Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

By Sterling McGarvey - Posted Aug 21, 2009

Ultimately, Batman: Arkham Asylum succeeds because it's a great game, with or without the license. It seamlessly transitions between beat-‘em-up brawler, intense stealth action, and exploration-friendly adventure without missing a beat.

The Pros
  • A great story that makes videogame clichés feel fresh and natural.
  • Seamless transition between different gameplay types
  • Gorgeous visuals and art design
The Cons
  • Camera annoyances are a life-and-death issue.
  • Challenge Mode is an afterthought.

Although legions of gamers clamor for more innovation from the creative minds behind their favorite pastime, it’s an oft-used buzzword. Refinement is a more apt term. Thankfully, Rocksteady Games's Batman: Arkham Asylum is loaded with it. Like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, it’s a game loaded with plenty of homage to well-established conventions from other titles. And like Naughty Dog’s game, it delivers the goods, even if some will sing its praises louder than others. Fans of the Caped Crusader will pop their collective lids at the experience, and there’s loads of material that will keep gamers with passing interest entertained.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

It Could Be Worse- Actually, No...

Batman: The Animated Series producer and writer Paul Dini penned Arkham Asylum; in an interview, he described it as “the worst night of Batman’s life.” Outside of the overnight demise of WayneTech in a Ponzi scheme, Batman’s attempt to escape the notorious institution is an indisputably awful situation. The scenario kicks off as he (too easily) captures The Joker and drops him off at Arkham. From there, Batman faces off with a rogue’s gallery of faces he’s put behind the asylum’s double-fortified bars. When he's not embattled with the likes of Killer Croc and Harley Quinn, he's fighting legions of muscle-bound goons, some of which are mutated to monstrous proportions.

Arkham Asylum triumphantly fuses a great story with great gameplay. There’s also something comforting in the fact that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill -- a Batman and Joker pairing that a generation of gamers easily recognizes – have lent their voices to Arkham. The strong story makes the many video game conventions -- boss battles, unlocking new areas, gaining experience points -- feel more credible, because they're so organically tied to the plot. The beauty of it all is that whether you're an ardent fan of Batman or your knowledge is limited to the films and a few episodes of the animated series, there's an authenticity that goes beyond slapping a Bat-Signal on the box art.

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It’s All in the Genes

The gameplay works because, like many licensed games, it borrows from mechanics that proved effective in other titles. But the difference between Arkham, and, say X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the amount of polish. It’s evident that other games tend to find one great element and ape it. Arkham Asylum has tiny strands of Splinter Cell, BioShock, Metroid Prime, Eternal Darkness, God of War, and even bits of Gears of War-inspired moments within its collective DNA. It evokes slivers of all of those games and cleverly massages them into the experience, yet it has some unique moments that are all its own, largely thanks to its fluid approach.

In many scenarios, Batman might be embroiled in a fight with five goons, and a half-minute later, he could be scanning the room for clues to hunt down a character -- a clever CSI-esque breadcrumb trail that sustains credibility while implementing a decidedly videogame mechanic -- and within another minute, navigating a network of vents and tunnels to bypass a blocked area. Rocksteady has done a fantastic job integrating gameplay elements that seem so disparate into a cohesive package. In a short time span, you brawl, scan, and explore without missing a beat.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

Joke’s on You?

It’s a bit odd, then, that some of the most intense moments of Arkham Asylum point out its worst issue. Although I battled the likes of Bane, Killer Croc, and Scarecrow, I found that the white-knuckle moments come as Batman battles a room filled with armed thugs. In the vein of Splinter Cell, it only takes a few bullets to take down the Dark Knight. It’s crucial for Batman to take down one enemy, then quickly retreat to the numerous gargoyles in the rafters of Arkham’s vast spaces. The problem is the camera. It never quite hits the sweet spot for Batman to make an ideal getaway. More often than not, you find yourself carefully trying to look around while spamming the button to shoot his grappling hook, and it gets mixed results. Some will easily forgive this shortcoming, but I found the camera troubles quite frustrating. It’s unfortunate that amidst a well-crafted game, its Achilles heel comes in one of the most important elements.

That said, it helps that Arkham manages to be both a desolate, eerie institution and a living, breathing environment all at once. That’s also thanks to its incredible art design, from each room of the asylum to the characters inhabiting the space. If there’s one game that Arkham Asylum evokes the most, it’s probably Metroid Prime. There’s a great deal of exploration and discovery to be done; in fact, the game actively encourages you to do so -- why else would it gauge your level of completion based on the Riddler’s strewn-about puzzles and clues? And although I’m averse to giving away too many big plot points, there are some pivotal moments that transform the landscape of Arkham and genuinely give it a lived-in feel.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

Arkham Asylum offers up Challenge Modes, either to keep brawling and stealth-attacking or to polish your skills mid-game. The challenges allow you to check out your combat skills against leaderboards, or see who can clear a room full of shotgun-toting goons in the shortest amount of time. However, its usefulness is debatable. Although some will find plenty of fun in hitting the leaderboards with a vengeance, Challenge Mode undoes a lot of the magic of Arkham’s campaign. The reason that the game succeeds is due to the fluid transition between elements. Break them up, and it’s less fun. Again, some will enjoy the feature, but I’d rather start up another playthrough on Hard.

Ultimately, Batman: Arkham Asylum succeeds because it’s a great game, with or without the license. It seamlessly transitions between beat-‘em-up brawler, intense stealth action, and exploration-friendly adventure without missing a beat. When broken up, they’re not necessarily strong enough to stand on their own -- Challenge Mode is an afterthought – but together, the components make for a lean, tight experience. If you’re a huge fan of the Dark Knight, this will go down as one of the best games you’ll play in 2009. If you’ve got a passing interest, there’s still plenty to dig into and enjoy.