Reviewed by John Hussey
I will admit that I didn’t originally have much interest in this game. I saw the original teaser trailer when I first watched The Dark Knight on DVD and was only semi interested, at best. Come the following year (2009) the game was finally released and I didn’t have a clue what games to get for Christmas other than the acclaimed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, so I decided to give it a chance and see what it was like. Boy, I’m glad I made that decision.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a phenomenal game because it explores, in great detail, the world and mythology of Batman. From the narrative, to the characters, to even the setting, it all comes together to create a fantastical variation of the Batman universe which you can easily become a part of.
Batman is without a doubt my favourite superhero, so to be able to control him in this explorative, action beat ’em up, investigative thriller was near enough a dream come true. The best part about my original experience was I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, so it made every layer I peeled away all the more exciting and immersive. I enjoyed delving further and further into this world and understanding the characters and getting closer to my objectives, whilst tackling the chaos trying to get in my way.
The narrative itself, on the surface, isn’t very complex and in many ways feels rather straight forward. Batman has to delve into the heart of Arkham Asylum and stop The Joker from committing his terrible deed. But beyond that the narrative becomes very deep. There’s so much going on, especially when it comes to being side-stepped in order to confront the other master-criminals on the loose, along with the interesting revelations placed before you throughout.
It’s slowly revealed that The Joker didn’t get caught by accident. He wanted to return to Arkham. At first you’re led to assume it’s all a big game, perhaps a trap for Batman, but as the story unravels we learn that his plans become more terrifying. Under the persona of Jack White (Joker’s oldest alias) he manipulates one of the doctor’s at Arkham, Penelope Young, and ultimately tries abusing one of her experiments (Titan) to create an army of monsters.
But the journey to stop him isn’t easy. At every turn you are blocked by The Joker’s traps as he slowly, but sure, takes control of the island. It’s actually really clever how you slowly watch the facility fall to the rampaging inmates as the poor security guards begin to pile up as corpses. It’s even more tragic when you consider all the characters you can interact with at the beginning of the game, some of which you save, are nearly all killed during the process of the take-over.
As you journey further into the Madhouse you encounter a few fan-favourites who pose both physical and psychological threats. You have the reoccurring appearance of The Joker’s psychotic partner-in-crime, Harley Quinn, who is always a fun addition to the game. You have to battle against the brutal strength of Bane, whom you learn is the source of Titan after his own Venom is drained from his veins. There’s a somewhat annoying stealth section involving Killer Croc. Then you have to battle a giant destructive plant controlled by Poison Ivy.
The best reoccurring boss throughout the game is definitely Scarecrow. It’s both fascinating, and terrifying, how he just randomly appears and injects you with fear toxins in order to send you on a trippy drug trip in an attempt to make you lose your sanity. Each one becomes more personal as Scarecrow tries to test Batman’s will power by making him confront his deepest, darkest fears.
Scarecrow’s first encounter makes you believe that Commissioner Jim Gordon has been murdered, before having you enter a creepy morgue which holds the bodies of Thomas and Martha Wayne – both of which try torturing Batman over his inability to save them from their fate.
In the second encounter Scarecrow continues to focus on their deaths as the Arkham mansion morphs into the alleyway they were gunned down. It’s made more dramatic when Batman himself is transformed back into a child, showcasing how helpless and alone he was back then. The trauma is made worse when you can hear a member of the GCPD disrespectfully bashing him over his wealth, to which Gordon criticises him for due to the fact that no amount of money can bring his parents back to him.
The third, and final, encounter really shuck me up on my first play-through simply because it made me think that my game had crashed. Not cool Rocksteady! But the aftermath was more than creative as it makes you believe that Batman has lost and been locked-up in Arkham by The Joker whilst Scarecrow is allowed to experiment on him. It really gives you an idea of what would happen if Batman lost all sense of sanity and became deranged. This segment in particular continues to ask the question of whether Batman is truly better than the master criminals he locks up every night.
Another thing I love about Arkham Asylum is its tone. It doesn’t hold back for the mass audience. It wants both fans, and the general audience, to know that this isn’t for kids. Arkham Asylum is a gritty narrative filled to the brim with dark hidden truths, allowing you to feel a descent into madness like you’re truly inside a mental facility. All around you are hints to the tormented souls within the walls of Arkham which merely adds to the atmosphere.
I love how there’s a ton of references to characters from Batman’s mythology that don’t even feature in the game (though a lot of them would be featured in future games). There are many Easter-eggs to be found and it all helps you in immersing within the universe. You can find the cells of some of Batman’s greatest enemies, such as Two-Face, Mr. Freeze and The Riddler. You can also find items that belong to other Batman villains, such as Penguin and Catwoman, that Warden Quincy Sharp has placed in display cabinets within the Arkham mansion.
