Batman is one of the most iconic superheroes of all time. Ever since first appearing in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, the Caped Crusader has been featured in a cult classic television show, beloved animated series, and several critically acclaimed movies, as well as continuing to appear in comic books for seven decades. One thing that the Dark Knight has never been able to do, however, is make a successful transition to video games. A few of the Batman games that came out during the 16-bit era were entertaining, but can’t really be described as classics, and the titles released last generation were pretty awful. From the second Batman: Arkham Asylum was announced, gamers hoped that this would be the ultimate Batman game, but many had reservations given the Bat’s history in the medium. Adding to the hesitation was the fact that a virtually unknown studio, Rocksteady, was handling development duties. Now that the game is out, there is no doubt that Arkham Asylum was in more than capable hands. Simply put, it is the Batman game that fans have been waiting for.
Arkham Asylum, as you might expect, brings Bats to Arkham Island, where he is assisting Gotham police alongside Commissioner Gordon to re-imprison the Joker at the Asylum. However, it soon turns out to be an elaborate trap planned by the Joker and carried out with the assistance of his main squeeze and punching bag, Harley Quinn. Batman finds himself trapped in the Asylum alongside some of Gotham City’s most notorious criminals, including Mr. Zsasz, Scarecrow, Bane, Killer Croc, and of course, the Joker himself. Television and comic writer Paul Dini penned the original plot, which was not based on any previous adaptation, instead drawing from the Knight’s rich comic history. Dini is best known among Batman fans for contributing to Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond, as well as bringing (along with Bruce Timm) the character Harley Quinn to life. Once again, Dini has crafted a compelling Batman narrative, finally delivering a video game story worthy of the Dark Knight.
Assisting in bringing the heroes and villains of Arkham Asylum to life is an impressive cast of voice actors. Though all of the major players are voiced well, the real standouts are Kevin Conroy as Batman, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, and Mark Hamill as the Joker. These are the same actors that provided voices for those roles in Batman: The Animated Series, and the game definitely benefits from their talents. For many people, Mark Hamill is the unequivocal voice of the Joker, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else handling Harley’s squeaky tones. While I won’t go so far as to say this would have been a bad game without such accomplished voice actors, it certainly wouldn’t have been quite as good.
In addition to the standout cast of characters, Arkham Island itself stands out as an interactive environment. Every location looks and feels wonderful, as much a living, breathing part of the game as anything else. The Asylum, the sewers, the mansion, the grounds, and every other explorable nook and cranny have been crafted with an impressive amount of detail. You will be driven to find every little reference to Batman’s history, especially since the Riddler will provide you with hundreds of puzzles to solve and hidden items to find. Hidden interview tapes with Arkham’s notorious inmates, nuggets about the history of Arkham Asylum itself, and puzzling clues that lead to cleverly placed details (such as the grave of Amadeus Arkham, some of Catwoman’s accessories, or the puppet Scarface) are just some of the things you will set out to find, and will give you a reason to retrace your steps and survey every bit of the island you can set foot on.
In Arkham Asylum, Joker has employed an army of inmate thugs to do his dirty work, and they will constantly stand in Batman’s path as he tries to stop Joker and the other big-name baddies. There are two ways to go about defeating them, depending on the situation: hand-to-hand combat, or carefully maneuvered stealth attacks. When it comes to unarmed enemies, Batman can easily take out a whole room with the game’s combat system. Though Arkham Asylum’s fighting can seem at first like simple button mashing, it is actually more complicated. Striking, dodging, stunning, and counter attacks are all mapped to face buttons, and pointing Batman in the direction of the next foe will make him attack in that direction. During fights, a combo meter counts your string of moves, and you will soon see how difficult it is to perform combos upwards of 20 or 30 actions. Your experience will be multiplied by the highest combination you achieve, so you will want to make each scuffle as seamless as possible.
Armed foes, however, are a different story. Since he doesn’t use guns, Batman can’t simply rush into a room full of thugs equipped with firearms; taking down those enemies requires patience and stealth. Of course, Batman has plenty of tools available at his disposal to accomplish this task. Hiding behind corners, sneaking up behind a clueless foe, performing a reverse takedown from gargoyle overhead, and knocking out enemies with a glide kick are just a few ways Batman can stealthily render his opponents unconscious. Yes, this is Batman we all know, which means that he does not kill anyone.
