Is Escape Really What You’ll be Seeking from the Arkham Asylum?

September 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

If nothing else, Batman: Arkham Asylum will remind you exactly what’s made Batman such a timeless character. It’s not just the gadgets, or the stealth, or even his sheer combat ability, but a combination of this and more, brought together more seamlessly than most non-licensed games manage.

It rarely feels like it, but Arkham Asylum is an open world game. Set on the island containing its namesake, the plot revolves around the most famous of Batman villians, the Joker, as he attempts to destroy Gotham. Although you never have more than one location to get to at a time, the game rarely feels like it’s forcing you down a single path. Between the island’s buildings the scope of options you have to get from A to B is large, and it’s this coupled with the changing geometry of the game’s environments, that ensures that although you may retread a section of ground many times, it never feels too similar.

On paper the combat should fall in to this trap of repetition. You’re not given the option of different approaches in the case of unarmed guards and your combat moves are limited, but these sections – where you’ll be quickly spotted and surrounded by unarmed enemies – leave you confident you’ve just experienced some of the best close quarters combat this generation. In theory it sounds positively dull, revolving around one attack, one stun, one evade, and one counter button, but these fights don’t rely on their difficulty to provide enjoyment, but instead the score counter ticking up top of the screen.

High scores, which result in an XP bonus at the battle’s end, come from chaining moves together in an unbroken combo. You’ll very soon find yourself leaping from enemy to enemy, knocking each of them down before moving on to the next in one fluid motion. Getting hit, or missing an attack, will break your chain, making it important that you keep your eye on any other opponents in the area if you want to rack up a bigger combo, which will in turn increase the ferocity of the moves the Dark Knight performs.

Although Batman may be unstoppable against unarmed thugs, he’s much less resistant to bullets. Rather than making you feel vulnerable on the occasions you’re brought up against armed foes, the game manages to do the opposite, capitalising on the stealth abilities of this superhero predator.

You’re so powerful, that at the game’s outset it almost feel like cheating to make use of the gargoyles conveniently placed around the room to rappel up to and observe from. Once perched above the room, it’s easy to use the game’s bat-vision to locate enemies (even through walls) and work out how best to take them down silently.

The game knows this though, and later on will remove these life-saving perches, forcing you to completely rethink how to approach each takedown. There are so many tactics at your disposal that it’s hard to ever approach an encounter the same way twice. Even when you’ve got a plan worked out, the game will tease you with what appears to be an easy kill, which always seems possible, and can evoke such glee when you manage to pull it off.

It might be tempting to storm quickly through the game – if you were to do so you’d still enjoy yourself hugely – but some of the game’s best moments come from your own exploration, when you’ll quickly realise how much detail there is in this world. There’s the obligatory trophies to be found in easily seen, but difficultly reached locations, and then a little closer to the beaten track you’ll come across audio recordings of the game’s many villians, filling in their backstory bit by bit.

Then there’s the riddles, the most interesting ‘collectables.’ Upon entering each location you’ll be presented with a clue, the solution to which will be some object, or collection of objects in the environment. Aside from boosting your intellectual ego whenever you successfully solve one, these clues highlight just how much depth there is in the level design. As an example, in the cell block a notice popped up instructing me to find something ‘chilling’. Looking around I soon came across a cell covered in ice. Mr Freeze was nowhere to be found, but just knowing the developers took the time to make reference to him exemplifies how enamoured the whole game is with the Batman lore.

Each discovery, as well as a host of other actions, will next you XP points to spend on a host of either essential or unappealing upgrades. Some, like the ability to quickly take down enemies walking below your gargoyle perch feel like they deserved a place in your abilities list from the get go, and others, like the remote-controlled batarang do nothing to entice you to purchase them. Aside from the health upgrades the system feels tacked on, and doesn’t offer much incentive to anyone but the 100% completest.

It’s easy to forget, not due to its own merits but the quality of the overall package, that Batman’s story manages to do some very interesting things with the mythology of the character. The Scarecrow’s boss sections present some particularly innovative storytelling, and the rest of the game manages to weave an enthralling tale through the game, even if it can at times fall into comic-book cliché.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is simply an amazing package. It offers everything a Batman game should do, and manages to stitch it all together with all the care and attention the source material could ever need. There’s enough in here for a couple of playthroughs, and the option to replay the game’s best bits from the main menu means returning to Arkham Asylum needn’t be a lengthy trip, even though that’s what it deserves.


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