by Daniel Bullard-Bates
If my fifteen-year-old self had been asked to describe the ideal video game, I might have come up with something a lot like Batman: Arkham Asylum. It has all the elements a Batman game ought to have: crowd combat, stealth takedowns, even a little detective work. And it all works because the developers, Rocksteady, didn’t simply look to other games for their mechanics. Unlike in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which shamelessly apes God of War, Batman: Arkham Asylum uses unique mechanics and a by-the-comic-books approach to more accurately convey what it feels like to be Batman.
Combat has Batman whizzing from one opponent to the next, using timely button presses to counter incoming attacks, flip over the heads of opponents, and stun others. Even with a large number of thugs attacking, Batman is more than capable of holding his own. As it should be. When the enemies have guns, he takes a different approach. Sneaking around the room, swinging from a gargoyle to gargoyle, this is where the gameplay really shines. There’s no rote memorization of patrol patterns to learn here. Batman just watches until someone wanders off by themselves, and takes them down one by one. By the time there’s only one thug left, he’s panicked and his heart is racing, shooting at any noise he hears.
The plot of Batman: Arkham Asylum revolves around typical villainy by the Joker, made interesting mostly by the setting and clever use of Batman villains. How better to introduce a variety of Batman references and characters than by setting the game in the madhouse where all the Batman villains are kept? The island where Arkham Asylum sits is one of the big stars of the game, presenting a Metroid-esque level of exploration and discovery through the dark halls of the madhouse. And Joker isn’t the only member of the rogue’s gallery to make an appearance; Killer Croc, Harley Quinn and others show up, and my personal favorite Batman villain has some of the most surprising, incredible sequences in the game. I’d love to discuss them, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it.
My one complaint about the villainous cast is its relatively small size. While many villains have small cameos or references worked into the game, the asylum offers so many possibilities for villainous encounters that the absence of some major figures seems glaring. Then again, Batman villains spend about as much time broken out of Arkham as they do in it, so maybe they’re just saving a crew for the sequel.
There are some very clever touches done to make some video game clichés work in the Batman universe. The collectible items in the game, for example, are all riddles or objects left by the Riddler. Not only does it make sense for the Riddler to want to leave strange puzzles and clues all over the island, they even serve a purpose, both in experience gained to go towards a variety of skills and upgrades, and the ultimate goal of apprehending the Riddler. What is normally a tired means of extending gameplay is thus turned into something that actually makes the player feel like Batman.
The fifteen-year-old version of me would have called this game the greatest of all time. Over the years, I’ve come to look for more from my games than just a good time and some great mechanics, and I realize that my affection for the Batman character likely clouds my judgment. But Rocksteady have done something truly impressive here: they’ve created a game that accurately portrays the character, aesthetic and world of a superhero, and while the game has some issues (I agree that the final boss sequence is pretty silly), there are no faults glaring enough to spoil the experience. While the bar was not set incredibly high (superhero games are typically quite awful), they’ve easily made the best superhero game of all time. And for several days this past weekend, I felt like I was fifteen again, having a great time being Batman, just like I’ve always wanted. Hopefully this game will sell well, showing video game developers everywhere that when the superheroes we love are finally given the treatment they deserve, critics and gamers alike are thrilled.