Batman has never had a particularly good showing when it comes to video games. He's had video games that ranged from mediocre to the awful, and none of them really did a good job of being Batman. The closest was the Batman: The Animated Series game back on the Super Nintendo, but even that was basically a beat-'em-up with Batman flavoring. The games tended to forgo Batman's stealth abilities entirely or make the Dark Knight unable to stand up to more than one or two thugs at a time. Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only a good game, but it's also a good Batman game to boot.
As you'd expect, the title is set in and around the famous Arkham Asylum, which is Gotham City's mental institution and the place where most of Batman's most famous villains end up. As the game begins, Batman is bringing in The Joker, having just caught the Clown Prince of Crime in the midst of his latest scheme. It turns out that The Joker expected to be caught as part of an elaborated trap for Batman. Joker escapes, and thanks to some shipped-in inmates and his sidekick Harley Quinn, takes over the asylum, trapping Batman and a lot of innocent people inside. It is up to Batman to defeat Joker and save the lives of everyone in the island from The Joker's mad scheme. Arkham Asylum isn't based on any of the comics or movies but is set in its own universe, which features references to almost every Batman movie, comic or cartoon ever made. The story is fairly average Batman stuff, but it's filled with enough interesting references and cameos to keep the most devoted fan happy. There is even a built-in collection of character bios to introduce players to the cast and characters.
Arkham Asylum centers around three styles of gameplay: combat, platforming and predator. Combat is focused on fighting multiple enemies at once. You only have one attack button, and every other button on the controller is used to modify your combat abilities. Batman can swipe his cape to stun enemies, throw Batarangs to knock over foes, use his Batclaw grappling hook to pull foes toward him, and even leap over or under foes to avoid attacks. You can also stop enemy attacks by pressing a counter button at just the right time. Punching an enemy is a fine way to fight, but it isn't going to win. Instead, you have to ping-pong from enemy to enemy, using all of your abilities to keep enemies stunned, disoriented and unable to fight back.
Once you've started a combo of at least three hits, the game's Freeflow system activates. It encourages you to bounce between enemies, making your attacks more powerful with each attack, as long as you sustain a combo. Once you've reached eight combo hits, you'll unlock a special attack, which can be used to instantly knock out a foe, but you only use it once for every eight combo hits that you rack up. If you lose the combo before you use the attack, you lose the attack as well. As the game progresses, you'll encounter enemies who require you to change up your tactics. Knife-wielding foes can't be attacked normally unless you stun them, while enemies who are equipped with stun batons need to be attacked from behind. If you master the combat, fights are an amazing ballet of brutality. Batman will move from foe to foe, countering attacks, dishing out painful blows, and generally kicking the crap out of everyone in an amazingly cinematic way. Fight poorly, and Batman is slow, plodding and less capable of dealing out damage.
The second major kind of gameplay is platforming. Batman occasionally has to make his way through an area; sometimes he can use his grappling hooks and sometimes he can't, but either way, it involves some acrobatics. Fortunately, movement and platforming in Arkham Asylum are very easy. Batman will automatically jump across gaps if you're running toward them; glide with his cape, and he'll automatically grab onto ledges if necessary. As you progress, you'll find gadgets that allow Batman to cross larger gaps or reach previously inaccessible areas. The difficulty in getting around platforming areas isn't the controls, but figuring out where to go. The areas are large and open, and the correct paths can sometimes be tough to spot. Fortunately, exploration has benefits beyond just advancing the plot.
Oddly enough, the main part of Arkham Asylum is similar to Metroid or Castlevania. Batman begins the game very lightly equipped, with only a Batarang and his fists. As the game progresses, you'll gain access to a wide number of new gadgets. These include explosive gel, a Batclaw that allows you to pull objects and enemies, a security hacking device and various modified Batarangs that allow you to pull off new maneuvers. Perhaps most important is Batman's Detective Mode. By pressing a button, Batman can activate a special X-ray vision mode that allows him to find enemies through walls, pinpoint objects of interest and find hidden paths. It also allows you to read an enemy's mood, which can be used in the game's Predator segments. With each new item, new areas of the world are open to you. You may have to venture back to older areas in order to find things you missed. It's perfectly possible to beat the game without ever deviating from the main story line's path, but you'll miss a bunch of cool secrets if you do. The biggest of these is the game's Riddler Challenges. Early in the game, the Riddler will contact Batman over the radio, challenging him to solve riddles that are scattered around the island. These riddles provide a majority of the game's sub-quests. Sometimes, you'll be tasked with using your Detective Mode to scan various objects; other times, you'll have to destroy chattering teeth that are scattered across the stages, or you'll have to find hidden messages or interview tapes within the stages.
The final kind of gameplay is Predator segments. Batman isn't a superman; he's just a normal, if exceptional, human. This means that while he can handle 20 unarmed thugs at once, he can't go toe-to-toe with an armed opponent. If Batman should come upon a room filled with gun-wielding enemies, he has to take them down with stealth. Don't mistake this for Splinter Cell because Batman isn't hiding from his opponents; he just takes them down in another manner. Using his various gadgets, Batman can traverse a Predator area, hiding in grates or perching on gargoyles high above. When he finds an enemy who is weak or alone, he can drop down and dispatch him in various ways. Depending on where you are, Batman can use a controlled explosion to knock out the enemy, pull him up and hang him from a gargoyle, sneak up and knock him out from behind, pull him off a ledge … there are many possibilities.
