“Sometimes… sometimes I think the Asylum is a head. We’re inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it’s your head, Batman. Arkham is a looking glass… and we are you.”
― Grant Morrison,
In less than a week, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the first motion picture to put DC’s most iconic heroes, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, together on the silver screen will drop into theaters everywhere and blow the collective minds of humanity away. At least this DC comics fan hopes so. Initial buzz was through the roof, followed by a series of disdaining critiques. Is it just hype? Is it just snooty “high” journalism? We’ll see.
In honor of the upcoming flagship feature film showcasing a new Batman played by Ben Affleck (the world doesn’t seem ready for forget about Bale), I plan to review what is for many the definitive take on the Caped Crusader: the Arkham quadrilogy. Rejoice, all you die hard Dark Knight fans out there. In case you thought I was just a Superman fan, you can think again. I loved these games. Well, I can’t say anything about Arkham Knight until I get a chance to get my grubby little sausage links all over it and complete the dang thing.
Batman is without a doubt the world’s most famous superhero. And rightfully so. He’s the coolest of them all. He’s an icon and archetype that helped found his genre. He our modern-day Hamlet. He’s been a part of pop culture for over 75 years. He’s been reiterated countless times, perpetuated for new generations while hundreds of American icons have fallen into obscurity (kids these days have no idea who John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Rosie the Riveter, Cash or Hemingway or Yosemite Sam are). Batman has had several movies made about his mythos. He’s got the world’s best and most recognizable rogues gallery. His nature emphasizes complex psychology and psychoses. He drives the Batmobile. Who doesn’t know about the Batmobile?
If you’re that guy, feel free to take a hike.
Oh and there’s one more thing. Batman was featured as the lead in the best superhero video game series to date.
It all began with Batman: Arkham Asylum, a universally ballyhooed, third person perspective action-adventure for the PS3 and Xbox 360 (and Microsoft Windows, if you’re a weirdo) developed by Rocksteady Studios together with Warner Bros. This game came just one year after the first Iron Man film, so Marvel’s flash-in-the-pan pomp and popularity hadn’t yet overshadowed DC’s history of success.
Arkham Asylum feels like it’s part Metal Gear Solid, part The Legend of Zelda, part Tomb Raider, part Assassin’s Creed, and part stone-cold, punch evil in the face, good ol’ absolute justice. It’s really a mix of genres and influences. Yet its fusions are all its own.
And it has everything going for it. Legendary Batman writer Paul Dini scribed it. Asylum embraces so many core concepts of its protagonist and references tons of his history. It heavily features one of the most popular things about Batman: his villains. The game’s two most significant figures are definitively voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the Batman and the Joker, respectively. For many fans, like myself, the voices of these two actors are the voices of the Batman and the Joker every time they pick up a comic book.
Taking these things into consideration, it would be truly shocking if the game had been a flop. If you remember, it was actually Game of the Year. This was “the best digital Batman simulator” ever. It makes you feel like you really are Batman, which of course is everyone’s dream whether you’re Batkid, a kid-at-heart, or any other kid who grew up anywhere in America.
The opening scene begins all hunky-dory as Batman has just apprehended the Joker and is taking him to Gotham’s revolving door: the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, which is probably less efficient at keeping its residents inside than is Mexico. It’s the norm as Batman walks the Joker into custody and chats idly with the Commish. Batman remarks how easy it was to take the Clown Prince of Crime in, and then, surprise, surprise, bet you didn’t see this coming… the Joker springs his trap. I mean, we wouldn’t have much of a story otherwise, would we?
Mr. J’s floozy flunky Harley Quinn secures security and a corrupt guard aids the Joker’s flight deeper into the facility. Oh and Commissioner Gordon is kidnapped. And… the hundreds of thugs from Blackgate being temporarily held here and resident nutcases and psychopaths are set free on the grounds, ready to do much more to Batman than engage him in a heated discussion. And to top it all off, the Joker threatens to detonate bombs in the city if anyone should attempt to enter the asylum. Batman is all alone. He’s trapped in the madhouse with nothing but the fact that he’s Batman to give him some hope. Joker has turned Arkham island, essentially an Alcatraz for crazies, into a prison for the Dark Knight.
