By Marshall Garvey and Reshan Nicolson-Singh
Release Date: August 25, 2009
Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, OS X
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publishers: Eidos Interactive, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Action-Adventure, Beat ‘Em Up, Stealth
Mode: Single player
By 2009, the superhero genre had achieved new dimensions in entertainment culture thanks to its accelerating growth in film. Comic book movies became more thematically sophisticated thanks to Spider Man 2 and Batman Begins, in addition to renowned crowd-pleasers like Iron Man and X2. Of course, that was all *before* the cultural juggernaut known as The Dark Knight, the gritty, brilliantly acted masterpiece that defined a summer more than any blockbuster since A New Hope in 1977. Not only did it capture the moral ambivalence of the post-9/11 world, but its baffling denial of a Best Picture nomination singlehandedly led to an overhaul of the Oscar nomination process.
But while there were certainly plenty of outstanding and crucial superhero movies by the end of the first decade of the new millennium (as well as classic shows, such as Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League in the 90’s), there still wasn’t a truly A-grade superhero video game. At best, there were entertaining contemporary titles like Batman Returns. At worst, gamers were handed hideous non-efforts like Superman 64, the very mention of which causes me to spontaneously fly through hoops, hurriedly figure out objectives that aren’t explained to me, and suddenly start clipping when walking clear past a corner.
Fortunately, in August of 2009, that all changed with the arrival of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Helmed by Rocksteady Studios (who had a total of one game to their credit beforehand), this taut blockbuster was more than just the exquisite superhero game players had awaited for years. Perhaps just as, if not more importantly, it carved out a wholly original aesthetic in the already extensive lore of the Batman franchise. In fact, it could be considered the definitive synthesis of what makes Batman great: his nonpareil rogues gallery, a gritty story combined with a flashy comic-book visual style, high-stakes threats to the safety of Gotham, an armada of ass-kicking Bat-gadgets, and the Joker one-upping the World’s Greatest Detective every step of the way. Of course, these elements are beautifully bound together by a brilliant gameplay scheme that made beat-’em-up action more seamless and tactical than ever before. While the game’s scope and detail were quickly eclipsed a mere two years later by the breathtaking Arkham City, Batman’s original clash with a host of villains and endless thugs inside the decaying walls of Arkham Asylum remains every bit as taut and satiating as when it was first released in the dog days of the summer of 2009. (And let’s face it, if you did indeed buy that PC version of Arkham Knight, you might as well pop Asylum back in to tide you over in the meantime anyway.)
The story starts out simple enough. The Joker has attacked Gotham City Hall, only to be easily subdued and taken to Arkham Asylum by Batman. But as the Dark Knight observes to his hardened compatriot Jim Gordon, the Joker’s quick submission is only a cause for even greater concern. As Gotham’s most insane menace is wheeled into the asylum located on a remote island away from the city’s mainland, he manages to break free, commencing his elaborate plot of trapping Batman on the island and unleashing every maniac and arch-villain locked up inside the asylum’s confines. (To sweeten the pot, the killer clown threatens to set off bombs around Gotham if outside help should arrive, forcing Batman to work alone.) From there, Batman must battle his way through the likes of Scarecrow and his fear toxin, Poison Ivy’s real-life Little Shop of Horrors, Killer Croc’s no-way-out underground lair, serial killer Victor Zsasz’s endangerment of prison staff, and endless waves of violent prisoners and lunatics, all in time to stop Joker’s plan of taking over Gotham with the powerful Titan formula. In the immortal words of Bette Davis, it’s going to a bumpy night.
From top to bottom, beginning to end, Batman: Arkham Asylum set a golden standard for the superhero genre in video games in every way conceivable. Simply put, it is to the genre what Metal Gear Solid is to stealth and Street Fighter is to fighting games. To begin with, the game sets itself apart from previous superhero games (as well as other Batman media) with a detailed, rich character and level design. Especially in a universe as expansive as Batman’s, it’s important to create a look and atmosphere that stands out from other installments. BAA achieves this impeccably, with character designs that are the perfect blend of cartoonish and gritty. It’s congruent with the appeal that sets Batman apart in the vast world of comics: mostly “realistic” and dark in tone, albeit with just enough cartoon flourish to further engross the imagination.