Experience earned in fights and from solving the Riddler’s puzzles can be used to unlock both offensive and defensive upgrades for Batman. Almost every tool he has can be advanced, with more improvements becoming available throughout the course of the game. For example, the Batarang can be given both remote control and sonar abilities, while explosive gel can be made to detonate automatically when a threat draws near. Additionally, Bats can upgrade his armor up to four times, making him stronger and more resistant to damage and essentially giving him more HP. These upgrades, known in the game as WayneTech, make gaining experience critical, which is a driving factor to get those high combo scores.
A significant amount of time in Arkham Asylum will be spent in Detective Mode, another high-tech tool at Batman’s disposal. Detective Mode gives everything a bluish tint and allows Batman to spot threats from a distance, tell if enemies are armed or unarmed, and makes finding hidden items a bit easier. While Detective Mode is definitely a cool feature, the fact that you have to spend the majority of the game in it means that you won’t get to fully take in each environment. Removing Detective Mode puts you at a significant disadvantage, particularly indoors, since you never know when a group of heavily armed thugs might be right around the corner. It’s a small complaint, but I do wish it wasn’t quite so necessary at all times.
One of my favorite things about Arkham Asylum is the use of nontraditional boss fights. Batman is extremely skilled in combat, but he’s also smart enough to know not do engage directly with an enemy three times his size. Every scuffle with a major villain is different and specific to that particular baddie, which keeps the game from ever getting stale. Depending on the situation, you may have to use gadgets, platforming, or just some quick reflexes and common sense. The deployment of villains in Arkham Asylum makes it apparent that the developers really had a great understanding of the Batman universe, and put that knowledge to good use.
After beating the game's main story, various Challenge Rooms will keep you coming back for more. Challenge Rooms will put your skills to the test as you try to get the highest score or the fastest time clearing a room full of Joker’s thugs. The leaderboards add an element of competition to the Challenge Rooms, and all of your upgrades from the campaign will carry over. These challenges greatly extend the life of Arkham Asylum once the 10-15 hour storyline is completed, and you will want to try to improve upon your own scores over and over again. Challenge Rooms become unlocked as you complete more of the Riddler’s challenges, and even if you beat the game, you can still go back and solve more puzzles. While it’s nice to wander the island freely in search of more answers to the Riddler’s questions, I would have liked if Arkham Asylum had a New Game + mode in which you could play through the entire game with all of your earned upgrades. That being said, even without New Game + I’m already looking forward to my second playthrough.
Between the detailed environments and wonderful character designs, the presentation of Arkham Asylum is pretty impressive. All of the major players are represented fantastically, and while some balked at Harley’s new outfit, I appreciated the throwback to her psychiatrist days. The unlockable character bios are a great touch and help to educate gamers on Batman’s history, menus are sensibly laid out and easy to navigate, and maps of the entire island and interior locations make it easy to find your next objective. I would have liked to have some sort of mini-map onscreen, so I didn’t have to go into the menu every time I got turned around or distracted by an unexpected scuffle. Also, though the game looks great, I did notice some graphical hiccups, most notably clipping. Batman’s cape went through more than one enemy, though it did not happen often. Overall, there is very little to complain about, and even the few missteps are easily forgiven since the rest of the game is so good.
In the weeks before its release, Batman: Arkham Asylum was being hailed as not only the greatest Batman game of all time, but one of the best games based on pre-existing franchises ever made. While I was wary about buying into the hype, I can now report that both of these things are true. Arkham Asylum is a phenomenal achievement, and I can’t wait to see what Rocksteady has in store next—personally, I’m hoping for a sequel set in Gotham City. Arkham Asylum is the kind of game you can’t stop playing, yet don’t ever want to end; it was almost a shame to have to review it, because I really wanted to take my time and enjoy every inch of Arkham Island. It is a cinematic gaming experience that finally does the Caped Crusader justice, and other developers should take note of the correct way to handle a beloved character. Finally, the Dark Knight was done right.