Batman will be forced to face off against the criminally insane monsters that have plagued him for years and the game is stuffed full of more supervillains and boss fights than American politics. Bane, Poison Ivy, the Riddler, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Victor Zsasz, even Scarface, all make an appearance to a lesser or greater degree, provoking Batman to be at peak performance, utilize his most advanced gadgets as they push him to his physical and psychological limits.
It’s the worst night he’s ever had, except for the time his parents were murdered in front of him as a child …or the time the Joker beat the second Robin with a crowbar and locked him in a warehouse and blew up the warehouse… or the time he became addicted to Venom… or the time he failed to prevent his friend Harvey Dent from slipping into madness… or the time he abandoned Gotham after a devastating earthquake and was scorned by Gordon… or that one time the Joker gained omnipotent powers from an extra-dimensional imp named Mxyzptlk and nearly destroyed existence (à la Kefka) and tortured Bruce by having his flesh torn open by birds with his mouth fused shut, then killed and then revived to relive the same experience as a new daily routine.
Okay, so the guy hasn’t had too many breaks. Don’t blame him for brooding.
Complicating the situation in Arkham Asylum is the true motivation behind the Joker’s plot. Always a fan of the chemicals, Joker has secretly funded the research of one Dr. Young, a brilliant young scientist in the employ of the asylum who has begun to mess around with Bane’s super-steroid Venom, developing a new and more potent version called Titan which can supposedly be used to help patients survive Arkham’s more… aggressive treatments. The Joker staged this elaborate ruse just so he could take the research for himself and use the Titan serum to amass an army of superhumans.
Unfortunately, the drug transforms a normal musclehead into a mindless, hulking monstrosity, although with deadly consequences. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Anyone who takes this rudimentary form of Titan is on borrowed time. Their hearts give out sooner rather than later. When the Joker juices up on the stuff himself for the final bout with “Titan Joker”, or rather with the nameless thugs he sics on you while taunting you from a distance (?), the effects he suffers from the experimental drug leads to some of the events of the next installment, Arkham City.
Though several portions of the game are linear, Batman will eventually enter Arkham proper and the area opens up, allowing him space to explore, glide, crawl, grapple and zipline as much as he wants. Certain areas remain inaccessible until progressing through the storyline or achieving new gadgets, but this never feels too restricting or frustrating. It feels natural. Speaking of the feel of the game, it’s claustrophobic. That’s probably the best description I can think of for Arkham Asylum. It’s really a tiny space occupied by the worst of the worst and everyone is out to kill you. This is something that I think the more open-world sequels somehow lost track of, the claustrophobia which was thematically appropriate and downright oppressive in Asylum.
Speaking of phobias, one of the highlights of the game are the Scarecrow sequences. We’ve already mentioned that Asylum likes to play with Batman’s psyche. In doing so, it makes you feel as if you’re going a little crazy, yourself. The Scarecrow sequences involve intense hallucinations of Bruce’s parents, either being killed or reprimanding from beyond the grave for failing them. Dredging up that emotion core of what makes the Batman do what he does and be what he is, a man outside the law who brutalizes criminals with his bare hands.
The voice acting in Asylum is some of the best you can find. Conroy has played the part of the Dark Knight for so long yet it never seems like he’s just dialing it in. His threatening baritone borrowed from the animated series fits perfectly in this new, much darker and more adult setting. Mark Hamill is of course the highlight. Nobody will ever be able to bring the kind of manic energy he did the role. He commands a range of tones that can be at once whimsical as a circus clown and then the next moment as snarling and menacing as a serial killer (though which is scarier isn’t clear). Arleen Sorkin also returns to her role as Harleen Quinzel, the role she built from the ground up in the animated series. This will be one of her last performances as the character, and you can hear the age in her voice now, but when she’s later replaced by another actress there’s just something missing.
