REVIEW SUMMARY: A highly polished game in every aspect, putting it on the top of the heap of Batman stories, not to mention video games this year.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Batman returns an escaped Joker to the high security insane clinic, Arkham Asylum, only to discover that it was a trap to lure Batman in.
PROS: Amazing combat systems, but stealth and FreeFlow brawling; a brilliant Batman storyline; excellent return of Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman, and Mark Hamill as the Joker; clever redesigns of all Batman villains; Mark Hamill’s performance as Joker; a wealth of extras; Joker’s voice, performed by Mark Hamill.
CONS: Commissioner Gordon is built like a brick wall and is a bit distracting.
BOTTOM LINE: An amazing Batman story and a combat system that’s so fluid, you can’t help but enjoy big fights, amazing voice acting and a really top-notch story leaves this standing as one of the best uses of Batman we’ve ever seen. And my favorite.
I was sort of aware that a Batman game was in the works for the Playstation 3, but hadn’t really gotten excited about it. Batman doesn’t have a good history of video game titles. In fact, much like Superman, Batman’s history of video games is a travesty. The last good one I played was for the original Tim Burton Batman movie, and was on a Gameboy. (And frankly, the reason it was good was that I was living on a tropical island, where one does not acquire a huge number of video games).
I eventually wound up trying out the demo for Batman: Arkham Asylum, which they released for kiosks in the game-stores. In the kiosk demo, you are in a small room and you fight four waves of bad guys, and you try to survive. So I gifted my wife with a hyperactive toddler and played.
I was blown away. Batman himself looked amazing, not only in sheer level of detail put into his costume, but he looked amazing when you rushed into the fight and began going after four guys, six guys, fifteen guys, all at once. The demo was brief, but it left me hyperactively excited.
In fact, the gameplay impressed me so much, I didn’t notice until some time later that the taunting voice of Joker was being performed with exceptional skill by Mark Hamill. That always makes me happier.
So you can imagine that it wasn’t all that long after the game came out that I snatched it up. And it didn’t take me very long to get through it. That’s not because the game is short, it’s because it sort of devours whole chunks of your day and leaves you blinking with a crick in your neck, wondering why the clock says it’s midnight, when you could swear it was just half-past four in the evening.
To summarize the beginning of the plot for you, briefly: The maniacal Joker breaks out of Arkham Asylum, the island-based mental high security prison just off the coast of Gotham City, where all of the lunatics that Batman has fought over the years are held. Batman goes in pursuit, apprehends the Joker and returns him to Arkham…worrying to Commissioner Gordon that it was too easy. Joker let himself be caught and brought back by Batman. But why?
Because it was a trap. Joker, aided by Harley Quinn, takes over Arkham and locks Batman in. And thus begins the story, as Joker lures Batman deeper into the mad-house, and Batman goes in relentless pursuit, trying to stop Joker’s plans.
There isn’t a lot wrong with this game. I may as well talk about the problems right up front, just to get them out of they way. First, there’s Commissioner Gordon. Frankly, he looks like a brick wall, instead of a normal cop in his fifties or sixties, he looks like he could put on a Batman cowl and stomp all over bad guys. He’s astonishingly ripped. It has a Frank Miller Sin City feel to it, which is no good. He looks ludicrous. Second, there are the facial expressions of most of the minor characters, like the guards you wind up talking to. In the cutscenes, they’re fine, but in-game, they’re stiff and not showing a huge range of emotion.
That’s about it, problem-wise. Let’s get into the goodies.
First, there’s Batman. His costume his incredibly, immaculately detailed. His cape is a fluid, swooping and flowing thing that – for the first time in video game history – actually feels like Batman’s cape. Batman’s voice is done by Kevin Conroy, who is more or less The Voice of Batman in anything that isn’t live action. One amazingly cool thing they did with Batman during the long game is, as he fights and claws his way through Arkham Asylum, he starts looking more and more the worse for wear as the game goes on. He gets bloodied, his costume rips, his cape shreds, he grows some stubble. By the end of the game, Batman looks like hell, and it’s astonishingly cool.
Second, there’s Joker. Voiced by Mark Hamill, who is The Voice Of Joker in the same way that Conroy is Batman. Joker really pulls a lot of duty in this game, in that his voice is not only in the cutscenes, but frequently over the loud-speakers, and spouting dozens and dozens of lines in the challenge missions you unlock. They really took full advantage of having Mark Hamill on-board, and I can just say, thank goodness for that. He’s fantastic, even as he’s evil and demented. Batman will be standing on twelve unconscious thugs, and Joker booms over the loud-speaker “Nice moves, Bats! Thanks for showing me them!” And typing it does nothing. You have to hear the manic-perky tone he uses. Joker himself looks terrifically detailed, and completely classic.
