Posted by: smirkdirk | January 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on “Batman: Arkham Asylum”

4 and 1/2 Cookies – Totally liked a whole lot, no real issues, probably a classic!

The Joker, strapped onto a handtruck a’la Hannibal Lector minus the facemask, is wheeled through the corridors of Arkham Asylum and you, Batman, follow – just to make sure that nothing goes wrong between your delivery of him to the doctors he so urgently needs, and his cell. And so it begins. It is just a matter of moments before Joker escapes and it becomes clear that your capture of him was all an elaborate trap, to get both you and him inside the asylum with the rest of the crazies – and, it should go without mention a few of Batman’s other arch rivals.

The Joker stays trapped in this gurney for, oh, about 5 minutes.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a pitch-perfect video game that has taken the best from the last 20 years of Batman movies – and, yes, that even includes Joel Schumacher’s cheese-rific misfire “Batman and Robin” that fails on nearly all levels except on certain design elements like the neon-made-up thugs and Poison Ivy’s plants and color-palate which make you wish for better movie to put them in – and mixes them into the pot with the best that the last 5 years of video game development has to offer, mainly Bioshock, and delivers what is my highest reviewed game yet.

Before beginning the game I gave its namesake graphic novel a read. A dark and ferocious journey into what remains the signature battle of Batman, (the exception being the campy television show) and no, that battle doesn’t involve any of the well-known villains – it is rather, the battle Batman faces against himself.

The video game steals its premise from the graphic novel, however that is where the similarities end. The novel is more of a psychological journey, while the game is more of a hands-on get the villains journey. No doubt the video game has its dark moments, but not nearly so dark as the graphic novel. Instead the game tries to balance all of the various Batman tales into it in someway, and it does this without forsaking any of them. You see shades of the graphic novel in the corpses of guards hung from trees, shades of Burton’s Batman films across the bay in the moonlight of a silhouetted Gotham city as well as in the design and facades of the buildings that you traverse on the Asylum property. As I already mentioned, certain design elements of Schumacher’s films make it into the game – the potential of a Poison Ivy that can be taken seriously is realized in a way that Schumacher and Uma Thurman just weren’t able to capture, while the voice work for The Riddler (although the character himself doesn’t appear in the game, he has left various items and recordings lying around the property,) sounds very much like Jim Carrey’s Riddler with the same vocal intonations and speaking patterns. The latest two Nolan films, of course, have heavily influenced the game, mainly by lending it their tone of reality. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight approach the world of Batman and his villains as though they are real and could exist within our world. Nolan handles the characters through a lens of the real, rather than the lens of comic books. This game too, feels real to certain extent. Batman and Arkham Asylum, though exaggerated, feel as though they are part of the actual world we live in and not some fantasy land of gothic towers or neon cityscapes. Should you need their mental health services, Arkham Asylum itself even has a website that includes pricing which I learned about through in-game television monitors whilst wandering about the intensive care hallways.

The story the game tells goes far beyond the story told in the graphic novel, although through found artifacts we do get nearly the exact same history of tragedy and murder told to us from beyond the grave by its founder, in his own voice to boot. For that matter, as you find more and more Riddler items, you open up more and more Batman trivia – the game is a veritable Batman encyclopedia with a write-up and history of nearly every major player, good and evil, in the Batman universe regardless of whether or not they are actually in the game, including where and when they were first introduced. Any self-respecting Batman fan would drool at all the info available here.

I want my trivia, and I want it now!

Within the game, not only does Joker want Batman to face his own craziness and insanity as he does in the graphic novel, but to keep the action going (after all it is a video game, you have to have something to actually do) the Joker has a definite plan for Gotham too involving a few of the other villains. The way they decided to weave the characters at play here together into the narrative is ingenious. In other words, the plot doesn’t feel cobbled together in order to accommodate the demands of a video game, but actually has some surprising twists and turns that would be applauded in any form.

Although the main villain is The Joker, it is Scarecrow that really steals the show in this video game. I was not familiar with Scarecrow until “Batman Begins”. After playing this game, I realized that as good of a movie “Batman Begins” was, they really could have pushed Scarecrow much further. The psychological taunts and nightmares that Batman endures at the hands Scarecrow in Arkham Asylum make the movie seem weak. Whilst his burlap bag covered self in Nolan’s film is more comical than anything, here his visage truly does seem disturbing as he inflicts his horrors upon Bruce Wayne – twitching body bags that when opened reveal the dead bodies of his parents who then, zombie-like, ask Bruce ‘why?’ – a walk down the hallways of Wayne Manor having to hear their murders over again as it begins to rain – indoors. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the hallway changes to an abandoned back alley and you, Batman, have changed into a little boy – it is sublime.

As the game progresses you acquire all sorts of Batman’s little toys – Batclaws, Batarangs, and so on – by the end of the game you have an entire stock of weapons and tools at your disposal, but because they were introduced one by one as the game progresses at no point do you feel overwhelmed with too many controls. Usually with any game that I finish there’s a point that I have to hop onto the internet to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do – not a single time did I have to do that with this game.

An honorable mention must also be made of Harley Quinn who has only appeared, so far, in cartoons since her creation in 1999 according to the game’s character trivia. I recall the cartoons featuring her in the background as the kids watched them a few years back. Here, she dominates the first half of the game so fully and so wonderfully that despite her short time in the Batman canon, I have no doubt that sooner or later she will make it into a Batman movie – whether that be Nolan’s series, or perhaps a future series. Who would have thought that a cute and sassy female jester with a Brooklyn accent could be so charming? Whichever writer invented her for the cartoon series deserves extra props.

Who cares about Mario and Luigi, next Halloween you and yer gal can go as Joker and Harley Quinn…

So, why 4 and 1/2 instead of 5 cookies? Well, as much as I love and recommend this game, unlike something like, say, Grand Theft Auto 4, I doubt I’ll be interested in just going in and picking up all the extras after I’ve finished the actual story. The story is so strong that after its done it leaves you with a sort of empty feeling to run around the Asylum grounds when you know you have no chance of running into Joker, or Scarecrow, or Bane, or Harley Quinn. If the biggest complaint against your game is that once I finish it, I miss it, then I’m not sure that’s really a weakness. There is also comfort derived in the fact that this particular game didn’t not even begin to enter Gotham City, but only revolved around six or seven buildings on a hundred acre property – there is still so much of Gotham to be brought to life in future games. That right there gets my little, geek heart a-pounding.

Like The Dark Knight has forever changed superhero movies, this game, for me at least, has changed superhero games. For the next few years any attempt to bring superheroes and comic book characters to a console will be compared by myself to this masterpiece. Lastly, as a piece of the Batman canon, this game should go right alongside your collection of films. Unlike previous Batman games (read my history of Batman video games here) this game is not a mere artifact of its time, but a true addition to the Batman history and story.

You should go buy this game now…

In closing: Great fucking game.

In the meantime, Warner Brothers released several different trailers for the game you can search out on YouTube. This particular one highlights the villains:

And if you think you’re too cool for video games, well, Batman himself even plays this junk…


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