Review: Batman Arkham Asylum (PS3)

Title:Batman: Arkham Asylum
Format:Blu-ray
Release Date:August 25, 2009
Publisher:Warner Bros & Eidos
Developer:Rocksteady Studios
Original MSRP:$59.99

This is what happens when developers of a licensed game get this little luxury called time. Unlike pretty much every other game based on a movie or television series, Batman: Arkham Asylum is excellent – mainly due to the fact that it came out over a year after Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight.

London-based team Rocksteady were given as long as they needed to become engrossed in the Batman lore & back-story and create a labour of love that is sure to please both the Gotham hardcore and casual Caped Crusader fans alike.

I’ll keep this review spoiler-free as this is a story you’ll want to actually sit through and enjoy. Thought up by respected Batman writer Paul Dini, the Dark Knight’s adventure sees him take on a whole host of villains from his past in a faithful recreation of the asylum.

From the very first moment you’re plunged into Arkham, right through to finding that final elusive Riddler trophy, it’s impossible to put the controller down. Although the main story is somewhat short (around 6 hours), it’s one that you’ll enjoy from beginning to end; a game that sucks you into its world through exceptional design and narrative.

Gameplay:
Arkham Asylum’s difficulty curve is extremely smooth – too many games nowadays either have one level or fight where everything dramatically ramps up, or the gameplay just feels the same throughout. Here, gradually the enemies get a little stronger, the boss fights are bigger, you have access to better gadgets and both you and the AI have improved tactics in combat.

Well, sort of. The AI is still pretty stupid but Joker’s henchman eventually start using better weapons, starting with their bare hands and towards the end there’ll be sniper rifles with red-dot sights. Meanwhile, as Batman you will need to think differently as the game progresses.

At first, it’s simple enough just to keep tapping square until you knock everyone out but soon enough, the agenda is stealth and well-timed decisions. Lingering in the shadows is the name of the game, using gargoyles up high to get a bird’s eye view and to avoid being spotted.

Which leads on to a fantastic feature of the game – in fact, a little too fantastic. Detective mode scopes out the area and tells you everything you need to know, highlighting bad guys in bright red, detailing their condition and what weapon they’re carrying.

The implementation of this should’ve been much better – in the state Rocksteady decided on using, the game becomes far too easy as you can lazily stay in detective mode from beginning to end. There are a few possible solutions to this, for example – like the other gadgets in the game – starting off with a mediocre version and upgrading the abilities through earned XP. Or it could simply be limited (similar to the sprinting mechanic in most modern FPS’). Another small gripe are the boss battles; a couple being sub-standard.

The combat system is fluid and enjoyable. The way you bounce around from punching one thug to kicking the next makes the action resemble a pinball machine. It really feels like you’re causing some major damage and when you land the final blow on the last henchman in a section, you’ll be treated to a nice slow-mo shot where you can almost feel the abuse these harebrained yobs have been taking. It’s a bit of a cliche but easy to learn, hard to master is the most accurate way of describing the fighting. Apart from when in combat, Batman is quite stiff and rigid but fortunately, this doesn’t impact too negatively.

There’s a pretty good variety in the gameplay, one distinctive style being the Scarecrow levels where Crane delves into Bruce Wayne’s deepest fears and you’re then taken into his world. The camera changes to a side-on view into a sort of platformer. You then have to remain in the shadows, avoiding obstacles and Scarecrow’s line of sight. Now a firm fan favourite, many say that Rocksteady made a mistake in not including many more of these.

Personally, I disagree. The reason these sections are so special is because they are few and far between and really break up the gameplay style you’re used to, testing a different skill set just as you’re becoming comfortable with the tactics for taking down Joker’s goons. However, I would definitely have included a selection of Scarecrow levels as extra challenge rooms. Most players would probably have even paid for this as extra DLC, it would’ve been so fun to try and complete these in a set time and compete with friends.

Speaking of challenge rooms, I suppose it’s time to talk about the features away from the main story. Challenge rooms are basically small levels where you complete objectives (e.g. finish within a certain time-frame) in either combat or predator challenges. The former is simply four rounds of fighting a few baddies in hand-to-hand freeflow combat. Predator meanwhile, is more akin to the kind of battles you face later in the story – staying hidden and silently dispatching armed thugs one by one, deciding how to best use your gadgets to either directly take them down or use the environment.

As well as this are the excellent time-sucker of hunting for Riddler trophies and solving riddles around Arkham. Devised by Mr. E Nigma of course, there are 240 of these little challenges – some straightforward and easily visible, a lot are off the beaten path and require you to explore every inch of the island.

The Riddler challenges along with character trophies, bios and audio logs are an absolute dream for any fanatic of the Batman universe. There are so many little nods to the most well-known and most obscure characters, it’s clear that the guys at Rocksteady love the comic books and movies themselves. It also feels like there are countless characters that are hardly even referenced to, opening up some exciting possibilities for battles in the sequel.

Another slight disappointment is the lack of detective tasks. The evidence scanner is used only a couple of times in the whole game and all it consists of is holding a button for a few seconds when you find the beginning of a trail (e.g. a fingerprint). It’s not taxing at all and I think many players would have appreciated some sections that really make you think to find imperative clues.

