Sunday, September 18, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum

In the year 2009, Rocksteady Studios released their second game ever, Batman: Arkham Asylum, to much commercial and critical acclaim. While I was largely unfamiliar with the overall Batman universe, I did find the game intriguing at the time and thankfully it did not disappoint one bit. Naturally I became excited by the idea of a sequel, Batman: Arkham City, currently slated for an October 19, 2011 release. In order to build up to this, here is my review of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

To begin, Arkham Asylum is not your average licensed video game. While it does draw a lot from the Batman name, the game uses that more to its advantage, rather than its detriment. It infuses years of comic book history with Victorian architecture to create a dark, mysterious, and sometimes frightening atmosphere unlike BioShock's dystopian city of Rapture. It's not just a set piece, it's an environment filled with immense attention to detail and structure so nicely done that you'd think it was real. The asylum manages to almost stand as a character in its own right, as the interior walls ooze with personality and help to subtly guide Batman to his destination.

With Joker at the reins, the many inmates and transferred Blackgate prisoners roam free at his command. The interesting thing about the enemies, and even the guards, is that like the rest of the game they don't feel like the run-of-the-mill cookie cutters found in most others. They are capable of converstaion, interacting with the environment, and even hinting at their own self-contained stories. Each new encounter also helps to show the kind of person Batman is and help him to figure out how to approach a given situation.

In some scenarios, Batman can display his "demon of the night" persona to the fullest by striking from the shadows and instilling fear into the hearts of his foes to the point where they can be easily taken out. In others he can show off his detective prowess by utilizing his high tech gadgetry to follow a DNA trail, or his (and your) skills of perception to solve all of the Riddler's riddles. The combat system is also one of the most well-crafted in gaming and it nicely shows off Bruce Wayne's true capabilities. With graceful counterattacks and the ability to use batarangs in a pinch, plus a satisfying finishing blow, the game makes the player feel a lot like the Dark Knight himself effectively.

Equally amazing and fun are all of the different gadgets Batman gains throughout the campaign. Similarly to Metroid, some areas are inaccessible until a particular item is obtained. The things you can discover in return however are well worth it, from the many character bios and challenge maps to several audio interviews that really gives the player insight into the villains and the history of the titular place. There is definitely a great incentive to continue exploring Arkham no matter how long you've been crawling through its vents.

While the plot is indeed interesting, it doesn't really go past the idea of Joker taking over Arkham Asylum. Still, this isn't a bad thing, as the game makes up for this greatly by delivering some truly stunning and unforgettable moments. These moments are very well done and continue to show us more about the world of Batman, including some clever nods to the comic book it's based on. I liked these, as it helped me get to know and understand the Batman universe a lot better than before I played.

What helps this game out greatly is the superb voice acting, featuring the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in their respective iconic roles as the dark knight and the clown prince of crime. Some voice actors also reprise their voices from the 1990's animated series, such as Arleen Sorkin's Harley Quinn, but overall the characters are very well cast and bring out the most of their characters. Standout examples include Steve Blum as Killer Croc and Dino Andrade as The Scarecrow, both of which manage to make the villains they voice genuinely threatening, making their presence all the more powerful.

Sadly not every moment is great. In fact, the final encounter that the game builds up to the entire time is a bit of a letdown. I would agree that there was a rather odd yet interesting concept introduced that was squashed by Batman's own morality, leading to the worst boss battle in the game.

Thankfully, that's the only real complaint I have with the entire game. There is almost absolutely nothing wrong with the overall product, as it provides an experience absolutely anyone should play. Now let's see if Arkham City can top this and provide something even better.

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