Why Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum is still the seminal superhero game we all deserve

As power fantasies go, it’s pretty tough to top ‘be the Batman’. After all, who hasn’t harboured dreams of thwarting crime, prowling rooftops blessed with a jawline that just won’t quit or duffing up bastard clowns? Yet despite the billionaire vigilante’s CV reading like a checklist of super-liberating game mechanics, no game developer could solve the ultimate cape and cowl conundrum: ‘just how the hell do you make players feel like Batman?!’

Until Rocksteady, that is. The studio quietly captured acclaim back in 2006 with Urban Chaos: Riot Response – a shooter that shared the Batman sense of crime-kiboshing order – yet few would have predicted the London outfit had a game of Arkham Asylum’s calibre up its utility belt. Then again, not every developer can unleash Mark Hamill’s Joker and the best third-person fisticuffs PS3 had ever seen.

Power, poise, purpose: these are the qualities that crystallise Rocksteady’s work when it comes to capturing the essence of the Dark Knight, and they’re never more apparent than in the game’s superb scraps. With its Freeflow combat, Arkham introduces gamers to a brand of wonderfully silky, effortlessly empowering fighting which immediately sells the idea you are controlling the ultimate arse-kicker. Dodging knife swipes. Toppling goons like sociopathic skittles with a swoosh of your cape. Introducing faces to pointy-knee-bat-justice like the world’s most brooding MMA fighter. Freeflow doesn’t let you pretend to be Batman, it makes you Batman.

Asylum remains a gloriously honed experience. Where its sequels focus on scope and showy spectacle, all Rocksteady’s loony bin wants to do is crawl inside your head, make a little nest, then watch as those suffocating, claustrophobic corridors scratch at your sanity over the course of a single night. Be it listening to the Joker’s gleefully deranged boasting over the institute’s PA system or a hallucinogenic trip to the morgue for a surprise visit from Mom and Pop Wayne, this is a playground designed to trip up your perceptions at every turn.

Thankfully, Brucie boy can lean on some seriously sexy gadgets to turn the unhinged odds in his favour. Exploding gel, sonic Batarangs, the Cryptographic Sequencer, Detective Vision, the grapnel gun – every element of Bruce Wayne’s arsenal adds to the authority of embodying that iconic suit like never before. Whether besting a bevy of bullies with crafty explosions, aural distractions, hacking skills or a visor that lets you see the world through the eyes of its greatest crime-disparager, it all fuels the game’s peerless sense of empowerment.

Is Asylum less sprawling than Arkham City or Knight? Of course. Yet its focus is precisely what makes Rocksteady’s first Batman so special. Joker’s masterfully paced opening bait-and-switch. That deeply traumatic, Scarecrow-conjured flashback. Playing the deadliest game of cat-and-croc with Waylon Jones. Before there were city streets to soar over or a Batmobile to do doughnuts in, Rocksteady could focus all its attention on serving up cracking combat, deft stealth and perfectly timed set pieces. Duff bosses aside, Arkham Asylum is still the seminal superhero game we all deserve.

This article originally appeared in Official PlayStation Magazine. For more great PlayStation coverage, you can subscribe here.

Dave Meikleham
Paid maker of words, goes by many names: Meiksy… Macklespammer… Big Hungry Joe. Obsessive fan of Metal Gear Solid, Nathan Drake's digital pecks and Dino Crisis 2. Loves Jurassic Park so much, may burst at any moment.