It's not often that I'm conflicted about a game. Don't get me wrong, review scores are in the eye of the beholder so I'm sure there are plenty of times that you've read something I have written and not agreed with me. I mean that it's rare for me to play a game during a demo and not have a solid idea of what the final product is going to be. I played bits of Batman: Arkham Asylum a few times before I finally got a copy to review, and I always found myself coming away with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the combat and attacking from the shadows, but the pacing seemed off and Batman's movements seemed stiff. Could Rocksteady really pull everything together to deliver on one of DC Comics' biggest franchises?
After having beaten the game, I can tell you the answer is most certainly "Yes."
Gordon just got bitch-slapped.
It not what I say that defines this video review, but what I do.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a third-person action game casting you as -- you guessed it, chum -- the Dark Knight himself. The title opens with Batman racing back to Arkham, Gotham's home for the criminally insane, with the Joker in tow. Seems the Clown Prince of Crime broke out a few weeks ago, but Batman was able to track him down and re-apprehend the baddie. However, things are never what they seem with the Joker, so after getting the wiry maniac back into the building -- a building stocked with hundreds of the Joker's goons after a "mysterious" fire at their prison -- Mr. J breaks free with the help of Harley Quinn, takes control of the penitentiary, and releases all the inmates.
Holy plot twist, Batman!
From there, you're off on an adventure that ranks right below The Dark Knight movie in terms of awesome Batman experiences. The actual Arkham campus is a loony bin spread across multiple buildings on one massive rock. With the Joker in charge you're going to have to swing over rooms filled with gas, save doctors, rip vent covers off the walls so you can make a path around locked doors, and move as fast as Batman can to stop the Joker from releasing an army of monsters on the people of Gotham City.
Now, that might sound like your typical Batman story -- and it kind of is -- but it's important to point out that this is a fairly adult title. Yeah, some of the folks from Batman: The Animated Series are back to reprise their roles (Mark Hamill is the Joker, Kevin Conroy is Batman, and Arleen Sorkin is Harley Quinn), but this isn't the cartoon. Harley's wearing a fairly skimpy outfit that shows off her lady parts, Poison Ivy's in some painted-on panties, colorful language like "ass" and "bitch" is peppered in, and there are people getting murdered left and right. Arkham itself is a dark and dingy place that just had every psychopath housed there run through the halls tearing the building apart. Dead guards are laid out on the floor, papers are strewn about, and the facilities have seen better days.
Oh Batman you big lug! You fell for the Joker's shenanigans again.
These adult themes tied in with a very, very Batman-looking world really drive home your connection to the story. I don't think I'm ever going to forget Mr. Zsasz holding a knife to a female doctor, her screaming for me to save her, the Joker screaming at Zsasz to kill her, and Zsasz screaming at me to stay back. After years of the Riddler being goofy, I realized Arkham's version of the character was on a different level when he told a Riddle that ended in dismembering a baby. Plus, the segments where you're under the Scarecrow's influence and Batman's worst fears are realized are some of the coolest, most cerebral parts of the game. These are the moments that wrapped me up in the experience and made me feel like Batman on the longest night of his life.
Gameplay in this dark, creepy world breaks down into three main portions -- fist fighting, attacking from the shadows, and exploration. As you move from room to room chasing Harley or Commissioner Gordon's kidnapper, you're going to run into bad guys. Lots of times, you'll find a crew milling about or the Joker will spring a trap with handfuls of guys who are ready to kill you. This is when you'll make use of your straight hand-to-hand moves.
Fist fighting in Arkham Asylum is pretty much the definition of an easy to learn/hard to master combat system. The game allows Batman to move faster than his enemies (He's a trained ninja, people!) and engage them in 360 degrees. You just point your left stick towards whatever enemy you want to attack and Batman follows suit. Through four buttons -- strike, reverse, jump, and stun -- you'll unleash Mr. Wayne's fury on the scum of the Earth. Obviously, you can just mash the strike button and take down the bad guys with a healthy set of animations -- dropkicks, elbows, punches, and more are peppered in -- and reverse when you see the spider-sense icon pop-up above a bad guy's head, but there's a sweet science to this madness.