if someone could make a really good game starring Superman. Someone definitely needs to come along and show people why he’s so awesome!

  2. This game was brilliant and I just loved it. And I loved how they brought the voice cast from Batman TAS to do it, just added that extra. Are you going to hit up City next?

    • I agree, bringing in the voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series really added something to it and was just such a nice nod to the fans of the series. In my opinion, Mark Hamill has always been the perfect Joker! I’m definitely planning to play Arkham City in the near future. There’s a few other games I’ll want to finish first, but believe me, City is very very high on the list!

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