Third, there’s all the other characters. They redesigned everybody. Harley Quinn looks…significantly more sexy than she ever previously did. She wasn’t that well-developed in the comics, if you follow me. And besides her, they’ve really put the work into making the characters look interesting and full realized. Even when they redesign, they do it faithfully. There is no doubt that you’re facing Zzas. Or Killer Croc. Or Bane.
Fourth, there’s story-and-gameplay, and I hyphenate like that because they really go hand-in-hand here. This is a smart game. Everything from the fantastic opening sequence, when you do nothing more exciting than walk next to Joker, along with some guards, as he’s wheeled deep into Arkham Asylum. It’s immersive. Joker is babbling and evil. There’s this amazing moment when Killer Croc gets out of an elevator in front of you and looms that gives a sense of scale I never experienced to that extent, in another video game.
All through the story, you keep going up against the plots and assaults of different Batman villains, from Poison Ivy, to Harley Quinn, to Bane and Killer Croc. And each time, you not only get really interesting gameplay elements, but you get a fully-realized villain personality. There’s the wonderful gameplay of going up against Harley Quinn, where you cannot kill any thugs between you and her, and you can’t be seen, or she’ll fry the Warden. Or the long, slow sequence with Killer Croc who lurks, like something out of Jaws, ready to leap and get you if you make any noise. To the, to be honest, “oh shit” moment of realizing you’re about to have a fight with Bane. In each sequence, the character is key. You sympathize with Harley Quinn at the end of that bit.
Fifth – oh, let’s stop counting – there’s the combat systems. They built this amazing free-flowing combat system, so that Batman can wade into the midst of hoards of thugs and fight them, more or less fighting all of them all at once. The buttons are simple, the system is complex and very hard to master. But when you’re in the thick of it, fighting guys with guns and pipes and knives and fists, you’re whirling and leaping and slamming and doing some pretty good damage to these guys. There are limbs a-bustin’. You’re blocking and throwing and all of these things. You feel like Batman. You feel like a dangerous, disciplined Dark Knight.
There’s two combat systems, sort of, and the second one is a stealth combat, or a “predator” mode. In these areas (and in the predator challenge arenas you later unlock), the idea is to remain unseen, and pick off the bad guys one by one. Swooping down from gargoyles to snatch them up. Appearing out of floor gates and taking them down. And a million other methods. And the amazing thing is, you’ll be crouching on a gargoyle, a looming black shadow on a perch, with just a single bad guy left below you…and he’s gone, in the course of you picking off everyone else, from calm, to nervous, to terrified. He’s leaping at shadows, gibbering, not coherent at all. You feel like a menace, again, like a Dark Knight.
But none of that is my favorite thing about this game.
This is my favorite thing about this game:
I bet everyone who’s played the game just nodded in agreement with me.
Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, turns up periodically, and he sprays Batman with his hallucinogenic fear-gas compound. We saw some of this in action, on a minor scale, in Batman Begins. This goes way beyond that. For one thing, you don’t necessarily know you’ve been sprayed. But when you are…the whole game changes. It hits the fan.
Oh, it’s mild at first. Mild being: you in a morgue, with various lids opening and slamming and these strange whispers and moans and the light going odd and the camera moving funny and somehow, all of this makes you, the player, feel off.
But it goes beyond that. It goes into cinematically amazing territory. You are walking down a long hall in Arkham Asylum. And echoing around you…are the voices of Thomas Wayne and his wife and son, heading home from a theater, confronted by a burglar. Flash. The hallway is filled with rain. More voices. The scene continues. You just keep…walking. Flash. The hall, still a hall, is beginning to be made of bricks and has garbage cans in with the desks. The robbing goes bad. Gun shots. Flash. You keep walking. The ground is a back alley. And then, eventually, you are a little boy.
My description is very poor. In action, it’s amazing, and heart-felt, and powerful.
But then there’s the extreme bit. Where the game seems to “glitch” and freeze up your Playstation 3 and reboot, launching the opening cutscene again. Except. Except. Everything is off. And now it’s the opening long-walk sequence I mentioned above…with Batman being wheeled into Arkham, being wheeled in by Joker and the others. And then bang, a gun-shot, to the face. And then Game Over. And then it goes on from there.
My description is so very poor of that too. In action, it’s terrific.
And that’s to leave out of this already lengthy review the huge number of Riddler hidden things to find throughout the regular game. There are a serious lot of them. And that doesn’t mention the challenge rooms you unlock, the combat ones, or the predator ones, or the ones as Joker. Beating the story doesn’t nearly mean you’re done.
I’ll just say in closing: everything is fluid, everything serves the story, which is itself top-notch, voiced by the perfect people at the top of their game, and the story everything is serving is fantastic. I don’t mind saying, I think this is my favorite Batman story, out of games, comics, movies, and shows. This one’s top of the heap for me, by quite a long way. There’s so much more I could say, but it would all fail to capture the game. I’m afraid you’ve just got to go play this one.