With each enemy you defeat, the other enemies will become more nervous, and you can use the environment to make this worse. Leave defeated enemies where the others can find them, make spooky noises, lure them into traps, and the enemies will get more terrified. The more scared an opponent is, the more wary he is about his surroundings and the less cautious he becomes. Scare foes enough, and they may bunch together, allowing you to take out multiple baddies with one well-placed explosive. Alternately, you may scare them so much that they'll hide in corners or run away, leaving easy pickings for Batman. These Predator segments are an absolute ball. Trying to figure out the best way to approach a room and watching enemies grow more terrified as you slowly pick them off is perhaps the defining Batman experience. No other game has ever come this close to making you actually feel like Batman.
If there is one area where the title is weak, it is in its uninspired and uninteresting boss battles. As cool as it is to be stalked by Killer Croc through the sewers, the segment lasts entirely too long and wears out its welcome long before even the fastest player can finish it. Fighting Bane would almost be interesting if the game didn't make you repeat the same fight, over and over again, throughout the rest of the game — including as the climax to another character's boss fight. Perhaps most disappointing of all is the final boss, which is a glorified fight against regular henchmen where you occasionally have to perform a button-mashing segment. None of them are actively bad, but they are mostly boring. The one standout segment is the Scarecrow levels, which use a very non-traditional style of gameplay that is both exciting and interesting. Sadly, they're few and far between, and the last is ended by an extremely unsatisfying fight.
Arkham Asylum is about 8-10 hours long, and once you've finished the game, there isn't a tremendous amount left to do in the main game. You can restart your save to go back and find Riddler Challenges that you've missed, but otherwise, Arkham is a fairly quiet place. The real post-game fun comes from the Challenge Rooms, which are unlocked by completing the Riddler's tasks. Challenge Rooms are modified versions of the levels in the game and come in two forms: Combat and Predator. Combat Challenges are four-round fights where you're tasked with defeating a group of enemies as efficiently as possible. You're rewarded for using all your moves, beating enemies without breaking your combo, and not getting hit. The more effective you are, the higher score you'll get. Predator Challenges, as you'd imagine, task you with completing a Predator room as quickly as possible and completing side-tasks. Some may involve defeating enemies in certain ways or finishing the room without being seen. The more of these you complete, the higher your overall score will be. Both Challenge and Predator rooms have online leaderboards so you can upload your score and compete with other gamers. There is no prize for winning these rooms; it's simply post-game content that lets you leap into the meat of the game and improve your skills.
Arkham Asylum is a fairly good-looking game. The environments are large and expansive, and each area of Arkham looks surprisingly realistic while retaining an interesting and unique architecture. The way the island changes and evolves over the course of the game is very interesting, especially once Poison Ivy gets loose. The combat looks fantastic, and there are only a handful of games that make combat look as fluid and solid as this. Usually, games sacrifice realism for fast combat, or vice versa, but Arkham Asylum manages to deliver on both fronts. Whether you're sneaking up on an enemy from behind or performing a huge Freeflow combo, it's really mind-blowing just how good this title looks. My only real complaint is that some of the character models look a touch odd, and there are some noticeable visual glitches when an enemy's body interacts with the geometry in weird ways.
While Arkham Asylum looks quite good, the voice acting really makes the game. Most of the actors are solid, from the weaselly Riddler to the monstrous Killer Croc. Batman is voiced by Kevin Conroy, who also played him on "Batman: The Animated Series" and "Gotham Knights." By far, the standout is Mark Hamill's Joker. Hamill voiced The Joker on "Batman: The Animated Series," but even his performance there isn't equal to his standout job on The Joker in this game. You'll hear from The Joker often, since he's taken control of the asylum's PA system, but it never gets tiring; he's simultaneously menacing, annoying and hilarious. When he's making playful comments to his guards while Batman picks them off one by one, you can't help but smile. On the other hand, when he actually displays murderous intent or anger, he's honestly frightening. The soundtrack is excellent, mimicking the "Batman Begins" music and giving the entire experience a very Batman feel.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is the ideal Batman game. It does everything right and manages to capture the spirit of the Dark Knight in a way that no other game has even managed to approach. The combat is frantic and fun, encouraging players to learn the ins and outs of the combat system and rewarding them with some of the most amazing combat visuals I've ever seen in a game. The Predator gameplay, while rarer, is even more fun. Sneaking up on guards and setting traps never goes old, and each Predator section is fun enough that you'll be sad when it's over. The only weak spot is the lackluster boss fights, which are a touch bland. All in all, Batman: Arkham Asylum is exceptional, not only for being an excellent game, but for being an exceptional Batman game. Fans of the franchise owe it to themselves to pick it up, and anyone with a hankering for a high-quality action game will find Arkham Asylum to be just what the doctor ordered.
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