Batman fans are a thick-skinned bunch. When George Clooney donned the newly nipple-adorned batsuit to fight the cliché spouting Schwarzenegger “What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age!,” they hid behind their copies of The Killing Joke. When Dark Horse Comics published Batman vs. Predator, they scrambled to have the story stricken from Batman canon. When Jim Carrey somehow managed to play The Mask playing The Riddler, they looked on the bright side, calling it “a new take on the character.” And there has been absolutely no comfort to be found in the long-running Batman line of video games, which have proudly strutted the range from sub-mediocre to downright abysmal.
So yeah, it’s no secret that Batman has been savagely exploited by any media production company looking to make an easy licensed buck. That’s why when videogame publisher Eidos announced “Arkham Asylum” last Summer, it was easy to understand why the entire fan community let out a collective sigh. After all, you’d hope that after fooling them the first dozen times, it would be harder to get the comic fans to unclench their chained wallets.
But jaded Batman fanatics are in for a surprise: “Arkham Asylum” is good. Really good, actually– successfully blending the tone of last year’s “The Dark Knight” the charm of the classic animated series with the best ideas from this generation of videogames. Not only is Arkham Asylum “good for a comic book game,” it’s also an easy contender to be the best game this year.
The game is set on Gotham City’s comic-equivalent to Alcatraz: Arkham Island, an isolated horror of a mental hospital/jail that just so happens to be currently housing some of the series’ most notoriously nasty villains (think faces like Poison Ivy, who is even more tarted-up in this version than ever before). The Joker, voiced again by Mark Hamill, conducts a typically elaborate mass-breakout, and Batman sets out to clean up. Kevin Conroy and Arleen Sorkin are also along for the ride, reprising their roles as Batman and Harley Quinn, but don’t let the old animated cast fool you—Arkham Asylum brings the murderous tone and brutality from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Frank Miller’s series of comics. Mark Hamill as The Joker is just as unsettling as the character has ever been, and the developer (Rocksteady Studios) did not skimp on the series’ trademark violence.
The single setting of the asylum may seem a bit restrictive, but it’s actually the game’s best feature. Rocksteady put the boot to the traditional fractured levels so common in action games of the past; instead, the island is completely realized and explorable. Like Bioshock’s underwater city, every building and room on the island feels like it has a purpose, restricted only by whatever neat bat-gadget you’ve found along the way. The highly-detailed island makes for a great playground for the Dark Knight; every ability you might expect is in there, from hanging thugs upside down from the ceiling to cape-spread gliding through the air.
In true Batman style, much of the game is spent sneaking in the rafters and shadows. However, the game’s rhythmic one-button fisticuffs are just as satisfying. Batman punches and counters with the grace of 2007’s Assassin’s Creed, and the animations remain fresh and exciting all the way through the game’s lengthy 10-12 hours.
Unfortunately, “Arkham Asylum” falls short when it comes to its fairly numerous bosses, most of whom add up to dodg- and smash-bullfights, which would actually have been fine had there only been one or two encounters, instead of the five or six that made it into the game. Whether Rocksteady ran out of ideas or just time, it’s still disappointing. Also, the highly touted detective gameplay doesn’t work out as well as it should, either. Usually, it ends with the player following a boring Pacman dot trail through previously visited rooms, looking to find wherever super villain A drugged innocent scientist B. And if you hear Batman mumble, “there must be some way out of this room,” then expect to have to rip the damn vent grate in the wall and climb on in. It doesn’t take “The World’s Greatest Detective” to figure that one out.
But in the end, these small flaws amount to little when the rest of the game is considered. To call “Arkham Asylum” the greatest comic book videogame of all time would be a great understatement—Rocksteady has set a new standard for what is good or even acceptable for franchise licensed video games.