Brimming with just as much character and dimension is Arkham Asylum itself, a masterwork of setting and design. All throughout, Gotham’s legendary prison has a lived-in, destitute feeling that instills one with a sense of dread at every turn. Every room, office, cell, hallway, cave, sewer passage, and path is painstakingly detailed and oozing with atmosphere. In-between each objective and battle, it’s a treat to poke around soak in all of the references and easter eggs scattered about. (Can you find the Penguin poster for the Iceberg Lounge?) The exterior is just as impressive, particularly with the vast Gotham skyline tantalizingly enshrouded in the distance. The mix of tight spaces and cavernous areas gives the entire island a feeling that’s at once claustrophobic, yet expansive. What makes the setting all the more effective is that you advance through it in a linear progression, unlike the open-world sprawl that characterized the later titles in the series. (And since you have no lives counter, you have to keep on going regardless.) Altogether, this is still a startling game to look at and explore, even with the huge advances in graphics over the past six years.
Even the richest visual style and setting, however, wouldn’t be complete without equally great characters to populate them. Arkham Asylum succeeds with flourish in this department thanks to the voice cast, anchored by Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Reprising the roles they perfected in the 90’s in Batman: The Animated Series, the two are as engaged as ever, giving each exchange between the legendary rivals the right amount of adversarial tension and begrudging respect that makes them the definitive “yin-yang” duo in popular culture.
Fortunately, Conroy’s Batman and Hamill’s Joker are far from the only fully realized characters in the game. As anyone with a passing knowledge of the Caped Crusader knows, it’s the villains that define the saga more than anything, and Arkham Asylum utilizes an eclectic lineup of adversaries all throughout. While the Joker is the mastermind of the asylum’s takeover, he doesn’t hog the spotlight as it would be easy to allow him to do. Instead, perennially secondary baddies like Scarecrow and Killer Croc (the favorites of myself and Reshan respectively) get a chance to shine like never before, thanks to original designs and some of the better boss confrontations of recent years. Most impressively realized is Scarecrow, who gets his most terrifying look yet thanks to his Freddy Krueger claws, pale, bony frame, and bug-like face. More indelibly, the Master of Fear’s main gimmick (his hallucination-inducing fear toxin) is spun into ingeniously crafted interactive nightmare stages, where a diminutive Batman must evade a towering Scarecrow, or die within the dream upon being spotted.
Even more harrowing is the trek into Killer Croc’s underground cell, one of the most nerve-contorting boss confrontations ever. Rather than a standard boss “fight” of repeating the same back-and-forth combo, this scenario relies more on pure suspense and stealth, in which Batman must stealthily walk across wooden planks to avoid attracting Killer Croc’s attention. When he finally does pop up and comes charging your way, you have only a moment to subdue him with a Batarang. (The effect is amplified by the complete lack of music when Croc is underwater, making the jarring sound of his sudden appearance all the more terrifying.) Poison Ivy also makes for an intimidating wild card in the night’s proceedings, seeking to take over the island and all of Gotham with her overgrown, spore-spitting plants. Rounding out the villainous shenanigans are Harley Quinn (voiced by fellow Animated Series alumnus Arleen Sorkin) and Bane, who temporarily stall Batman with some hectic fights with the assistance of goons. Ironically, these fights are all vastly superior to the final confrontation with Joker himself. Which, well, if we’re being totally honest here, was….
The heart of Asylum’s success, of course, is its innovative, muscular gameplay, by far one of the most wholly original beat-’em-up control schemes ever put together. Each fight, whether with hordes of generic goons or a Titan-infused monster, has an emphasis on timing your punches, grabs, blocks, parries, Batarang-throwing, and so on. Not only does this format control fluidly, it strikes a perfect balance between robust button-mashing action and skill and timing, without being too difficult. Not to mention, few action/beat-’em-up games have as much of a punch as this one. You feel like you’re landing a devastating blow with each hit, an authentic, wholly satisfying feeling that never wears thin. (And it’s not like Batman just walks away from these overwhelming confrontations without a scratch…as the night wears on, watch how ripped and tattered his suit and cape become.) All that’s missing are the “Pow! Wham! Bang!” exclamations, Adam West-style. Although I will say, all of this does make you feel like you’re breaking Batman’s no-kill rule.
