Quick, hot take time! Batman’s great, ain’t he? Yeah, I know, it’s hard hitting stuff there, a real tough opinion I’m bringing out. Much like the rest of the internet, and like anyone who has ever read a graphic novel or seen a superhero movie I really like Batman. It should be no surprise then that I’ve played all the Batman: Arkham games and I quite like all 4 of them. It’s been a while though since I last played any of the franchise, and I had a right hankering to replay them, so let’s see if it all holds up.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Aug 2009 | Developed: Rocksteady | Published: Warner Bros. / Eidos
The plot starts in pretty much the way you’d expect – Batman bombs through Gotham in the Batmobile with the unconscious Joker in tow. He arrives at the foreboding Arkham Asylum, home to Gotham’s vast array of reprobates and supervillains. The Joker is trussed up on a gurney and is wheeled through the halls of the Intensive Treatment building but doesn’t seem overly concerned; in fact he seems to be laughing more than usual. Batman’s concerns are realised when security gates are raised and the Joker wriggles free. Instead of escaping however the Joker heads deeper into the Asylum and assumes total control over it as inmates from his gang run riot and set about killing guards and medical staff.
Batman of course gets to work immediately. Armed only with his gadgets, his skill, and a link to Oracle on his comms, he begins the night’s work of defeating the Joker and recapturing the supervillains now running rampant. He certainly has his work cut out. Alongside the Joker is of course Harley Quinn, but some other familiar faces from the Rogues Gallery make their presence known as well and it wouldn’t be Batman if he left any stone turned or any criminal free to roam.
Arkham Asylum has great gameplay but it’s not enough to say that; more accurately it’s probably been one of the most influential action games for a long while. The combat in it has been aped, recreated, and used in a modified form in a tonne of games since its release back in 2009. The combat uses a now ubiquitous free flow system which focuses on chaining together strikes in extensive combos, using special moves and tricks to extend it, and countering enemy attacks fluidly to create a seamless beatdown stream. Arkham Asylum might have been the first but other games simply do not do it as well as even this first entry in the franchise.
I love the way Batman zips between foes. All too often material depicts him as kind of just a tank in combat but forgets he had ninja-style training as well, yet Arkham Asylum gives him a level of maneuverability which reflects that, though I will concede it does look quite silly in action at times as Batman flies at rocket speed from one thug to another. At its best it feels like a rhythm game, and it rewards treating it that way as opposed to button mashing. Upgrades to Batman’s suite of attacks allow him to pull off special moves once combo multipliers have reached certain points, and his trademark Batarangs and grapnel gun can also be quick-fired in fights to either stun baddies or yank them towards you, giving you a few more options than simply wailing on them.
Certain sequences pit Batman against goons armed with guns. Batman might be powerful but he can’t stand up to repeated gunfire for very long and so wisely decides on stealth to deal with these situations. These are perhaps the moments you most feel like the Caped Crusader, scowling down while perched on a gargoyle or sneaking quietly up behind an enemy before choking them out. Dropping down from a perch and then dangling your prey from them in classic Batman style never gets old. Enemies showcase some interesting AI in these sequences; as their numbers dwindle they’ll start to get increasingly jumpy, sometimes will travel in pairs, they’ll check grates underfoot for any prowling superheroes, and can even be startled by the hiss and wheeze of the pipes in the asylum, causing them to fire blindly as they get more agitated. Later instances can get reasonably challenging; while early in the game one can comfortably hide in the rafters and only descend to take someone out before disappearing again, later sequences either use awkward gargoyle placement and cramped rooms to discourage you from that tactic, and sometimes the gargoyles are mined with explosives to force you down onto the ground where you are more vulnerable.
