Review – Batman: Arkham Asylum
Studio: Rocksteady Games
Year: 2009/2016 (Return to Arkham version)
It’s hard to believe that Batman: Arkham Asylum, arguably one of the most influential action games of the 21st century, is over a decade old at this point. Harder still to remember is that, before Rocksteady Games released their unexpected classic, licensed superhero games were something of a joke. The best fights and tights game before Arkham was Spider-Man 2, all the way back in 2004. Outside of that, the market had been plagued with memorably awful products like Superman 64 and Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis for years. It could be said that, in that environment, no one expected Arkham Asylum to do well, let alone turn out to be a success that would spawn an award winning franchise. And yet here we are, twelve years on, and Rocksteady is still primarily known as the Batman guys. I’ll cut to the quick: There’s no secrets here, no suspense. Arkham Asylum was amazing when it came out in 2009. I know it, you know it, your grandma knows it. The question today in reviewing Batman: Arkham Asylum is: how does it stand up in 2021, and if you by some stroke of terrible luck have never played it before, is still worth becoming an inmate in this infamous Gotham City mad house?
Batman: Arkham Asylum is loosely based on the graphic novel of the same name by Grant Morrison, but it is a far enough cry from a direct adaption that even dyed in the wool fans of the dark knight who know that particular comic inside and out will still have plenty of twists and turns to look forward to. The biggest commonality between the two tales is the premise of the story: Joker has broken out of Arkham Asylum and freed all the inmates to put Batman through a gauntlet that will test his brains, his brawn, and his will. As you proceed through the corridors of the eponymous location, you’re met with a hefty offering of Batman’s rogues gallery, most of whom even the most passing of caped crusader fans will be familiar with. For the truly eagle eyed and diligent, there are plenty of audio logs and easter eggs hidden in the dank and dingy crevices of the titular asylum to flesh out extra bits of backstory and context. These extra goodies also sometimes reference villains both major and obscure (Rat Catcher. This game seriously gives a shout out to Rat Catcher) who may not actually appear in the flesh, but will surely tickle the reference center of any dark knight detective devotee.
Every part of the story feels authentic to the greater Batman mythos. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the game’s script was penned by none other than Batman alumn and architect of the beloved 90s animated series, Paul Dini. Add to that the fact that fan favorites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their celebrated roles as Batman and The Joker respectively from the same show, and you quickly find yourself feeling a warm sense of comfort and familiarity. It’s almost as if you’d slipped into a lost episode of the aforementioned animated classic, but with the added bonus of getting to wear the cape and cowl yourself. When it comes down to it, there was really no question that the story of Arkham Asylum was good then, and it’s still great now. Even if the game itself did someday become dated, I doubt there will come a day where this timeless, quintessential Batman tale will have lost its gothic charm.
Arkham Asylum models its structural scaffolding on the tried and true Metroidvania formula. For those new to the lexicon of dumb video game lingo, that’s a style of game named for the Metroid and Castlevania series of titles. This sub-genre of action-adventure involves starting out in a large map with an under-powered character, and gaining new items and tools throughout your journey that unlock new areas of that map for you to explore and thereby carry on with the story. As it turns out, Batman is perhaps uniquely suited for this style of game, since the caped crusader is already famous for maybe an unrealistic level of gadgetry. You know what they say, nothing beats Batman with prep time.
Unfortunately, Batman didn’t have preparation on his side this time, and you’ll spend most of the game getting upgrades and new bat goodies. These assist in traversal and, maybe even more pervasively, the ever present hunt for secrets around Arkham Island. This particular mechanical structure keeps the game interesting and maintains engagement as you mentally mark down spots that you just can’t quite get to, vents you can’t reach to pull open, and walls that are clearly breakable, though you’re not sure with what, constantly looking forward to your next bat-themed tool.
You’re assisted in this task by a detective vision mode (easily turned on with the right bumper on your controller) that lets you see through walls and highlights those secret spots. Even once you’ve completed the story, you might find yourself exploring the rest of the island to find spots that you haven’t yet accessed with your now completed utility belt, especially as you hunt for little green question mark trophies that the Riddler has “cleverly” hidden all over the map, serving as the game’s key form of optional collectible.
The other ingredient in Rocksteady’s super souffle is combat, and this is where Arkham Asylum has truly aged like a fine wine. The visceral attack/counter attack system is easy to pick up, but still challenging at higher difficulties, and will at times test your reflexes. In a world that was previously dominated by more simple button mashers, the free form combat system in Arkham really makes you feel like the Bat, and its influence is easily seen in everything from the Middle Earth games also published by WB Interactive many years later, to even the very recent Marvel’s Spider-Man game for the PS4 and 5. If there was a code for perfect vigilante melee combat, Rocksteady cracked it with this system. Maybe more than any other part of the game, the fluid feel of this combat holds up perfectly to this day.
So, let’s revisit the initial question; Does Batman: Arkham Asylum hold up upon review? I can say, without hesitation, yes. It not only holds up, bit still stands out as one of the best games of its type to this day. It speaks volumes that of the few usurpers there are to this throne, arguably two of them are its younger brothers (more on that another time). If you’ve never played Arkham Asylum, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy (links to digital version at the top of this review, for your convenience). Even if you aren’t a fan of the world’s greatest detective, the game stands out as a fantastic action game with a tight narrative, and it doesn’t look too shabby either for its age. If you have played Arkham, give it another spin, I think you’ll be surprised how much this asylum is worth another stay.
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