Other cool collectibles include discovering Interview Tapes of certain Arkham inmates, allowing you to delve further into their twisted minds. Each Tape reveals more and more about the certain individual and most of them leave you feeling uncomfortable. It really gives you an understanding of their darker natures and why they are deemed insane and dangerous to the public beyond the usual assumption.
Speaking of collectibles, how can I not talk about The Riddler. In true Riddler fashion he intercepts Batman’s communications and has him undergo a series of challenges. This mostly consists on finding collectibles that he has hidden throughout the island, with the most iconic item being the infamous Riddler Trophies (which in later games would become a chore to find).
I find that the original Riddler challenges were the best because they were simplistic but still had a sense of challenge. You had to still use your head, thinking about the relevant gadget you needed to use to reach, or uncover, specific items of interest but they weren’t unnecessarily difficult for the sake of giving you a tough challenge. Plus they all fit into the feel of the ongoing game. They didn’t take you out of the moment and never felt like a side-mission, but rather a massive part of the universe you stood within.
In terms of the gameplay aspect of Arkham Asylum, they are rather satisfying. The controls aren’t too clunky and Batman moves around rather freely (though certain aspects are improved upon within future games). I especially like how the gadgets are incorporated into the narrative. They feel very much apart of the ongoing journey and become completely essential in stopping The Joker. It’s especially clever how they are each used to collect different Riddler items across the map.
Speaking of the map, this has to be the best usage of an environment in any given game. Nothing is wasted. Everywhere on Arkham Island is travelled to at some point or other and has a part to play within the story. Usually areas are created within games just to fill in spaces on the map, or to create the illusion that there is more areas beyond the designated levels. But here you travel to all given areas of the map and each area has its own character, delivering further atmosphere. It’s a map that you enjoy exploring as you better understand the insane environment you are travelling through.
The only grudge I have about the gameplay is the combat. It’s very hard to create combos because Batman feels stiff in his movements, and often than not something will interrupt the combo chain (usually Batman’s inactive movement). His flexibility is clearly limited in this game along with the type of attacks you can initiate. Though having said that, I find the simplistic nature of the combat system allows for a more fun play-through.
The enemies in this game aren’t too over-powering, and though there are battles later on in the game that can feel overwhelming, it’s never beyond doable. Later games tried too hard to make the combat accommodate to Batman’s superior fighting style and because of this made the combat far too difficult. What I also like a lot about Arkham Asylum is the way you tackle your enemy. You still have to use your head but you could be more fun about it, with my personal preference being to use the gargoyles to perform “stealth takedowns”.
Batman: Arkham Asylum culminates with an unfortunate disappointing boss fight. Batman finally gets the chance to confront Joker after a night of Hell, resulting in The Dark Knight fighting against endless Blackgate prisoners, combatting insane inmates, facing his fears at the hands of Scarecrow, dealing with an invasion of toxic plants, whilst trying to regain control of Arkham Asylum, only for it end with two Titan Henchmen battles.
By that point you have encountered the Titan induced inmates three times, to which the end level results in nothing more than repetition. It becomes even more disappointing when The Joker injects himself with the Titan formula due to his disappointment with Batman not playing along with his game. This feels completely out of character for the Clown Prince of Crime. The confrontation is then laughable due to how ridiculous of a concept it is: fighting a giant rampaging Joker monster, that randomly still has control over his senses despite the other Titan beasts not being able to.
Despite this poor ending (which is made up for in the sequel) Batman: Arkham Asylum is an amazing experience and I recommend any Batman fan who hasn’t already played it to seriously consider giving it a go. It’s a great look into the Batman universe and it feels even more special how it brings together the iconic duo of Batman: The Animated Series, Kevin Convoy and Mark Hamill, to reprise their roles as Batman and Joker. It just fits within this universe and feels like the next stage of their iconic characters’ development, particularly how it is pushed with the darker themes.
The voice acting in general is fantastic with nearly all of the characters having a voice that matches their personalities. Arleen Sorkin, as ever, gives her unique spin on Harley Quinn and adds in her usual devilish charm, whilst giving her iconic character that slight edge due to the grittier story involved.
Kimberly Brooks gives a great performance as Oracle. Although she is never physically seen, only heard through Batman’s communicator, she has a massive presence throughout as she helps out from behind her computer. Dino Andrade gives a chilling performance as Scarecrow, whilst Wally Wingert really captures the heart and soul of The Riddler, delivering perfectly his obsessive nature, his cruel intelligence and narcissism which often pushes him to the point of insanity.
Overall, this is a brilliant game that has stood the test of time. It stands as one of the greatest interpretations of Batman and is definitely one of my favourite games of all time. From start to finish I am completely immersed within the gritty, and intellectual world of Arkham, enjoy exploring the atmospheric environments and uncovering the dark secrets from within, whether it be insights into Batman’s greatest foes or discovering the secret behind the “Chronicle of Arkham”. By the end of the game you really feel like you have commenced on an enduring journey.