Thankfully you earn experience for almost anything. High combo scores in combat, efficient predator sequences, finding trophies hidden by the Riddler, and even just exploring Arkham island can all accrue points and unlock upgrades for Batman. The upgrades are fairly linear and straightforward – more health is an obvious path, but also available are a few additional combat tricks, new gadgets, and upgrades for existing tools. There’s a bit of a disparity in how useful certain upgrades are though; I tend to find that the combat options are of significantly greater use than the others given how much of the game can be spent in open fights, plus the two additional combo moves instantly knock out enemies, making them worth getting as soon as possible. In contrast the new gadgets are not quite as beneficial though they can make stealth sequences a little less taxing on higher difficulties.
There’s a slight metroidvania feel to Arkham Asylum. Batman unlocks new tools and gadgets as the night progresses and these allow him to revisit areas of the island and its facilities to explore a little more. Often once you’ve used them for their intended means to progress in the story the extra items are used to uncover collectibles more than anything. In practice Arkham Asylum is still a more linear game than other metroidvanias and its exploration isn’t as pronounced as other examples of the genre. There’s only one sidequest that follows you through the game, involving the Riddler scattering collectibles across the asylum island which gives at least some reason to go back and scour the gameworld once you’re fully kitted out. The collectibles give experience points which is fine but one can’t underestimate the draw of all the references and nods to the wider Batman canon that you find along the way, which is something I adore. Rocksteady have very carefully filled Arkham Asylum with a bunch of these references and hunting them out feels worth it – there are not many games I play to 100% completion when I review them but this was one of them because of it.
My absolute favourite thing about Arkham Asylum however, and the reason I’ve come back to it a few times, is the atmosphere. It is true that this game captures the feeling of being Batman very well, and it also gives me waves of nostalgia when I hear voice actors I remember from Batman: The Animated Series returning to voice their characters, such as Kevin Conroy as Batman and the incredible Mark Hamill as the Joker. However, on top of that, Arkham Asylum draws some inspiration from horror and thriller tropes. The asylum is grim and spooky, and every new place is designed to elicit a sense of dread and surprise in the player; the sewers and caves beneath the island echo with the ominous growls of Killer Croc, the penitentiary wing are filled with the deafening howling laughter of the insane, and the medical wing trades safe, white sterility for dingy blood-stained halls that speak of gross surgery and experimentation immediately after the front desk. It’s incredible how uneasy it makes you feel, especially given you’re playing as Batman, the most prepared and unflappable character in comics history. No sequences in the game exemplify this more than the few brief and marvelous moments where the Scarecrow drugs Batman with his trademark fear gas and the game gives way to spectacular feverish visions.
As much as I love Arkham Asylum, there are some hiccups along the way, though they are blessedly minor. Arkham Asylum sees Batman make extensive use of Detective Vision – a kind of variant on Eagle Vision from Assassin’s Creed. It allows you to see interactable objects and uncover secrets, and it’s also used in a few moments in the game where Batman sets up a crime scene to try and set up a trail with which to track a character and find a new lead in stopping the Joker. The issue is that it covers the screen in a dreary, neon-blue or purple swatch while objects stand out in an eye-piercing orange glow. Because it highlights everything rather than having to try and pick out what’s interactable in a world that looks as good as Arkham Asylum and where anything could be part of the scenery the temptation is there to have it on all the time but doing so obviously makes the game look worse. The trail-following sequences are probably the bit which abuses it the most as you constantly flick it on and off to make sure you’re going in the right direction.
For all it does well, the combat does occasionally have a moment and break slightly. Sometimes Batman won’t respond to the direction you’re pointing, or he’ll flail wildly and that’s it for your combo. Additionally, the game’s boss fights are easily the weakest element of the entire experience. There are only a scant handful of boss fights proper alongside a set of minibosses and every single one of them is a variant on the same theme. Often you get chucked in against one or two big chunky enemies who all fall to identical strategies or the game just throws waves of regular enemies at you in lieu of creative or interesting fights.
Despite those minor annoyances, Batman: Arkham Asylum remains one of my favourite games of all time. It’s certainly one of the finest superhero games ever, and its influence on a generation of action games is undeniable. Play it for the exceptional atmosphere, and play it for the experience of feeling like Batman. You can’t go wrong with this one.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.