I spent a lot of time writing out this long-winded diatribe about how overrated Batman: Arkham Asylum is and that if you take Batman out of it all you’d have left is a generic action game. After some thought I’ve come to the conclusion that the game is actually good and my cynicism was getting the best of me. The story is fun and I love the animated series voice work. I dislike the Gears of Arkham graphics and character models but I love the actual art work and characters. I was really torn. So, I chewed up and spit out my original hate-filled draft and have swallowed my pride to write a much more positive and respectful review of Batman: Arkham Asylum. I guess it’s a good game.
The pacing is bang on, the RPG Lite elements of building a better Batman are rewarding…all built around a sublime combat system that blurs the line between action game and brawler.
What really sticks out to me about Asylum’s combat is the visual flair and sound mechanical execution. If you’re anything like me (rigidly formulaic) Arkham Asylum offers you the opportunity to approach every group of thugs the same way. Jump into the fray, wait for guys to smack you and conveniently counter with slick button presses until they’re all knocked out. Simple, effective and maybe a bit soulless. For me, that was nirvana. The idea that I could almost rhythmically respond to assailants to create this almost dance-like visual presentation of a bunch of guys getting beat up by a superhero is something that appealed to me. Not every game needs to be Tactics Ogre. I don’t mean to call Batman: Arkham Asylum an easy game, per se, but there’s a fluidity to the combat that makes it feel user-friendly. I believe that its structural simplicity encourages people to try and master it.
Which I never did and have no interest in. And that’s fine I think. Who cares if you want to master it, complete all additional modes and get high scores and be amazing? The complexity and difficulty is there if you want it, but easy to avoid if you don’t. The cliche phrase would be ‘easy to learn, hard to master’, right? Perfect example. Just because I wasn’t really ever concerned with heading into all the additional battle and stealth arenas to obtain completion percentages doesn’t mean those modes aren’t worthwhile. They just require a little more effort than ‘press Y to counter’ and as soon as I couldn’t float through a challenge within five tries I put it down. Luckily for me, eschewing additional modes hardly trimmed any fat from the meaty experience that is Arkham Asylum.
Sadly, many write-ups presented the idea that this game was “atmospheric”. The specific time frame in video game history that saw Asylum released made it easy for reviewers to frequently cite this description. With other experiences like BioShock around, we were force-fed the idea that video games were in the midst of some sort of ambient renaissance, suddenly presenting alternate worlds that immersed us just SO FUCKING HARD that we forgot we were ever sitting on our couches staring at a television. Most of my vitriol about Asylum was born from this short-term memory loss approach that the community took. Games have given us splendid worlds to explore for decades now. Asylum is not the first. And it’s hardly the most atmospheric. What the fuck does atmospheric even mean? It was cop-out buzz language that made the average fan think they were wading into ‘games-as-art’ territory, another cringe worthy piece of English that instantly became overused and therefore meaningless.
I battled my own hatred for Arkham’s reviews so desperately that the clear virtues of the game were lost to me…for a long time. Now, though, I can describe in my own words what I feel the weird atmospheric comments were referring to. Arkham Asylum’s world is well conceived. It flows, makes sense and is fun to explore. There are lots of nooks and crannies, lots of secrets to find and puzzles to solve. The island is well-populated with interesting set pieces that fit together nicely and the simple but effective ‘unlock new gadget -> unlock new area’ works well and is logically implemented. Finally, the cute easter eggs sprinkled around complete the setting, making it incredibly recognizable as a Batman experience. When I think atmosphere…Silent Hill comes to mind, or Demon’s Souls. Not Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Out of respect for myself I should point out that I was legitimately disappointed in a couple aspects of the game. The boss fights are dismal, repetitive, lack creativity. Oh! Another hulked up Bane’oid? Cool. In a related complaint, there’s little variety in the in-game character renders too…does every single NPC in Arkham need to be a beefed of Gears of War superbro? Some police officers out there (and even Commissioners!) are, like, regular sized dudes. I get that it’s a video game, I really do. But you’re reaching by talking about atmosphere and immersion if literally every single male body is the same, even in a video game. Obviously there aren’t enough heroes or villains, either. But I’ll let that one go considering this was the first good Batman game in forever and I’m sure it was a bit of a leap for Rocksteady to go from literally nothing to a triple AAA developer working on one of the biggest licenses in the world.
At the end of it all I must say, Arkham Asylum is a really great game. It effortlessly combines fun combat and an interesting world to move The Dark Knight himself seamlessly into the video game space. History has shown this to be no easy task, and kudos must be officially presented. Rocksteady even took a risk or two with the narrative, putting old Brucey in some interesting Scarecrow related content that was pretty unexpected at the time. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy my first impressions as much as I could’ve if I wasn’t such a cynical asshole.