It seems in the past year, the big superhero on everybody's mine has been Batman. The Batman R.I.P. arc began in May and by the end of it, we were promised Batman wouldn't be Batman anymore. Then The Dark Knight premiered last July and the entire world went nuts over him breaking all sorts of box-office records. By this point Batman is at the top of the world. Now something has come along that could destroy it all: a video game. Video games based on comic book characters come with a stigma attached to it. It could almost ruin a comic book character (Superman 64 can vouch for that). But I am here to tell you that is not the case. Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only a good game; it firmly plants a flag on top of its hill to tell other comic book-based video games: This is how you do it and do it well.
When you first sit down and see this game, you can tell that a lot of time and care went into making this property and that is definitely thanks to not having this game tied to a movie release. This is a completely original storyline and it is compelling every step of the way. Batman has just thwarted another one of Joker's schemes and is on route to taking him back to Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Joker wanted. The Joker then traps The Dark Knight on the island and unleashes some of his greatest foes upon him. It's up to Batman to, as he so elegantly puts it, "Restore fear to the darkness."
The progression of Arkham Asylum plays out a bit like a Metroid game. Some areas can't be explored until a certain gadget is unlocked. The asylum is a huge facility laid out over an entire island. There are many crooks and crannies to explore. But this really isn't a free-roaming sandbox game that you may think it is. The storytelling is quite linear and it only adds to the experience as Batman. He is a man on a mission and not known to go out unless he has a clear plan in mind of how to execute it.
The problem with other Batman games before it was that they never really encompassed all that Batman could do. The game boiled down to a side scrolling brawler and he could throw Batarangs at opponents from time to time. This is the first game that showcases everything that Batman could do. He is a master of hand-to-hand combat and it is showcased wonderfully in the Free-Flow Combat system. He has a wide array of gadgets that he can use for problem-solving areas. And finally, and perhaps the most important aspect of Batman, he strikes from the darkness preying on opponent's fears thanks to the Invisible Predator mechanics. Rocksteady Studios has used all these facets of the Batman character to let players have the quintessential Batman experience.
The gameplay is the core of the Batman game. The problem solving aspect is mainly seen through Batman's Detective Mode (Which he calls "the cowl's vision mode"). When this is turned on, the environment is seen through a different colored filter and point out hints to help Batman deduce mysteries. This feature surprised me the most. Not really how it works, but what you actually use it for in the story. There's one where Batman is using Detective Mode to look for clues in a crime scene and he remembers that a guard he is tracking likes to drink whiskey on the job, so he switches his cowl's vision mode to detect the molecules of whiskey in the air. When I heard those words come out of his mouth, my eyes widened and I literally dropped my jaw. That in itself is just amazing and is a testament to the developer's attention to detail. Batman will use the smallest bit of information to solve a mystery and this is about as small as it gets. It is astounding that this kind of detail was put in the game. The mystery facet is basically only used to follow a trail in the story, but the Detective Mode can also be used in other parts of the game that makes it quite the versatile tool. The Detective Mode also serves as an x-ray camera and can showcase certain walls that can be destroyed and analyzes technology around the island and how it can be overcome.
Batman has trained his body to the peak of physical fitness and the Free-Flow Combat system showcases it. Batman takes on numerous opponents at a time and the combat makes it quite easy to chain together combos and take on all enemies. However, don't assume that this system is easy to master overnight. Combat is regulated to four main actions: strike, counter, jump and stun. While run-of-the mill players might be satisfied only repeatedly striking opponents, using all actions at all times will separate the mediocre from the hardcore players. The higher the combo chain, the more experience points are yielded for leveling up Batman. With each level, Batman can buy upgrades to his combat, weapons and his suit. Also the experience gained allocates how much health Batman gains back (There are no health packs in this game). Once you get a high enough combo chain going, Batman can jump across half a room to reach opponents. The system never gets old. I am always finding new ways to attack a room and how to keep a combo chain going. You can also incorporate Batman's many gadgets into combat to keep his chain going such as his grapple gun which can pull people closer to you and the standard Batarang that can knock down opponents. The Free-Flow Combat is perhaps the most fluid combat system I have ever seen. Batman can seamlessly go from striking and countering with ease. While Batman is punching someone in the face, he can easily transition into a counter and grab a pipe from an oncoming assailant and use it against him. Perhaps the only downside to the combat is the directional input of moves. There is several times where I wanted to attack a person behind me, but Batman decides to attack the person to his right. It gets a bit frustrating when certain opponents can block attacks and ruin your combo chain.