Now, obliterating wave after wave of enemies head-on indeed never gets old, but the game wouldn’t truly distinguish itself like it has if the fighting strategy was linear. Brilliantly, BAA throws in plenty of cunning fear tactics to shake things up. Granted, when you’re perched atop a statue above a gang of thugs, it’s most tempting to just glide kick right into them….but is there anything truly more satisfying than screwing with your enemies before knocking them around? Terrifying goons with a sudden Batarang toss from up top before gliding out of view, hiding under the floor, waiting in the rafters for the right moment to pounce….and of course, the inverted takedown, where Batman waits for an enemy to walk right underneath his perch, and then drop down to pick him up to dangle from a line and frighten the rest. Moves like these truly capture Batman’s psychological strategy that set him apart from all other superheroes, as well as prevent the gameplay from being a one-note beat-’em-up marathon.
Of course, while the Dark Knight is a supremely skilled fighter, it would be a grave mistake to emphasize combat at the expense of his detective and flying capabilities. Fortunately, the relentless combat is balanced with Detective Mode, which casts the entire room in an X-ray glow that reveals where every clue, enemy and ally are. Not only does this vision help you strategize your plan of attack, it just plain looks cool. After awhile, it’s fun to simply leave it on and make it look like you’re beating up a bunch of skeletons. And while Arkham City would be the game that truly did the thrill of flying as Batman justice thanks to a sprawling open-world format, it still feels as grand and liberating to soar here in Arkham Asylum as it did back in 2009. I realize, of course, that we’re now four installments into the franchise, and the gameplay formula is very familiar by now. But still…try not to get goosebumps when you stand perched atop a cliff or rooftop, and then unfurl the cape for a flight above the island.
While getting Batman’s villains and badass skills right are deal-breakers, just as important are his high-tech gadgets. Arkham Asylum more than hit the mark with a lineup of WayneTech goodies that add even more punch to each phase of the game. First is the Batarang, the wing-shaped boomerang that can trip up oncoming goons in a tight spot. The classic Batclaw allows you to rappel to ledges and hanging objects in a flash, or swing from one hanging statue to another to escape detection. The Cryptographic Sequencer makes breaking through security locks a cinch, while the Line Launcher allows Batman to glide to even the farthest cliff or terrace. Best of all is the Explosive Gel, which is sprayed in a perfect bat shape before blowing open a hidden passage or obliterating a wave of thugs. (Batman, naturally, only needs to glance away momentarily to avoid any damage from the explosion.) And of course, you can upgrade many of these gadgets throughout the course of the game.
Beyond superlative gameplay and visual detail, Batman: Arkham Asylum also set standards for how to do in-game content, especially for a title that’s part of a beloved franchise. In many offices, nooks and crannies, the player can pick up doctor/patient interview tapes of villains who’ve been incarcerated in Arkham, providing juicy background details and revelatory characterizations for even the most familiar baddies. (Zsasz’s interviews in particular are bone-chilling to listen to.) You can also unlock other extra features like character bios and artwork that are accessible in-game, rather than having to go to the start menu to view. Just as fascinating are hidden messages that explore the mythology of the Arkham Asylum building itself, and serve as a clever lead-in to the story of Arkham City. For an in-game bonus that provides a hefty challenge, there are also more than 200 Riddler trophies and puzzles scattered throughout the island and prison, with hilarious taunts from Wally Wingert’s brilliantly voiced Edward Nygma almost every time you pick one up.
With the release of Arkham Knight, it would seem Rocksteady’s epic run with the Batman franchise has drawn to a close. If that’s the case, it certainly can’t be considered too soon, with four titles in six years that have run the gamut of critical peaks (this game and City) and valleys (Arkham Origins, the Arkham Knight PC fiasco). Still, whether for old time’s sake as you plow through Knight, or have somehow missed out on the goon-punching splendor all these years, Arkham Asylum is just as stellar an experience as it was in 2009. And if Rocksteady is indeed done with Batman, but angling to tackle other figures of the DC canon, their seminal foray into the decrepit halls of Gotham’s nuthouse remains the perfect model for how to get a first crack at it right in every way possible. If they could so flawlessly synthesize everything that makes Batman work, then who’s to say they can’t master, say…Matter-Eater Lad?
Author’s Note: The lion’s share of the playthrough for this review was done by my close friend and longtime Batman fanatic Reshan Nicolson-Singh, while I took notes. He also contributed many insights for the written review.
Original commercial for the game: