As a rule of thumb, superhero games are, almost without exception, complete rubbish. We’re talking the officially licensed ones here, not stuff like Freedom Force or City of Heroes. You know, ones that have often have “The Game” tacked on as a subtitle. Would Batman: Arkham Asylum have been as good if it was riding the back of a big movie license? We’re not sure, but we’re glad it isn’t, because, freed from any restrictive release schedule, Rocksteady have been able to craft what is perhaps the greatest superhero game ever made.
You can stop mopping that brow, as the long months of worrying have come to an end. This is a game that has been made by people who genuinely care about the source material and have taken great delight in cramming as much as they possibly can into a great game. There are hundreds of items to find and riddles to solve that perfectly complement the main game. There’s the argument that the main game could be a little thin if you took out all the extraneous trappings, but we don’t subscribe to that viewpoint.
The game starts with old Bats delivering the recaptured Joker to Arkham Asylum – the Gothic mansion-turned-sanatorium where Gotham City’s most ghastly and diabolical villains reside, all of whom harbour some sort of grudge against Batman. (Actually, it’s mainly the same grudge – he beat them up and dropped them off in the madhouse.) Once at the Asylum, Joker is strapped to a gurney and wheeled along by some guards, Batman following close behind. As an initial setup to stoke up atmosphere, it works very well.
Of course, everything starts to go hideously wrong, Joker escapes and Batman is forced to make up for the inept Asylum security staff and save the day. We won’t spoil the plot from here on in, but it does take some twists and turns as it develops. Most importantly, it always feels like a proper Batman story, which, given that it was penned by Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series fame, isn’t surprising at all. Above all, it’s engrossing and makes you want to see what the next twist is.
Building an atmosphere around this storyline was perhaps the most important task the developers had to face, maybe even more so than the actual gameplay. In this they have undoubtedly succeeded, creating a rich, varied world for the player to explore.
The game is based on the Unreal Engine 3, so things can look a bit plasticy at times, but the Asylum’s architecture is impressive, the levels are full of off-the-beaten-track areas to explore, and frame rates are consistently impressive, even when in the big outdoor areas or when playing on mediocre systems. As for sound, this is perhaps the most impressive element. The voice talent for the game is excellent, with particular praise heading in Mark Hamill’s direction for his superlative performance as the Joker. Batman is as dry and monotone as ever, of course, and the villains certainly steal the show, as they’ve always done. “But what about the game?” we hear you cry. This is where things get a little more complicated.
Combat works in a similar way to The Witcher’s melee system, as in it’s all about timing your attacks to chain combos that do great damage. Get up to eight consecutive hits and you open up (once unlocked in the Upgrades section) throws and other extra moves. Boss battles aren’t the best, with the usual arbitrary way of killing big monster trope in effect.
There are also the numerous sections where you’re advised to use stealth and cunning to pick off enemies. These are the best bits, combat-wise, with later situations requiring you to plan what the best way to eliminate the threat is.