Visuals:
In a word, stunning. Make no mistake, at release this was one of the best looking titles on console. Both in-game and during cut-scenes, the island looks as dark, dirty and down-trodden as you’d expect. Our main protagonist looks awesome and a nice feature is that by the end of the game, he has cuts and bruises, with tears in his cape and his suit looking like it’s been through a war; another small addition that other developers could utilise for an added sense of realism and believability.

I should also make clear that, though it isn’t an ‘adult’ game, Arkham Asylum is not the juvenile licensed affair you’re accustomed to, pandering to the “E” market. Despite it not exactly being on God Of War level violence, the graphicness is maybe a tad more than most would expect from a comic book title.

There is a little taboo language and Poison Ivy is wearing nothing but a small leaf for her lower-half clothing. A darker theme is welcome for most of us, who fancy a more mature superhero game, but perhaps unexpected.

Whilst the character models of the Clown Prince of Crime, Harley Quinn and their cohorts all look great, the Arkham staff are anything but. When they speak, the facial expressions are dead – the freakily still eyes added to the way below-par lip syncing.

The cannon fodder you fight throughout come in about three flavours, which is slightly disappointing. I don’t expect them to come up with hundreds of unique character models for guys you’ll be hitting seven shades out of in a couple of seconds, but just a little more variety wouldn’t go a miss.

Furthermore, as most people will likely play with detective mode on for the majority of the time, they won’t even get to see the wonderfully recreated asylum. This is obviously no fault of the level designers but the amazing graphics just seem a bit of a waste once the whole screen looks like an x-ray.

Audio:
I’m no expert when it comes to audio so by no means take this as gospel – but to me, the game generally sounds great. The sound effects are good and the music is well suited to the mood of the asylum.

As mentioned previously, the voice acting is superb. Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker is quite something, just the right level of crazy with some memorable lines. Other voice actors reprising their roles from Batman: The Animated Series are the excellent Kevin Conroy as the titular character and Arleen Sorkin with a convincing Harley Quinn.

Again, not so much thought was put into the standard enemies, but I guess that’s to be expected. They say the same things over and over again and there seems to be only one voice. Moreover, the talk in every fight follows the same sequence: all act tough, Batman downs one of them, all act scared.

Conclusion:
Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best superhero game out there by some distance. There are a few criticisms that can be leveled at it, which is why it just misses out on a perfect grade, but these minor grievances should not deter anyone from playing this game. Enjoyable from the first minute to the last, with insanely high production values, Rocksteady have done us proud with a captivating and enveloping experience that any PS3 owner should take pleasure in playing.

Score:
9.5

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  • Anonymous

    Of all the great games still to come later this year, Batman Arkham City is most definitely in my top 3 must haves, day 1 purchases.

    • Raj S.M.

      yup, Arkham City should be amazing. Much bigger scale and hopefully a
      lot more gadgets to use. Plus I’m guessing we’re gonna see a lot of the
      villains that were only briefly seen in the first game. Nice to see
      something on the release schedule that’s not a modern-day FPS too…

  • Anonymous

    Great article

    • Raj S.M.

      thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Really enjoyed this game until the very last boss.  Died a few times and just couldn’t go back to it.  Even my friend who loves Batman did the same thing.  They should have found a better way to finish the game off.

    Also, welcome Raj.  Are you gonna guest on the podcast so we can get to know you?

    • Raj S.M.

      yeah i know what you mean about the bosses, the final boss especially was very dissapointing after all that build up.

      thanks for the welcome 🙂 not sure about going on the pod yet, think i’ll just stick to the writing for the time being and of course it’s up to the hosts when it comes to planning the pod.

  • Great article, I am currently playing the game for the first time and I am loving it.

    • Raj S.M.

      thank you 🙂 what difficulty are you playing through?

  • Great review, and congratulations on joining the PSNation staff!

    One thing I would add, as you said you’re not an expert on audio, is that some of the sound design in this game is the greatest I have ever heard in a video game, the morgue in particular I encountered while playing alone late at night and the use of surround sound was amazing, it creeped the hell out of me which I think was the aim!

    • Anonymous

      If you want creepy surround sound of incredible quality give Dead Space 2 a try.  You’ll never be the same.

      • Raj S.M.

        are there a lot of sudden noises when enemies pop-out of nowhere? i would think if it’s a generally quiet game, those sound effects would be really effective.
        tbh, i haven’t even tried either of the dead space games yet – would you recommend picking up the first one?

        • Anonymous

          I would highly recommend both Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2 if you are a fan of survival horror games.  I’d say DS1 is more on the horor side of things while DS2 throws in a fair amount more action.  Here’s my review of Dead Space 2:
          http://www.psnation.org/2011/02/15/review-dead-space-2/

    • Raj S.M.

      cheers 🙂 thanks for the info on the audio. as i said in the article it sounded great for me, but i know it can get extremely technical when talking about the sound and i just dont have the knowledge on that so didnt want to go in acting like i know :s  plus although i use a decent pair of sennheisers, its nothing like having a 7.1 surround and really feeling it

  • good review! one of the best games i played on ps3 for me.cant wait for sequeal 

  • Nice review! a must have game for ps3.cant wait for new one

  • Anonymous

    I try and platinum games I enjoy, and this was one of the first.

    A spot on ‘backlog’ review. It’s nice to see the PSNation grow and keep the same excellant standard I’ve got used to. Keep up the great work.