When I think of Batman, I try not to refer to Christian Bale’s hammed up, lung cancer-ridden iteration. Instead, I think of the brooding, stoic Batman from the animated series voiced by Kevin Conroy; the Batman who doesn’t mince his words, and knows exactly what to say; the flawless Batman who would have been able to save both Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, instead of letting one of them die. So when I found out – four years after its release (at the time) – that Batman: Arkham Asylum featured both Kevin Conroy AND Mark Hamill, I was all a mix of excitement, disappointment and wariness. Excited, that the best voices for both Batman and the Joker were in a game about the Caped Crusader, disappointed that I was so late to the party, and wary as I’d only just realised that this was a superhero videogame tie-in, and we are all actively aware of the woeful track records for these kind of games (SUPERMAN 64 PLS).
However, upon a mountain of recommendations from friends, I decided to pick up the game, but went into it with the intention of doing what I normally do when I play a new game: be critical and take the general piss. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Rocksteady’s take on my favourite superhero – would it flow as well as the animated series did, especially as it bore the same cast more or less? How would it play? And would the story hold any water? Shortly after starting, Conroy and Hamill were already at working on giving me all the feels, and it was as if I was watching a more polished version of the animated series. A small glimpse of Killer Croc goading Batman gave me goosebumps, and I anticipated a battle with him later on in the game. The game looked promising, but that wouldn’t stop me from poking a little fun at the game.
I’d heard many positives regarding the combat system, yet I imagined that each punch I threw would be followed by me screaming “WHERE IS IT” or “WHERE ARE THEY”, despite my general dislike for Christian Bale’s asthma-laden parody of The World’s Greatest Detective (you can probably tell that I really don’t like Bale’s Batman). I assumed that the first fight of the game would have me bellowing nonsensical threats to thuggish prisoners like I was sodomising a clown at a children’s party with a lead pipe as a result of some strange repressed memory.
Instead, I was silent. I cleared the crowd of henchmen without breaking a sweat; each recurring punch feeling like a hammer blow, and flawlessly countering any feeble attempts at putting a stop to my relentless onslaught of dishing out pure unadulterated PAIN to a gang of jacked simpletons. The tight controls and satisfying feeling of taking on such a large crowd without the enemy laying a single finger on me eradicated any ounce of ridicule I may have had prior. I felt like I could take on the world.
I actually felt like The Goddamn Batman.
I immediately fell in love with the combat system, and within 10 minutes, I was serious as all hell. Playing the game in 2013, I hearkened back to games I’d played with a similar combat style, most notably Assassin’s Creed II; jumping to the present, I noticed how embedded the system was in the rest of the Creed series, and had spread to other games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. This “Freeflow” style of gameplay empowered the player, and it was only after playing Asylum that I realised how this game’s DNA was imbued within so many other games that followed hence. But Batman doesn’t act under the guise of “The Night” for no reason, and he rightly employs stealth in his approach to instil fear in his prey. In a situation where he is outnumbered 1:8, you will be able to systematically pick off each assailant one by one, either by leaving them dangling from a vantage point to set an example to his comrades, or by swooping in the shadows to quiet your foes via silent takedowns.
But it wasn’t just the combat that gripped me – Arkham Island was huge, and it was littered with secrets and easter eggs. Riddler Trophies and puzzles were located for Batman to solve as he progressed through the game, and various locations paid homage to many characters within the Batman universe. A passive feature of the game is Batman’s Detective Mode, which scans Batman’s vicinity and displays what he can interact with; it also highlights points of interest, and also gives detailed information on how many enemies are in the area, what weapon they’re wielding, and their current psychological state of mind. Using this mode allows Batman to not only analyse his environment, but to also analyse his enemies. As I progressed further, I got to grips with more and more of Batman’s ever-expanding arsenal of gadgets. Things like the explosive gel was always fun to detonate and watch as hapless enemies went flying in surprise, and Batman’s Batarangs have always been a cool but indispensable asset to Batman.
The one thing I loved about Asylum was the interaction you had with the various villains in the game. As the Joker takes over Arkham in an elaborate plot which began with his incarceration, you’re forced to take down many of Batman’s foes from the universe; from Harley Quinn to Poison Ivy; from Killer Croc to (hench luchador) Bane (not the unintelligible thug from Nolan’s universe), there are many appearances from classic villains.
However, one of the most undoubtedly brilliant sequences in the game comes from none other than Scarecrow. After being inadvertently exposed to his deadly toxin, Batman himself isn’t safe from the terrible hallucinations Scarecrow’s victims must endure. In three fantastic sequences, Batman hallucinates about seeing his dead parents, and is even tricked into believing that Commissioner Gordon is dead. Rocksteady also take a leaf out of Hideo Kojima’s book by making you believe that the game has crashed, when in reality you’re just being drugged by Scarecrow’s toxin. It’s no wonder that these sequences were fan favourites, and I agree that they were in fact my favourite parts of the game.
In an age where we pick up games, play them, finish them and instantly move on, Arkham Asylum was a pleasant surprise that kept me hooked for a very long time. It set an example for many games to follow in its stead, and laid a solid foundation for the future games of the series to build on.
Time to become the night.