Nearly all of the other voices are distinct and full of personality whether it’s Steven Blum’s Killer Croc or Tasia Valenza’s Poison Ivy. One incredible performance comes from Wally Wingert as the Riddler, a wretchedly narcissistic, arrogant braggart compulsively obsessed with besting the Batman’s intellect in order to prove his own.
The Riddler represents one of the stand out elements of this game and indeed of the series. Love it or hate it but the Riddler trophies and riddles are a sidequest that really helped to bring out the investigative aspect of the Dark Knight Detective, giving the audience an even more well-rounded portrayal of Batman than what we commonly see in film. This is the Batman of the comics: unstoppably determined, genius level engineer, technician and sleuth, capable of taking on entire mobs, prepared for any emergency, fueled by vengeance and dark as the night.
Batman’s journey through the labyrinthine hallways of Arkham is punctuated by intermittent taunts and insults by the Riddler via radio transmission. The riddles he has left to test the Dark Knight can be solved by examining architecture, symbols, statues, pictures or other unusual imagery, sometimes only accessible with Batman’s “Environmental Scan”. Most of the riddles will require Batman to find a secret question-mark symbol at the scene. For example, the Riddler pronounces with his trademark scoff and bravado: “My challenges appear to those with the correct position in life”. The word puzzle is solved by climbing the Clock Tower and looking down to the spot below where a secret segmented question-mark symbol appears under “detective mode”. The riddle isn’t just a fun distraction. Like many others it serves to deepen Batman’s world, highlighting the superiority complex of his riddling adversary.
Personally, I thought the Riddler’s challenges were an incredible compliment to the action and the fighting. These would become a hallmark of the franchise.
Finding patient interviews and adding them to Batman’s extensive person profiles is another lovely touch. These too add to the character of Batman’s rogues. You get to listen to the Joker playing a mental game of cat and mouse with his psychiatrist, Edward Nygma screaming about the stupidity of the sheeple beneath him, Waylon Jones growling his inhuman, cannibalistic hunger, and Jonathan Crane turn his interviewer into the interviewee as Crane slowly doses him with fear gas to learn what phobias lurk inside the poor man. They really nailed these characterizations and many of them are as frightening and disgusting like a real interview with a maniac would be. Rocksteady has shown to the world that Batman has the greatest set of developed villains ever.
In fact, so much of the game seems devoted to characterization, not only with the appearances of its villains, the puzzles, the patient interview tapes, but also with the minor easter eggs (Ra’s al Ghul’s body in the morgue or a poster for the Iceberg Lounge). If Batman falls, the game over screen reveals the triumphant face of a supervillain standing over the fallen hero and taunting him. That’s just genius.
And finally, there is Batman’s extensive arsenal of high tech weaponry, batsuit upgrades, detective aids, variant batarangs, and martial arts combos and takedowns. It is abundantly clear that a lot of TLC went into fully envisioning Batman’s fighting capabilities, and this is one of the game’s strongest features.
“Detective mode” is the filter Instagram needs to pick up, like, yesterday. It allows Batman to look through walls and locate hostiles nearby, check out their armaments, and plan his mode of attack. The focus is on stealth so remaining out of the line of sight of sharpshooters and gunmen is a must. Grappling through the shadows from gothic gargoyles and rafters, looking down at your prey below and laying out your approach as you knock them out one by one, is an thrilling sensation.
