Batman: Arkham Asylum is DC Comics' first attempt at a mature title, and it certainly does not disappoint. The game is available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 but we will be reviewing the Xbox version. Starting with the opening sequence, you are gripped by the stunning graphics and a too-wonderful-for-words soundtrack. Then Batman speaks. It's Kevin Conroy reprising his role as The Caped Crusader; in fact, most of the Batman Animated Series actors have returned, including the legendary Mark Hamill as The Joker. By drawing on this amazing talent pool, DC has managed to produce a game where the voice acting is as great as the source material (Batman The Animated Series).
Developed by Rocksteady Studios and written by Emmy winner Paul Dini, the man behind many of DC's animated properties, Arkham gets a perfectly dark treatment that's sure to please any long-time bat-fan. Comic design powerhouse WildStorm Productions is responsible for the true-to-form character designs, giving each character a very eye-pleasing update – most notably the spunky and sexy Harley Quinn. The developers even assigned one employee full-time to handle the Bat-Cape mechanics; how it moves, reacts to walls, gravity, and the wind. We often joke that there should be a cheat that would turn off the cape which would then force you to listen to a looping audio of that poor coder sobbing!
The Collector's version of this game, priced at about $100, comes with lots of nifty extras. The most-hyped bonus was the Batarang, which looks fantastic on display but it's disappointingly made of hollow plastic. I was a little sad to learn that since Eidos hyped it as a replica, and picking it up out of the foam padding is a little bit of a let-down. I am still on the fence over the “leather bound” journal. Sure, it's got a leather cover, but when you open it up, it's a paper booklet stuffed inside a leather sleeve. Despite the presentation, its content is interesting and informative. The behind-the-scenes DVD is full of developer interviews, trailers and clips. If you're a fan, you've probably seen some of it, but its got some very nice little tidbits that die-hard fans will love. Overall, for the extra $30, this was a pretty good value.
The Xbox 360 version comes with two exclusive Challenge Maps. PS3 players get to play through the story mode as the Joker. This is an almost rage-enducing trade-off. Challenge maps are great for practice and learning your tools, but the game comes with 16 of them once you finish unlocking everything. Also, upon actually playing them, the benefit is next-to-negligible. “Crime Alley” is a four-round brawl nearly identical to the eight other brawl maps. “Dem Bones” is a survival mode wherein you dive into the surreal world of Scarecrow's fear gas and fight wave after wave of enemies – until you take a hit, at which point you lose. There is no story-mode bonus, and only hardcore obsessive players will really get a benefit out of this.
I've gushed over the development and extras, and even whined a little. But what about gameplay? Gameplay is, for the most part, wonderful. Rocksteady really tried hard to make the game accessible to players of all skill levels. There is very little in the way of complex button-pushing required, a thing I have always disliked. The control scheme is easy to understand and very intuitive. It's very simple to grapple onto rooftops and batarang goons, or just jump into the middle of a group and kick some serious butt with the free-flow combat system. On easy mode, all you need are “X to attack” and “Y to counter”. On higher difficulties (Normal and Hard), the combat becomes more taxing, requiring a little more attention paid to the guy behind you with the lead pipe.
The game also borrows heavily from the massively successful Metroid games, particularly in the form of “Detective Mode.” This is an visual overlay mode, cutting out the intense visuals and variations of light and shadow, coloring important switches and items bright orange, and showing x-rays of nearby humans, complete with their mood and heart rate. As Batman, you will make extensive use of Detective Mode for solving puzzles, stalking your enemies and even just scouting new areas. In fact, you will probably leave it on almost constantly, leading to a sad moment about halfway through the story when you will inevitably realize just how many beautiful scenes you've missed in favor of seeing ambushers around the corner. Complicating things more, the combat in detective mode highlights enemies with guns, which can kill you easily, but makes it nearly impossible to discern which ones have knives or tasers, which can hurt you and end your precious combos.
The story, written by Batman animation veteran Paul Dini, is light but engaging. The whole game from start to finish has a certain urgency to it. The player always knows what the next objective is and is compelled to complete it. Fortunately for the more meticulous or casual gamers, there are very few timed challenges. The whole of Arkham Island is available for exploration, again much in the style of the Metroid games' open world-maps; the only limit to your movement is which gadgets you've unlocked.
The biggest disappointment, after completing the game, is looking back at the boss fights. There are only seven named villains who appear on-screen (not including Clay-face, who stays behind a pane of glass in his cell). Of these, only three actually let you into a proper round of fisticuffs. It's understandable in some cases (Batman has never really been one for a fistfight with Harley or Ivy) but it's just plain frustrating doing what amounts to a long mini-game against a villain who really deserves a mouthful of Chiclets. The first boss fight (the mutated inmate seen in the demo) is enhanced and duplicated again and again to the point of annoyance. To preserve the civility of narrative, we're not even going to talk about the half-hour spent creeping through Killer Croc's lair, which without a doubt is the low point of the entire game.
Of course, no open-world game would be complete without a collection quest. The Riddler challenges Batman early in the game to solve a series of “riddles”. The Riddler's Challenge encompasses all of the collections in the game: hidden riddler trophies, joker's wind-up teeth, invisible painted question marks, the chronicles of the Spirit of Amadeus Arkham, some audio files of notable Arkham inmates' therapy sessions, and finally some actual riddles. The riddles are usually paper-thin puns, and solving them is as simple as taking a snapshot of the object described – a painting, the Wayne tower, a plaque, or perhaps the open cell of a notable villain. Also hidden in each area is a secret map which tells you roughly where the challenges are. Many of the challenges unlock character biographies, challenge maps, and 3D trophies. On 100% completion, Batman is treated to a very amusing audio clip.
When I said the graphics were breathtaking, I meant it; they are absolutely top notch. Cut-scenes flow effortlessly into player control and back again with very little difference between the pre-rendered and game engine graphics. There is no break in reality; it's completely immersive. Don't start up Arkham for a quick game, because it just won't happen; expect to spend several hours at a time beating criminals senseless. I mentioned about the guy who handled the Batcape. Well, watch carefully as you play. Your Batsuit takes battle damage after major plot events, and that all looks great too. Once you get far enough into the long night at Arkham, you even grow some manly bat-stubble™!
This was one of my most anticipated games for nearly two years. I have drooled over the little teases given to us since it was announced. If you want to feel like Batman, this is very much the game for you. There's so much you can do, lots of side quests and collection games. Even at the $69.99 CAD price point, you shouldn't be afraid of the expense; it's well worth it. If you want all the little bonuses and a plastic batarang, be prepared to shell out $99.99 CAD for it. I did, and I don't regret it in the least.
Second Take (Amos Ngai):I'm a huge Batman fan. I've always been a DC comics fanboy and I will buy most things that are either Superman or Batman related. The original Animated Series is still one of my most treasured memories growing up. It was THE cartoon that I had to watch after coming home from school. And really, after years of being disappointed with every other Batman game, I wasn't holding my breath for Arkham Asylum. But I'm in complete agreement here with Emrys, this game totally rocks! There's the right amount of tension and the perfect balance of badass-ery and detective work to make it into a night that Bat-Fans will never forget. Voice acting is unparalleled and with great animation, direction, and writing, you also get a visceral experience that you won't find in many games today. Batman: Arkham Asylum isn't a perfect game. The pacing could be more even and the character designs could have been a little less Frank Miller meets Dark Knight for my taste but those are just small complaints. Because anyway you cut it, this is the best Batman game I have ever played and I've played them all. Highly recommended and well deserving of a place on the GamerWok's Hot List as an Editor's Choice!