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In his first videogame outing since the Lego incarnation Batman finds himself within the bowels of Gotham City’s institution for the psychologically disturbed, Arkham Asylum. Surrounded by various escapee criminals as part of the Jokers latest nefarious plan, Batman is tasked with bringing order to the asylum and re-imprisoning many of his most infamous enemies.
Many people will be recently familiar with the Dark knight through Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful reconception of a more realistic Batman universe. Rocksteady studios however have opted for a stylistically different approach, favouring hyperealistic character design and gothic environments heavily inspired by comic book incarnations of Arkham Asylum (Refer to Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A serious house on serious earth and Alan Grant’s Batman: The last Arkham). A decision that removes the game from the shadow of its movie counterparts. Artistic design shines throughout the experience, with painstaking attention to detail lavished upon voice work, character modelling, and impressive animations. The game is clearly crafted with great love and respect for the rich history of the franchise.
To dispatch with the Joker’s henchmen Batman requires all of the gadgets available in his extensive toolbelt. You will find yourself line launching across a room, placing explosive bat-gel in the path of an unsuspecting goon before grappling upon to the nearest gargoyle and launching three batarangs simultaneously taking down the remaining henchmen. All of this conducted with the grace and agility of a cheetah, a predator. Indeed stealth is a major component of gameplay and in many scenarios an absolute necessity. It does feel that enemy AI is overly dumbed down for the stealth gameplay. With enemies desperately in need of a trip to specsavers for all of their short sightedness.
A free flowing melee combat system utilises only two buttons; one for attacking and one for countering. A deceptively simple interface which proves easily accessible and yet, like the best combat systems reveals a surprising amount of depth as enemies become more challenging. The fluidity of combat is impressive, especially compared to recent melee systems such assassin’s creeds clunky somewhat stilted swordplay.
Detective mode or ‘bat-vision’ is reminiscent of link’s wolf sense in Twilight Princess, or Samus’s various visors. This changes Batman’s perception of his environments outlining enemies through walls and highlighting environmental information he would not otherwise notice.
The cast of famous villains serve up the boss battles, and are somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of quality. A psycho mantis inspired psychologically disturbing encounter with the Scarecrow is a high point, and Killer Croc’s creeping voice will send shivers down your spine. Whereas others turn to monotonous repetitive pattern learning, the final boss encounter a particular low point.
Effectively amalgamating all of these disparate gameplay elements is perhaps Rocksteady’s greatest achievement with Arkham Asylum. Translating the well established Batman universe into a set of gameplay mechanics that allow you to feel like the Batman, a predatory shadow of the night instilling fear into his foes. Consequently in giving the player all of this power to wield Arkham Asylum becomes a little easy, tending toward a little to much hand holding. With detective work boiling down to following easily signposted trails, and the presence of numerous gargoyles in every room serving as something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card if you are spotted. Those of you looking for more difficulty should try the ‘challenge rooms’- stealth and combat skill challenges that become progressively more difficult, and require a true mastery off Batman’s abilities.
Still though this remains the most intelligent treatment of a superhero franchise in videogame memory (edging out Spiderman 2 to that prize and maybe even superman 64), as well as a brilliantly constructed stealth action adventure regardless of its batsuit. Here’s hoping for some shark repellent spray in the inevitable sequel. Turn down the lights and enter the mad house.