You know a game has potential when you are willing to spend what little money you have as a kid but that is what I did with Arkham Asylum when it first released in 2009. I risked multiple trips to the movies and dinner with friends for a videogame and let me tell you it was worth it.
I have no regrets about spending the only 60 dollars I had at the time to play this game. It helped me see what a videogame could be outside of the AAA shooters I was fascinated by at the time. However that was in 2009 and I am not 14 anymore. Does Batman Arkham Asylum still hold up in 2020 or is it a product of its time?
You are Batman in a haunted asylum
The greatest feat that Batman Arkham Asylum accomplishes is creating a setting that completely draws the player into its premise. You are Batman trapped in Arkham Asylum through an elaborate scheme of the Joker’s. Your job is to stop him and the other escaped criminals. Fairly simple but the true feat is how the writing, voice acting, sounds, and gameplay elements all come together to create what was then a unique experience. At the time of this writing, there are three other Batman games and several other games that have taken inspiration from Rocksteady’s gameplay.
The game’s introduction is simply Batman walking through the asylum and is a perfect way to get introduced to some of the characters and to immerse the player into this new setting. Batman slowly walks the Joker to where he will be held in the Asylum. During the walk, Batman sees Killer Croc moving cells. Killer Croc threatens Batman and the player knows that he might be a threat in the future. Meanwhile, the Joker says that Croc reminded him that he “needs some new shoes.” The slow escort continues and Batman meets the Warden on one of the TVs, Cash, and Commissioner Gordon. The opening of the game reminds me of the lines at a Disney Park ride where you learn the exposition of the ride while you walk around.
This development of the world does not stop as Batman listens to Joker taunting him over the loudspeakers of the Asylum. Or later in the game, when the player tries to open a door and Killer Croc appears frothing at the mouth trying to get at Batman. Even the evidence of Bane’s captivity will be foreshadowed by some henchmen who are huddled together waiting for Batman to make an appearance. All of these elements are what makes this game special. Arkham Asylum is always hinting at the next character or event that is going to happen even while you are still dealing with the first villain.
Patient interviews are available for the player to pickup that go into greater detail about the various villains that Batman is up against. Before you fight him, the player is able to listen to the backstory of Killer Croc. The player even learns about Harley Quinn’s infatuation with the clinically insane shortly before she began to fall in love with the Joker. All of this is a great way to give a little more depth to the world much like how Bioshock did it 2 years prior with audio diaries.
The sound and voiceover are a large part as to why this game works so well. The loudspeaker chime is one of the most chilling sounds in the game as it slowly becomes more apparent that it signals Joker’s established presence in Arkham. Joker’s presence becomes more and more evident to the player not only as the taunting from TV’s and loudspeakers grows but as exploding presents are left in areas that you just were exploring moments before. The clattering of wind up teeth and the Joker’s graffiti that slowly begins to cover hallways showcasing maniacal laughing and joker smiles, are all examples of the Joker seeming to be everywhere at once. Joker never lets his presence fall too far away from the player’s consciousness.
But Do You Feel Like Batman?
Batman Arkham Asylum was the first superhero game that made the player “feel” like the hero the game was about. As literally every publication from 2009 reports, Arkham Asylum made you feel like the caped crusader and I have to say that that the answer in 2020 is still a yes but also a no.
There are three distinct gameplay elements in Arkham Asylum. The hand to hand combat, the predatory stealth, and the movement through the asylum, all together are the elements that bring Batman to life as he has never before been in a video game.
Out of the three elements, the combat in Arkham Asylum has aged the worst. That is not to say that it is bad but that it has been improved upon since 2009. The combat unfortunately plays like a fairly basic rhythm game. It can feel badass if you are new to the game maybe but after a while the basic combat begins to feel more like a time waster than a challenge. Batman works up a score multiplier as he connects punches without being damaged. The multiplier also signals to the player a slight damage boost is available and allows for combo usage. The combos are usually one-hit take downs. The player can use the batclaw and batarangs in the fights however they are rarely, if ever, needed to win a fight. The player can just go around punching and flying around the arena like a bat trapped in a basement.
Boss fights however can feel either like rehashes of one another or excellent showcases of Batman’s diverse skill set. Poison Ivy is probably the best designed boss in the game and it forces the player to be on the defensive and offensive at all times. The player has to manage regular thugs while dodging various attack patterns from Poison Ivy. On the other side of the spectrum, are most of the other bosses. Bane and the titans are essentially the same boss over and over again (and you fight them a lot). It takes only a quick batarang and a dodge and the big galoot is halfway to his knees. It’s just not challenging even on the hardest difficulty.