The game has therefore two modes of engagement, rather than just the straight up fist fight there’s also the predator mode. Isn’t the name itself just awesome? Batman can use an array of carefully timed techniques in predator mode such as dropping smoke pellets, dropping down on the heads of his enemies, jumping up from under a foe through a floor grate, throwing someone over a railing, crashing through a glass window, sneaking up behind a thug for a suffocating, silent takedown or (my favorite) hogtying some poor bloke upside-down from a gargoyle. The concept that you can do nearly anything to the prowling thugs and use nearly anything in your environment as a tool for cover or attack is just the coolest, and it really sets Asylum apart from similar games. Metal Gear Solid titles, for example, have played around with the various weapons idea and the concept of fighting hand-to-hand (CQC in Snake Eater), but they’re aren’t nearly developed to this stage and the MGS franchise lacks a distinct predator-like mode of engagement.
What about the straight up fighting in Asylum? It’s really fleshed out and Batman can use nearly all of his gadgets in quick and seamless combat. The goal here is to not get hit. Innovative, yes? See because if you get hit then you can’t build up multi-hit combos in large groups of assailants. The game indicates when an enemy is about to attack, prompting you to perform a counter attack so your combo isn’t interrupted. Once Batman has reached a certain amount of consecutive hits, he’ll be able to unleash special close-quarters takedowns like summoning a swarm of bats, disarming a gunman, or kicking one to a curb and then breaking their arm or leg.
Some of these attacks are inevitably going to make you think that you made Batman break his “one rule”. Like, how is this guy not dead?
Besides that, Batman’s extensive repertoire includes explosive gels, stunning enemies with his cape, knocking them out with batarangs, pulling them into your fist with the Batclaw grapple… different enemies require different methods and strategies… the list goes on.
Remembering all these different special moves can be intimidating, but it’s the idea that Batman can do so much, like he’s a human Swiss army knife, that just adds to the Arkham Asylum experience as definitively Batman. It’s a game that is incredibly vast for its time, full of great characterizations and awesome moments for the coolest superhero there is. It will make a fan out of you.
Just put the kids to bed, first.
The 8-Bit Review
I had already owned a PS3 for a while before I purchased Arkham Asylum, but I was still blown away by the level of detail of its graphics. They put everything they had into this labor of love. Attention to detail is paid to even the smallest tid-bit, especially if it lends to world-building or characterization. The visuals may have benefited more from less stiff movements in its characters and less shininess. The thugs especially look wooden once knocked over and there’s occasionally twitch-glitching when you’ve laid out piles of bodies trying to shift over each other on the floor. Ew. But hey, this is a dark game. It’s Batman, after all. The grimy walls, scattered papers, dirty floors, and poorly lit and rusted urban environs never cease to remind you of that. It’s not a horror game, but the setting is rendered well enough that at moments it is truly frightening.
First things first. The OST is just as dark, moody and cinematic as any Batman film, half Batman ’89 and half The Dark Knight. It’s full of the themes that exemplify the Dark Knight and his never-ending crusade against the criminal infection of Gotham city. Its sounds conjure up the claustrophobia and pervasive dread of the asylum. So sure, yeah, the soundtrack is great, but that voice acting, though. This is where Asylum shines, audibly speaking.
Hamill and Conroy were born to play these roles, and they bring years of experience to characters they seem perfectly comfortable revisiting. The supporting cast to these two titans of voice are all welcome additions to Batman’s universe, crafting performances that may just become the new definitive versions for their respective characters. I do believe whenever I read the comics that it is this Oracle that I hear. Whenever I see the Riddler’s word bubbles on printing page, it is the haughty over-pronunciation and shrill arrogance from Arkham Asylum that I hear in my mind. The fact that this video game could contribute to a character who has already existed for three quarters of a century, relying on the rich mythos yet still bringing something fresh to bear, is just astounding when you stop to think about it. So much of this has already been done yet so much of Asylum doesn’t fail to amaze, and I think the voice acting is a prime example of that.
Asylum gets a ten out of ten for its insane gameplay. The amount of takedowns, gadgets and maneuvers programmed into this digital Dark Knight is nothing to be sniffed at. Even though you’re stuck on the island for the entire game, the areas are diverse and the boss fights stand apart from each other as complicated encounters requiring timing and as many weapon strategies as you can muster.
