The beginning of an era for Rocksteady. Its hard to imagine that a small, unknown developer with only one game to their name could surprise the world with one of the greatest Batman projects (not even just games) in history.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) is an action-adventure game developed by Rocksteady Studios. It follows Batman (Kevin Conroy) as he apprehends the Joker (Mark Hamill) and takes him to the infamous psychiatric disaster Arkham Asylum. But unfortunately, the Joker escapes and sets an elaborate plan in motion that leads to the longest night of Batman’s life.
A Serious House on a Serious Earth
Arkham Asylum concocts a wholly original Batman story that takes plenty of inspiration from a number of graphic novels. Its a tightly compelling story that pulls Batman all over the island – from Killer Croc’s sewer lair to the pompous Warden’s office, the plotting flows in a way that gently guides the player from one objective to another completely naturally. The voice acting is utter perfection as well – taking many of the voices from the masterclass Batman: The Animated Series, the likes of Conroy and Hamill are permanently at the top of their game throughout Asylum and it gives the characters – and the story – so much greater poignancy than if anyone else was doing it. The one big flaw however is how the game ends. After so much build, the climax goes in an odd – and honestly quite poor – direction that completely wastes all the emotional weight gathered up till that point.
But here to make up for that disappointment is the titular asylum itself, brought to life in a way that no other Batman medium ever has accomplished. The dilapidated island quite literally drips with gothic atmosphere and feels like a place with a long history of terror and madness. Its a cliche at this point, but the environment is a character as real as Joker or Batman – a physical manifestation of its founder Amadeus Arkham and the encroaching decay of Gotham that taints everything it touches. Grappling around this masterpiece of game environments is pure Batfan joy and the abundance of easter eggs and small touches bring the place to life like no other game ever has for me.
But now onto what you’ll be spending the 12 hours it takes to make it through Asylum: the gameplay. This is divided into three different pillars that lightly overlap – combat, exploration and invisible predator.
You’ll spend plenty of time hitting terrified mooks throughout Asylum and thankfully Rocksteady’s innovative combat system makes this a complete an utter joy. Having more in common with a rhythm game than anything else, Batman can chain together a series of strikes, counters, evades and takedowns into a wonderful dance of not-death that makes you feel utterly badass whenever you pull it off. Its so good that one action game after another has imitated this system, but none since has managed to top Asylum yet (well, except for its sequels but that’s a review for another day).
The next big thing around the Asylum is exploration, which Batman manages through a series of gadgets that you steadily accrue over the main story. In a metroidvania approach, gadgets slowly allow Batman access to different parts of the environment and riddles, the games version of collectables. These riddles, with hundreds hidden around by the Riddler himself, take the form of everything to trophies to actual riddles with answers hidden amongst the Asylum’s dense environment. These pad out the completion time plenty and provide a wonderful motivation to explore the Asylum further while also providing character bios and interview tapes that expand on the already fascinating world. This is the definitive way to implement collectables – organic and complementary to everything else.
Batman’s movements are consistently fluid and how he grapples, hooks and line-launches around the environment always feels natural and straightforward. The only downside of this is that its very easy to spend the entire game in the inky-blue world of Batman’s detective vision. This allows Batman to easily spot both riddles and upcoming enemies, and due to it being so useful it limits the amount of time the player gets to enjoy the moody, detailed world Rocksteady has created.
The final pillar, invisible predator, is the part that truly lives up to the game’s mantra of ‘Be the Batman’. Batman is let loose in a large open area with a bunch of goons sporting guns and must take them all out in the most terrifying and stealthily ways possible. The avenues of takedowns here is just fantastic and gives the player plenty of opportunities to experiment around with gadgets that tend to pay off. And there’s nothing more satisfying than watching a group of grown men wet themselves at your presence.
I am the Night
But honestly, aside from all the fantastic level design and innovative gameplay, the real reason Arkham Asylum succeeds so well is that it makes you feel like Batman in a way that nothing before it has ever accomplished. This is a feeling unique to video games and not only proves the power of the medium but also the amazing feat Rocksteady has pulled off here. Even with the ending and over-reliance on detective vision, this is still one of the finest games of the last ten years, and an absolute must for any Batfans out there. This is a night Batman – and you – will never forget.
Casual Gamer: Must-play
Hardcore Gamer: Highly Recommended
Narrative-drivers: Highly Recommended
Triple-As: Highly Recommended
True Believers (Batman): Must-play