Batman – Arkham Asylum opens with the Joker restrained and captured, a refreshing change from games that feel the need to open on an action scene. The player walks through long hallways toward the Joker’s eventual cell, the super villain taunting everyone he passes.
Mark Hamill is brilliant as Batman’s most famous foe, whimsically insane as he spouts off continuous and rarely repetitive one-liners towards his nemesis. The opening is critical in establishing his devious nature and where in the Batman universe this Joker belongs. The answer is are far cry from the campy ‘60s Joker, and slightly more devilishly playful than Heath Ledger. Hamill brings an edge to Arkham Asylum, one that game needs to disguise a rather pedestrian design hidden between layers of style, atmosphere, and production values.
Three encounters with the Scarecrow are undoubtedly the highlight of the experience, none of which requires the player to fight the foe. Scarecrow begins his attack mentally, forcing Batman to relive his parents death as a child, which the player interacts with.
Then the hallucinogen takes full effect, with a towering Scarecrow floating in the middle of a broken landscape, his brightly lit eyes scouring the floating platforms looking for Batman. The player interaction here is minute, requiring little more than basic platforming and stealth skills to traverse. Later gas attacks require minimal brawling, although it is inoffensive and creepy in its own way.
It is a shame then the rest of the Arkham Asylum can’t measure up. Much of the game is filled with tiring air ducts, ones that require mashing the A button to open. Likewise, Arkham is littered with identical gargoyle statues, which while creepy, make you wonder why most of the patients are going insane in the first place.
The closed off stealth segments, typically against a standard set of armed Joker goons, do not offer enough variety. One requires the player to sneak through everyone to reach the leader first, creating a different, varied challenge the other rooms do not.
That said, destroying the rather inept armed guards is made enjoyable. Setting traps, including liquid explosives, tying them up by their feet, or making a sneak attack from behind, does create a number of options.
The basic combat engine flows nicely with Batman literally jumping from foe to foe effortlessly. The game slows down at the appropriate time to accentuate impact, and undoubtedly delivers a sense of forcefulness to each hit.
Generating a higher combo counter is also satisfying, although the electrical prod-carrying enemies are a sloppy design call. There are times when you have little control over which enemy Batman is attacking, and the prods instantly stops Batman if they are attacked from the front. It breaks the flow and in turn the enjoyment.
Missions are standard fare, including a few that require Batman to follow a trail using CSI-like detective work. For instance, a trail of tobacco helps Batman find an ally, although it is rather obvious this serves as a guide to help navigate the sometimes same-looking levels and prevent the need to look at the map since it is not available on the HUD.
Arkham Asylum pays attention to detail. Batman’s suit gains damage as the game moves on, and by the final Joker conflict, his arms, cape, legs, and face are scratched or torn. That is what Arkham Asylum excels at, creating battles bigger than Batman, showing him as flawed and even beatable. Most comic book heroes are untouchable in video games, letting the player bash on mindless foes with a marketing team dictating what will happen to their franchise character, not the developer.
That was a problem with previous Batman titles, such as the excellent beat-em-up Batman Returns on the SNES. While a fine game in terms of the genre, it had little to do with Batman, turning him into an unstoppable force rampaging through levels with little challenge. Here Bruce Wayne is a full character, mourning the loss of his parents, showing emotion when he fails, and yes, taking damage as the fight increases its intensity.
That’s the Arkham Asylum difference. You cannot be fooled by its familiar gameplay, but you can learn to ignore it simply to enjoy what is happening around it. It is critical to the full experience, and exactly why the opening sequence is crucial in establishing developer Rocksteady’s vision for Arkham Asylum. This is a Batman fan fest, not necessarily a refreshing design.