Killer Croc and Scarecrow suffer from similar faults as well. Killer Croc’s fight is teased the moment Batman enters the Asylum and little easter eggs sprinkled throughout the Asylum give the impression that it will be a hard fought battle. When the moment finally comes where the player must descend into Croc’s sewers, the actual battle is one of the biggest disappointments of the game. The entire battle is following a maze like path through the sewers and trying to avoid making too much sound on the planks. Sound gives Croc the player’s location, which means you slowly walk through the entire level gathering spores and sometimes Croc pops out but then you just throw a quick batarang and Croc is back in the water. The fight is so long and monotonous even the developers seemed to have realized and made Croc chase the player for the last section of the game. It is quite possibly the easiest and most boring boss fight in the game.
Scarecrow on the other hand has some of the best sequences to preface a boss fight that I have ever seen. Scarecrow sprays his toxin through air vents and pipes and Batman unknowingly inhales the chemicals. To a new player, these sequences are trippy and are the only opportunities within the context of the game to explore Batman’s character. Visions of a traumatic past and confronting inner demons are just two of the psychological fantasies that happen during these moments.
The lead up to the Scarecrow fights are one of the best parts of the game and the actual fight is one of the worst parts of the game. It is actually really disappointing that something that offered so much promise in its preface would be nothing more than hot lava played with light. The player has to avoid Scarecrow’s vision and make it to the end of the map to shine a spotlight on. I think the only times I have ever been caught were when I was too impatient to sit through another 5 minutes of the boss fight. Like Croc, these fights require that the player just not play at their speed but instead wait for the game to allow the player to finish safely.
Finally, Joker, the mastermind behind the plot and the villain that the player has been chasing from the very start of the game has the least boss fight battle of all of the fights. The majority of the fight is just fighting goons like the player has been fighting the entire game. The only time Joker comes into the fight is he throws explosives occasionally or he will slowly chase you around the area before giving up. The fight is won after pulling Joker into the arena three times with your batclaw. Honestly, it is one of the most anti-climatic boss fights in gaming history. It never bothered me too much when I was younger but now this fight stands out as such wasted potential and is a serious misstep on the side of the developers to give us something really cathartic after all the trouble Joker caused throughout the game.
The stealth portions of levels are where Arkham Asylum truly shine. Batman perches on gargoyles that serve as a perch to survey the arena. The player then utilizes all the gadgets available which range from explosive gel to batarangs to the batclaw and much more. The player can approach these scenarios from any avenue they choose and this versatility is what breathes life into the game years down the line. I never felt like I was restricted to one path when playing these sections. Instead, I felt like I had to think of what would look the coolest or would be the most beneficial for the particular scenario.
What makes these sections even better is that as the player successfully dispatches the henchman, their heart rates start to spike and their voices crack as they succumb to fear. It makes you feel powerful but not a cheap powerful like the combat does. It feels justified especially as the game progresses and traps and weapons are set out for Batman. The typical hiding spots can trigger explosions and Batman is left in the open right in the line of the criminals’ gun sights. Learning new strategies is essential in these sections and not optional.
The movement through the asylum is metro-vania in nature. Various sections of the island might be unreachable until Batman unlocks a new gadget. Usually, gadgets that are needed for this are unlocked through story progression. However the player still must backtrack to places in order to gather all the Riddler’s collectibles. The player must crouch through vents, grapple onto cliff sides, and tear down walls in order to make it to the next objective. I felt these sections as a whole worked very well to make the player slow down and explore the island. It only felt cheap when Batman was granted gadgets right when they were needed. For instance, there was a gap that Batman had to get over so he calls the batwing and it drops off a new gadget through the glass ceiling. The player could then traverse the chasm with no issues. It all felt a little too convenient but that is me being nit picky. I do think that the metro-vania nature of the game works really well with a super hero like Batman who has such a versatile tool set.
Quirks with age
Generally, a lot of the visuals aged well since the game is mostly dark and utilizes a color palate that can hide blemishes a little easier (green grey and black). However, when Arkham Asylum opened up for me and I watched Batman drive towards the Asylum with Joker in the backseat, the only word that came to mind was slimy. The game textures, especially those where water is involved looks like everyone/everything is sweating or oozing something that you would see in Croc’s sewer.
Batman, whenever he had a non-cutscene conversation with an NPC, has this weird stilted over the shoulder interview. These moments were always awkward and it actually amazes me that the game shipped with these at all. They stick out as the worst visuals in the game and the same thing could have been accomplished without the fixed camera. It wouldn’t have drawn as much attention to the stiff animations and poor NPC character models.
Escaping the fun house
Batman Arkham Asylum is still a lot of fun 11 years after its initial release. The game is a treasure in environmental story telling, writing, and voice acting. Though some of the core gameplay elements can feel a little stale, the rest of the game more than makes up for the mindless tedium. It always has been and always will be a treat to come face to face with some of Batman’s greatest hits villains. The villain personalities are well captured but I do wish that their fights were as well adapted as their acting. If anything, Batman Arkham Asylum reminds me why I enjoy games and that is to get lost in another world for just one crazy night.