Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360)
I never felt comfortable with the idea that superhero games were cursed. The readymade excuse has been attached to superhero games since the days of Superman on the Atari 2600. Yes, the vast majority of them don't get their protagonists right, but that wouldn't mean that no one can.
Batman: Arkham Asylum, the latest attempt to capture Batman in a videogame, comes to us from Rocksteady Studios. When the game starts, Batman is hauling Joker back to Arkham Asylum, the psychiatric facility that attempts to treat Gotham's worst super-psychos. But Joker has laid an elaborate trap for the Caped Crusader, one that's turned the entire place into a beguiling maze where Batman's deadliest enemies lie in wait.
Rocksteady's first success comes from creating an incredible sense of place. The sprawling halls of Arkham are a microcosm of the city Batman protects. They exude a faded gothic elegance that makes Arkham Asylum an iconic videogame location on par with BioShock's Rapture and Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland.
The asylum is claustrophobic, macabre, sad and violent; and it -- like Gotham -- needs a Batman to set things right. Along with allusions to the city's decayed glamour and crushed good intentions, the asylum also holds reminders of its ills. As the story unfolds, and hints of patient abuse and experimentation come to light, it will dawn on you that the super-villains' manias may not be the most disturbing thing on the island.
Too many of his previous games made it seem like Batman only knew how to throw one kind of punch or kick. This is where Rocksteady's second big accomplishment comes in. The freeform combat in Arkham Asylum makes it seem like you are controlling a man who roamed the world mastering every martial art he could find.
When the scrums of hand-to-hand combat start, you can attack in any direction and, as long as there is an enemy nearby, you can seamlessly continue your combo chain. You'll need to employ a mix of moves -- stun first, then punch or evade, then attack. And it goes without saying that you'll have to be sneaky. You're often lurking in the dark, on top of one of the asylum's many gargoyles -- until you swoop down to knock out a thug and disappear into the darkness. (One thing that's annoying is having to aim the camera upward when swinging from point to point or after a glide-kick takedown. It ruins the flow of a sublime moment.)
The best parts of combat are the punishing elbow strikes, crushing roundhouse kicks and brutal uppercuts that serve as finishers. Technical aspects aside, the blows you're delivering to the Arkham Asylum inmates look like they really, really hurt.
But Batman has never been all about brawn. Comics writers in the 1960s and 1970s gave him the sobriquet "World's Greatest Detective," and Arkham Asylum lets you live up to that title. The Detective Mode highlights interactive zones in the environment, tags enemies as unarmed or armed, and lets you find evidence and track it to your objective. While this may sound like a lot of hand-holding, it's not. Even with Detective Mode on, the game's layers of puzzles will challenge you.
Your main objectives usually require you to scan the environment for a clue and then follow a trail throughout the asylum. So, when Gordon gets kidnapped, you scan the place he was taken from, analyze tobacco evidence from his pipe, and follow the tobacco trail to find him. The paths aren't that straightforward, though, as you'll have to get around clumps of thugs, locked doors and the asylum's generally labyrinthine design. Arkham Asylum takes a page from the Metroidvania stylebook, where new gadgets will let you open up areas and paths in places where you've already been. Batman's grapple gun lets you zip from low to high ground, explosive gel detonates surfaces, and a high-tech hacking tool unlocks doors. Once you get the Batclaw, security grates that were once too high to pry off can be used to access new parts of the map.
"Don't worry ? soon you'll be hanging upside-down as a reminder to your friends to not mess with me."
Secondary puzzles usually show up in the form of the Riddler's pop quizzes. The compulsive clue-leaving crook has left riddles that pop up on-screen when you enter an area, meaning that the answers -- which could be anything from a toe tag on a corpse to a display case with villain paraphernalia -- usually are in that series of rooms. You'll also find symbols scrawled by Amadeus Arkham, the institution's founding doctor who later went insane and was imprisoned in the walls of the very asylum he built. These symbols hold the secret history of the sanatorium. It's this kind of stuff that makes getting around half the fun in Arkham Asylum.
While playing through the main story, you'll free up unlockable areas in Challenge modes. (On the PlayStation 3, you're also able to play through Challenge arenas as the Joker.) These arenas offer tests of brawling or stealth, and are a testament to how nicely Arkham Asylum varies up its gameplay in the story mode. The button-mashing of brawling gives way to predatory skulking sequences, followed by environmental puzzles that make use of platforming and gadgets. One minute, you're in frantic combat, pounding thug after thug; the next, you're clenching your jaw until the time is right to glide down into a crushing kick. You're forced to crouch in the darkness, finding your patience. That feels like Batman.
There is facial reconstructive surgery in this thug's future. Too bad the Joker doesn't offer dental?
One of the great things about superhero comics is how they resemble the folktales of old. Characters like Batman, Robin and Alfred accrue meaning and depth with each retelling or each new adventure. As a result, the audience gets to enjoy an incredibly deep, aggregate mythology. But the flipside of that dynamic is the letdown when some errant creator poisons the well.
Thankfully, Rocksteady hasn't done that here. It's built a wonderfully moody experience that skillfully exploits the most iconic elements of the Dark Knight: near-total stealth, martial prowess, cool gadgets and deductive skills. And it's honored the source material with a world that feels weighted with Bat-history and Bat-aesthetic. Arkham Asylum is a blueprint for dispelling a curse. The next folks to mess up a Batman game won't have any excuses.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.