No other work in existence has come so close to truly representing what a day in the life of Batman would be like, and not only that, but by putting you into the Batman’s black boots yourself you get the experience of feeling just what it would be like to have such an array of capabilities available to you and how exactly to plan your mode of attack. The predator and combat modes are distinct and divide up the action enough so that you never seem to get tired of either. And if you want more bone-breaking righteousness, there are standalone missions accessible from the title screen which allow you to revisit the predator and combat elements. You can even play as the Joker himself and bring all of his deadly whimsy to bear.
Paul Dini is a superhero in his own right. As one of the writers on the Batman animated series of the 90’s, he can be credited with winning the five Emmy awards, creating Harley Quinn (who has since made the leap from cartoons to comics), and breathing life into some of Batman’s forgotten foes: Mr. Freeze went from an ice-obsessed goof-ball to a tragic figure (see the episode “Heart of Ice”). The fingerprints of a writer who knows these characters are all over Asylum. The narrative shimmers with a polish for Dini’s presence. Pitting Batman against as many of his nemeses as possible sets the standard for the franchise built on Asylum’s back. The crisis-driven, horror-film storyline is authentic and the extreme personalities that move through it tangible. Where many examples have failed to capture what it is to be the Dark Knight, Arkham Asylum succeeds thanks to the writing of a DC veteran.
With as many different gadgets and takedowns in Batman’s arsenal it can be difficult to recall each one, especially when you’re surrounded by a horde of incarcerated criminals and getting the bat-snot beaten out of you. I felt like this game, more so than other entries in the series, took enough time to explain how your abilities work as you gain them, with handy on-screen hints, and there’s enough tutorial fights that you won’t be completely lost. This is perhaps why they chose to virtually strip Batman of all his abilities at the start of the game and then slowly have you regain them. It’s just too much. It’s not an easy system to return to, either. Whenever I put down Asylum for a few days and then came back to it, I almost had to reteach myself the button inputs for the various combo takedowns. Not the easiest game to play but it seems as if they took measures to make it more accessible than it certainly might have been.
Patient interview recordings, emerald green Riddler trophies and word puzzles, easter eggs and in-universe references, Amadeus Arkham stones, chattering Joker teeth, batsuit and weapon upgrades, the secret cells of unseen supervillains, innumerable sights to see and explore, extra predator and combat missions, and the teasers for a coming sequel all combine to create something you’ll want to plow through at least a second time. Getting 100% has never been so enjoyable. That’s crazy when you consider how linear and storyline oriented Asylum is. Certainly, a replay is not going to carry the same cinematic wait as your first playthrough any more than rewatching a blockbuster for the second time is going to be just as potent. That’s why it’s not a nine.
How can a video game based on a 75 year old mythos possibly be unique? Because it’s the first time they got it right, or near perfect, in my opinion. They nailed Batman. They nailed his expertise. They nailed what makes him tick, him and the assortment of villains that confront him. They nailed the atmosphere of Arkham Asylum by keeping you on your toes, by making the Dark Knight almost feel as if he too belongs there. As the definitive version of Batman in the visual arts, Arkham Asylum is the video game the world deserves, if not the one it thought it needed.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I’ll come right out and say it: Arkham Asylum is my favorite title in the four-part series. Given, I haven’t yet finished Arkham Knight, but I highly doubt the rest of that game is going to impress me as deeply as Asylum did. At least what I’ve experienced of it hasn’t yet. The portrayal of these characters (almost all of them) is exactly what comic book fans have always wanted. Its tension built on psychology and claustrophobia puts it head and shoulders above the rest. Where Arkham City seemed too open and disjointed, and where Arkham Origins was a glitchy mess, Arkham Asylum is just right. If you haven’t played it yet, go and get a copy, stat. If you can’t afford to, just sell all your Marvel blu-rays and DVDs. Short of selling your children, you need to get this game.
You’ll be simply mad about it.
Aggregated Score: 9.0