Batman Arkham Asylum is a game born out of some very well thought through creative decisions. Tempting as it must have been to let the art team loose on the whole of Gotham, Rocksteady have instead restricted Batman's flight pattern to within the walls of the fictional prison. The setting is as important here as any of the supporting characters. Rather than jump from one villain themed setting to the next the environment shown here is knowable, logical and a joy to explore. Not all of Arkham Asylum's secrets are revealed in the first casual play through.
The game isn't based on any of the movies or series as the story told here is new. The Joker has taken over Arkham's security system and has trapped Batman in the prison with the inmates let loose. The narrative, penned by animated series veteran Paul Dini, fits the game extraordinarily well. Each character, from set piece villains to tiny cameo guests, each has his/her/its place within the setting and are never used gratuitously. Arkham Asylym is clearly made by fans for fans and every moment is drenched in Batman lore. One particular section manages to incorporate the Batman origin story without resorting to a flashback cut scene.
The depiction of Batman here is superb, dangerously close to being definitive. Voiced by Kevin Conroy this Batman exudes the kind psychological strength that the crime fighter needs. The suit is basically armour and looks even more practical here than the movie counterpart.
More importantly this Batman is a joy to control. The combat is very simple indeed with inputs for attack, dodge and block. A million miles away from the rich, complex combat controls of something like Ninja Gaiden what starts off feeling shallow eventually becomes incredibly satisfying. Within a two button press Batman performs an effective block and counter move and then retaliates with devastating, balletic blow of his choice. Enemy attacks come from every angle but are heavily telegraphed. The pleasure comes from being able to destroy twenty or so thugs in one long, unending combo. The pleasure comes from being Batman.
The games stealth sections are also well conceived blending seamlessly with the exploration elements. By the time Batman first comes across armed henchmen the skills needed for him to navigate his environment unseen have already been introduced. Batman can only take a few hits from gunfire before dying and gunmen have a habit of patrolling in gangs. These gunmen are a not the most determined and won't pursue you to the ends of the earth if they spot you. On the other hand the lack of opposition hardly diminishes the pleasure found in ambushing a panicking henchman from the underneath of a stone gargoyle.
However Arkham Asylum really struggles to give Batman good boss fights, sad considering the quality of the Dark Knight's rogue gallery. Visually all the villains are fine but, especially with the Scarecrow section, the boss battles are being carried by the art team. Mechanically these confrontations are dull and uninventive and frequently the stakes are only raised by the addition of normal thugs.
Bane is a particularly depressing example. In his cut scene introduction Bane is presented as titanic foe and hints that this could well be the same character we saw in the Knightfall comic run. In the actual game-play the former mastermind is reduced to the kind of ape like buffoonery last seen in the Joel Schumacher movie. After a few very predictable pattern attacks the Joker berates Bane and sends in more thugs to help out. The whole event is a rather lame affair and only when defeated does the real Bane return for his final dialogue exchange with Batman.
Batman's gadgets and combat movies are steadily upgraded throughout the campaigns around ten hour run. As well as allowing the Caped Crusader access to other areas these tools can be integrated into the combat and sections.
The tone is all very dark with the soundtrack using the orchestral work of the more recent movies as its template. The world here is exclusively depicted in gloomy hues and as the game pretends that Dick Sprang never drew a Batman comic. What is worse the game's 'Detective Mode', an x-ray vision used for puzzles, bleeds out the few remaining shards of colour from the game. In game-play terms there is little reason to come out of 'Detective Mode' but leaving it on hurts the game visually. Though the monotone look fits the story it is difficult to play Arkham Asylum when the weather is nice outside.
Beyond completing the fairly easy campaign there are some tasks to complete. Combat and stealth sub games are unlocked through the single player mode and are mostly fun. Found within the Asylum itself are riddles, trophies and recorded sound bites. The most effective of these sound bites come in the form of pre-recorded interviews between Arkham staff and key figures in Batman's rogues' gallery. Another fine creative choice that encourages in-game exploration, heightens immersion and provides fan service.
Too much thought and too much care has gone into Batman Arkham Asylum for the game to be anything other than excellent. As a love letter to fans, who secretly always wanted to be Batman, Arkham Asylum is a captivating success.