Batman: Arkham Asylum ReviewGreg Knoll
Batman is perhaps one of the most complex and well-known characters ever to grace the pages of a comic book. His fighting techniques are unmatched, his detective skills are legendary and he is arguably the greatest hero without any super-powers to ever exist. Yet the most fascinating thing about him and the most relatable - for me - is his dark side. His ability to tread that very thin line between brilliance and insanity. And the complexity which derives from that struggle is one of a kind. Of everything ever produced in his name, one graphic novel is a testament to this, and a demonstration of how truly unique Batman is: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It was the most disturbing, gritty portrayal so far, yet it was undeniably brilliant. Imagine every madman the Dark Knight has ever faced taking control of the legendary island, holding doctors, orderlies and nurses hostage, refusing to let anyone out unless Batman comes in-alone and unarmed.
And what ensued was a battle unlike any other Batman had faced, because it was not of a physical nature. It forced him to fight not only the inmates and archenemies, but his own demons as well. And when it was over, it left me with a disturbing - albeit important - question about the Caped Crusader that I have yet to answer:
Was his trip to Arkham a rescue mission, or a homecoming?
It is still my favorite comic of all time for that reason. So when I learned of Rock Steady's plan to make a game centered around the infamous Arkham, I waited anxiously, and exhausted myself with anticipation for what I hoped would be the darkest, most in-depth Batman game I would ever play. A title that would truly demonstrate the complex and solemn atmosphere the comics did so well. One that would delve even further into the madness already created by its counterparts.
Arkham Asylum without a doubt-is that game.
I realized it the moment I started playing. Lightning flashes over Gotham. The Batmobile roars down the streets, and the Joker sits handcuffed in the passenger seat wearing that sinister, signature grin. Arkham Asylum-dark and looming-lies waiting in the background. Through twisted, darkened pathways Batman leads the Joker to the on-site staff, where they strap the brilliant maniac to an upright gurney, and advance him further into the mental hospital. The Dark Knight stalks every breath of the Joker on the journey. When the lights go out in the middle of the elevator ride, then come back on, Batman is shown clutching the Joker's throat while the guards panic.
Without so much as twitch or complaint from Joker it all seems facile, until he's led into a secure area while Batman is forced to stay behind. The Dark Knight can only watch from behind a plate of reinforced glass as Joker trips, tricks the guard into bending down, then mercilessly chokes the life out of him with the chains of his handcuffs. Again and again, Batman slams his fist into the glass, while Joker spins and twirls his way to an electronic security gate, and then traipses through it the moment it disarms. Not a second later, Batman leaps through the glass and into the holding cell but before he can get to the Joker, the security gate initiates again, leaving Batman trapped as Joker orders his henchman to attack.
When the dust settles, the goons incapacitated and the Joker with a generous head-start, the security gates lower again, and Batman is invited inside the madhouse, Joker laughing all the while. Not so much as a heartbeat passes, and Batman pursues, knowing yet seemingly uncaring that on the other side is virtually every low-life thug and super-criminal he's ever put away. They're most likely going to be out of their cells and out for his blood.
And in my own sick mind, I was hoping for it. Taking on some of the most famous villains-Ivy, Bane, Scarecrow, Croc, and Joker-in Batman's history is every fan's dream. Arkham made it a reality, though in a more brilliant way than I was accustomed to with action games. Rather than simply having me follow some linear path, working my way through an area to an eventual boss fight, Arkham toyed with me. It led me along, made me anticipate and expect a battle, then pulled back, and drew me further into the Asylum. One early scene had me roaming through the sewers, searching for an alternate route into the mansion. Without warning, while passing by a random door with a window, Croc leapt out of the water on the other side, growling then smashing his fist into the glass. I thought for sure it would shatter. I tensed and waited for him to break through but it never happened. He simply grew bored, spouted a cryptic warning and gaited out of view. It was there I knew a fight with Croc would come, but it would not happen for a very long time.
While that premise is risky-as the potential for latency and boredom can arise-Arkham remains imaginative from beginning to end. Instead of simply taunting you with one boss, it does so with many. Each intertwined with the primary story, continuously, so that you shift back and forth between them, never quite knowing what to expect. At one point, you're entering a garden house-half-planning on finding Poison Ivy-only to discover Bane waiting on the other side. Or it could be while you're in pursuit of Joker, when Batman starts coughing...
Batman never coughs...unless...
With no prior indication, Batman inhales Scarecrow's fear toxin and is thrust into a nightmare world built from delusions of his dead parents coming back to life, and that of a hundred-foot Scarecrow with a blaring gaze hunting him down.
Then as abruptly as it happened it's over, and you're back in reality, though it is just as deranged. As with the Croc encounter, it's done only to shake you up, make you anticipate the battle--or dread it. Either way, it's incredible. Arkham picks away at you slowly and methodically, jarring your contentment, easing you back in, then shattering it entirely.
That same cerebral onslaught emerges amongst other aspects of the game, only there it's reversed and Batman is the one instilling fear. Nearly every section is occupied by Joker's thugs or psychotic patients, and before you can move to the next area, each one must be incapacitated. Arkham's combat system is simple and free-flowing. Batman will move from enemy to enemy with very little effort, disposing of them in a blink. The counter-attack system is generous, allowing any move to be reversed, and all are easily telegraphed. And while useful for unarmed thugs, most are carrying firearms, and melee combat actually makes up only a small portion of the game. Attacking anyone carrying a gun is a guaranteed death sentence, as you're almost certain to be overwhelmed. It's here where Arkham excels once again; introducing methods that are synonymous with the Dark Knight-hiding in the shadows and using intimidation to rattle his adversaries.
Batman can perch unseen upon the countless gargoyles littering Arkham. If a solder happens to walk in front of him, he can glide down and plant both feet against his head the moment he turns his back. If one happens to patrol beneath him, he can hang from that same statue, swoop down, grab them then dangle them helplessly, leaving the others terrified and scrambling; more likely to make a mistake. Batman has exploding gel that he can spray undetected and detonate from a distance when an unknowing villain treads over it. He can upgrade to a remote-controlled batarang later in the game. Once thrown, it can be guided straight into an enemy's face even from a hundred yards away. All without Batman setting foot outside of the shadows. And that truly made me feel like I was stepping into the role of the Dark Knight.
That's something I've been waiting decades to do, and Arkham unrelentingly provided that. From beginning to end-with its dark story, its intertwined characters and the ability to panic and manipulate enemies before disabling them one-by-one-the game never let up. Arkham is a true testament to one of comic's greatest heroes, and certifiably the greatest game I've played this year.
I still have yet to answer my question, but my understanding of the Dark Knight and my obsession with his world is stronger than ever. Arkham Asylum is the be-all end-all of anything done in Batman's name, because it gave that to me.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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