Making a Metroid-style third-person adventure game starring Batman is such a genius concept that I can’t believe it’s taken this long for somebody to do it. Batman fits the mechanics perfectly: not just focused on punching, reliant on gadgets, lots of swooping and jumping. All that has to be done to adapt him for a game is to construct an elaborate and varied playground for him to run around in – in this case, Arkham Asylum – while constantly drip-feeding new gadgets that open up new areas and new secrets, and in this the developers have succeeded spectacularly. But they’ve also achieved so much more.
For starters, the combat system. This is the most salient proof that whoever designed this thing gets Batman, because the driving principle behind the combat is something along the lines of “Batman has studied under every martial arts expert in the world and beaten them all, so why would you be telling him to throw specific punches or kicks? Just tell him who you want him to hit and he’ll do the rest.” This eliminates the tedious combo-juggling of the average brawling game and turns the fighting into something more akin to incredibly violent ballet, with the player more concerned with rhythm and positioning than beating up specific baddies. It’s incredibly fluid to watch, too: if Batman were real and he had to take down half a dozen guys at once this is how he’d probably do it – with a lot of movement and quick, rapid attacks so that they don’t have any time to get organized and shoot him in the head.
Speaking of movement, Batman’s movement around the game world is also excellently realised. His grapple gun is available from the beginning of the game, which is very important since it’s the most quintessentially Batman-ish bit of kit he has on his utility belt after the Batarang. This means that from the moment the action kicks off Batman is swinging through the air and hanging off gargoyles, and – cleverly – if he falls into a gas-filled room or a bottomless pit the grapple gun is used to escape it rather than making the player reload. Which, again, shows that the developers understand the character since this is what Batman actually does whenever he falls off a skyscraper.
The third main point that leapt out at me when playing the game was the amount of detail there is in this thing. I have problems with latest iteration of the Unreal engine. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think it adds a horrible plasticky tint to whatever game world it’s being used to render. However, my personal quibbles with it aside I have to admit that some of the characters look incredible; the Joker and Harley are particular standouts but the most important one is Batman himself. Here it’s not a case of how well the model has been rendered, but instead how it changes over time. As Batman fights his way through the asylum he starts to show serious signs of wear – rents in his armour, tears in his cape, cuts on his cheek, even a night’s worth of stubble growth on his chin. This, again, is such a fantastic idea that I’m astonished I’ve never seen it done before, since it’s a really simple way to add a ton of ambience to your game – the player has to look at the game protagonist the entire time they’re playing, so why not make it interesting for them?
There is much about Batman: Arkham Asylum that is excellent besides the elements I have mentioned here, and I am very excited that they are making a sequel. However, there are also many things about Arkham Asylum that are dumb. To start with: vents.
Vents ended up being the most frustrating thing I had to deal with in the game, since Batman does spend quite a lot of his time crawling around in them. Instead of getting him to remove the vent covers with a simple button press, somebody thought it would be an excellent idea to get the player to hammer the space bar to do it in a QTE instead. This got old around about the second time I did it, and since I subsequently had to do it another five hundred times it did not endear itself to me further. It adds absolutely nothing to the game aside from being incredibly obnoxious, and is all the more so when everything else in the game is so streamlined.
The space bar is the cause of further woes when trying to climb ledges quickly. The space bar is very definitely over-used, in fact: it’s pressed to make Batman jump up, held down to make Batman run and tapped twice to make Batman dodge, and it’s this last one that ended up really pissing me off. In a situation where the player is under pressure and they need to climb a ledge, they are not going to push the space bar just once. Unfortunately pushing it twice tells Batman he should throw himself headfirst into the wall beneath, and a horrible death often follows. That’s something that I last saw in Alpha Protocol, for crying out loud; it’s the hallmark of a game that wasn’t playtested properly and it’s utterly baffling that it’s present here.
Finally there’s the bossfights. There’s no real problem with these mechanically – although that in itself is a problem, since they are painfully average when the rest of the game is not – but thematically they are either overused or incredibly stupid. I thought the encounter with Scarecrow was pretty cool, an assessment that lasted up until the developers made me do it all over again a couple of hours further in. And then again a couple of hours further in. By that point it was almost yawn-inducing. And the fight with Poison Ivy and then the end boss are just so bad I don’t even have the words. This is the best the developers could come up with? Really? A fucking giant plant boss I distinctly remember fighting in Metroid Prime back in 2003? I mean, in another game I might have let them pass without comment but in a Batman game, with Batman villains – and, most importantly, in a good Batman game – they really drag things down.
The worst thing about those last two bossfights is that they’re what rounds off the game, so after six or seven hours of awesome action-adventure the player finishes the experience with an awful taste in their mouth. Which is a shame, because otherwise Arkham Asylum would probably have been one of the top three games I’ve played in the last year. As it is, it is merely Very Good.