The Nine Achievements of Arkham Asylum
This has been a great summer for superhero games (I'm thinking of Infamous and Prototype), but the perfect game based on an established character has been MIA, as perfect games tend to be. And then Eidos drops us into an embattled Arkham Asylum. Suddenly, despite the awful events taking place in those grimy corridors, things start looking up.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is by no means a perfect game, but it is a great Batman game. In this context, that's more than good enough. And, as I write this with Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" on in the background, I'm even coming to the conclusion that this might be one of the best Batman incarnations on any type of screen. The following nine items are my argument.
1. Location, location, location!
I'll just say it plainly: Arkham Asylum is right up there with Rapture in the pantheon of great videogame environments. There have been, er, crazier places in plenty of games, but keeping in mind that the sanitarium is meant to be at least vaguely convincing as a working facility, I'm wildly impressed with Rocksteady Studios' design for Arkham. It feels right, and when you crawl into the bowels of some of those buildings, it feels positively frightening.
By comparison, Tim Burton's Gotham was too deeply unreal, verging on silly. Nolan's was well grounded, but take Batman out of any shot from "The Dark Knight" and no one would ID the location as Gotham City. This Arkham is the real deal. Go ahead, play through the Penitentiary with the lights out.
A key element of the Batman mythos, isolation is an element that has been well handled by the better Batman screen efforts. Yet Arkham Asylum feels particularly lonely, as Batman is either unable or unwilling to truly connect with characters that are on his side, and understandably rejects those who are truly like him: the inmates. The letdown here is the presence of what Gus Mastrapa has coined "the girl in his ear"; Batman's invisible tether to Oracle is the one thing that keeps him from drowning in Arkham. I'd rather see Bats forced to swim on his own. The upshot is that the Scarecrow is on hand to drug the hero back into a state of total fear and alienation, and those sequences are some of my favorite gaming mindf***s since Psychonauts.
3. Rogue's gallery
In the lineup of mainstream superheroes, no other character has as recognizable a rogue's gallery as Batman. ""Nothing tops "Batman: The Animated Series," which by sheer virtue of running time was able to expand and detail the rogue's gallery to the degree that Arkham Asylum wouldn't exist without it.
Plenty of games have shoehorned a lot of these characters into one story before, but none have done so with this much attention to character fidelity. I still have an aversion to Arkham's oversexed women, but when a game can get me to like Bane, that's an achievement. Sure, some puzzling inclusions get nods here, but I even like that some really obscure, forgettable types are mentioned (Prometheus, the Ratcatcher). That's what Arkham is, after all: home for all the crazies, not just the cool ones.
The only portrayal of Batman that has done detecting as well as Arkham Asylum is "The Animated Series." No surprise, then, that Paul Dini is a key creator on both projects. I spent over half my Arkham playtime immersed in the blue-vision Detective mode, peering into corners and looking for puzzles. Rocksteady keeps most of the challenges light, but balances that by throwing quite a lot of stuff at players. Linking Detective mode to a tactical approach to combat is brilliant. (And makes Wolfenstein look like the half-formed design pitch that it is.)
Stealth has become almost a gaming joke, like exploding red barrels. But Batman absolutely requires stealth to work as a character. The guy isn?t about charging head-on into battle, but chipping away at opposition with terror and tactics. Arkham brings it all together. Is there any great gameplay advantage to being able to see, through Detective mode, that your adversaries have become terrified as their numbers dwindle? Not really, but you can almost feel Bats grinning as the bad guys start to lose it.
The only reason I ever wanted a manual save option was so that I could quickly revisit key combat sequences and tackle them with different stealth options. That's what the broad Challenge mode is for, however, and I expect I'll be mired in that for quite a while. You've seen the silent approach occasionally in the movies and animated television series (I do like the freaky fight on the docks in "Batman Begins"), but here you can fight like that all the time.
6. Vehicles stay in the garage
Batman gets my attention as a character, not as a pilot. Whenever other games have put vehicles into Batman games, the segments feel exactly like what they are: filler. There's none of that here. No interludes in boats, planes or pods to break up the action. It's not a coincidence that one of the silliest moments in Arkham Asylum goes down in one of the few vehicle appearances, and I'm happy that's all we have to endure. Let the Batmobile and other oversized gear sell toys, to help movies and television shows turn a profit, and revel in this Batman's reliance on a simpler method of movement.
I wasn't sold on Arkham's combat in early sessions with the game. Too press-button, too simple. But in practice, I'm captivated. Both brutal and elegant, this feels and looks like I've always imagined Batman to be. Forget the movie character, so constrained by the "realistic," lumbering armored costume. When the game is played well, this is the trained, calculating fighter who only indulges in showy moves to frighten opponents or finish the fight faster. Rocksteady does a spectacular job with the animations, creating a Dark Knight that can do far more moves than you'll ever see Christian Bale performing on-screen, no matter how many talented stuntmen he's got doubling for him.
8. The Joker
I love the Heath Ledger Joker. It's one of the two best reasons to watch "The Dark Knight." (Wally Pfister's amazingly clear, clean cinematography being the other.) But Mark Hamill has spent years with the character thanks to various animated efforts, and the Joker we see here is an incredible incarnation of the character as Alan Moore and Neal Adams might have co-envisioned him.
Arkham Asylum distills Hamill's characterization in a single performance. Face it: The Joker is often a better character when he's at a bit of a remove, leading Batman on, toying with him; and here he's written into that role perfectly. This Joker is creepy, funny, wicked and classic.
9. The Spirit of Arkham
It's been a while since I was so compelled to track down every last damn secret in a game. A dozen-plus of the Riddler's hidden items tell the story of The Spirit of Arkham. They turn into a little side detective story that doesn't require a special vision mode to complete. It's one of the game's few character inventions, and it works by providing a good shadow counterpart to Batman.
While listening to the Spirit of Arkham logs, you might be tempted to think it really is the Dark Knight speaking, and that's exactly the point. Sure, that's a bit heavy-handed, but I'm willing to be forgiving because it rewards players who pay attention. This is a great little bit of narrative that could only work in the context of a game; you're not likely to see a Batman film in which the Caped Crusader spends time on a tidbit like The Spirit of Arkham.
So what's missing?
Arguably, the two missing elements are Gotham City and Bruce Wayne. Both of these, however, are almost more useful as things Batman wants and can't have. Gotham, no matter how corrupt, is a dreamscape compared to Arkham Island. The city's skyline is bright and tantalizing and unobtainable. Bats has to see the night out; he can't just run to the city and do an easier gig.
There's a reason, too, that the big Wayne building dominates that skyline. If Batman wanted to truly retreat from the insanity of Arkham, Bruce Wayne is the shell to hide in, and that building on the horizon is a reminder of his existence. The horror of Wayne's childhood is all that he is allowed to revisit, and the game's story is stronger for it. If we're going to wallow in the madness of the lunatics who burst into existence along with Batman, we should really wallow deep, and Bruce Wayne is the shallow end of the pool.
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