The Bat chose his persona to, above all else, strike fear in the hearts of villains. He strikes quick and from the shadows and returns to them while the bad guys quiver with fear wondering if they are Batman's next target. The Invisible Predator facet is some of the most interesting stealth gameplay mechanics I have ever experienced. Batman is placed in a room with several of Joker's men all toting guns. Batman must maneuver himself around the room without being seen and knocking out villains. This is where the second use of the cowl's vision mode comes in handy and it does not disappoint. Batman can see through walls and can monitor how many people are in the room and how their condition is. At first, all of the henchmen are calm and collected on the prowl for Batman, but as you start to take out a few of them, they become unraveled and their heart rates increase. The A.I. at this point is becomes very known to the player. The opponents will become fidgety and will be more cautious with their patrolling. At first, they buddy up to watch each others back, but overtime they will begin to panic and start randomly shooting in the air and will refuse to take orders from anyone.
And that's just the A.I. side of things. There are some sick takedowns you can pull off. One of my personal favorites is crashing down on an unsuspecting inmate's head through a glass ceiling. But as you progress through the game, the silent takedown areas become more challenging and it only opens up more avenues to become more creative with taking out opponents. There were a few takedowns that, until only recently, I didn't even know could be done. It's that creative. Watching these take place never gets old and it makes you feel just like The Bat.
Arkham Asylum is home to a number of criminally insane inmates and the damage to the island is shown in great detail. Arkham looks like it has been to hell and back. There's papers strewn around everywhere; numerous dead bodies litter the very path you walk. It is surprising that this game got a Teen Rating. This isn't the zany 70s Batman or even the great animated series from the early 90s (Though Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill both reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker from that series). This is a very dark and mature-themed game. There's cursing, suggestive themes and are even parts where you can watch people die right in front of you. There are also hints at numerous super villains from Batman's Rogues' Gallery and each has etched their own personal touch to the walls of Arkham. Rocksteady Studios dug deep to hit these marks. Sure there are nods to famous inmates such as The Penguin, Catwoman and Mr. Freeze, but there are also some little known characters highlighted such as The Ratcatcher and Calendar Man. I didn't even know there was a villain called Calendar Man. This is one of the plethoras of extra content you can find throughout the game and there is a lot to find.
One of the many villains you encounter in the game is The Riddler and he has 240 objectives for you to solve strewn about the island. These include Riddler Trophies for you to find, riddles for you to solve that tie into nods to certain villains and even markings invisible to the naked eye (I can be cryptic like The Riddler too, you know). This is one of the things that keep the game going even after the story is over. Like The Riddler is compelled to leave clues to his capers to outwit Batman, I was driven to solve all of his riddles and bare witness to his unraveling.
Some of the most interesting things to find around the island are patient interviews. These reels are broken into five parts and allow players to dive deeper into the minds of the super villains. Some of these start out subtle enough, but then climaxes with a grand finale. One of the interviews to note is that of Victor Zsasz. It starts of slow enough, but in the end culminates into a very dark and brooding finish. These interviews are epic to hear and warrant a more that once listen through.
Perhaps the greatest replay value of the game lies in the Challenge Maps that you can unlock during your playthrough. These are broken up into two different modes: Invisible Predator and Free-Flow Combat. The first is modeled in a time attack fashion where the quicker your time for clearing a room grants you a higher rank on leaderboards. You can dispatch the goons any which way you want, but you get medals from knocking them out certain ways in different levels such as pulling a guard over a railing or using explosive gel to blow up a wall behind them. In Free-Flow Combat, you gain rank from racking up the most points in 4 rounds of increasingly difficult waves of opponents. For all you Joker fans out there, PS3 owners have access to exclusive Joker Challenge Maps. These are for the hardcore gamers. These are no laughing matters (pun intended). I found these maps even more taxing that Batman Challenge Maps. If you don't care for leaderboards, you can always play these at your leisure and just improve your skills. While there are already maps packed in the game, additional maps have already been released as downloadable content.
There are things I hadn't even touched upon such as the incredible character models or the trophies you can unlock (Not achievement/trophies, but actual models that you would like in real life), but this is what you need to know: Batman Arkham Asylum is hands down the greatest comic-book character game and the ultimate Batman experience. Don't waste another second hanging on the fence about it. Buy this game.