Clowns to the left of me, Joker’s to the right
Played on: PlayStation 4
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows
Developer: Rocksteady Studios, Iron Galaxy
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release: November 27, 2018 (Batman: Arkham Collection)
***SPOILERS for Batman: Arkham Asylum***
It had been a while since I stepped into the world of the Batman: Arkham series.
I’m something of a lovelorn gamer for the seventh console generation—the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era. When I think of the games I love from the period, I can’t help but feel a certain old-man-yells-at-cloud sentimentality brewing within. Gaming has been great since and will continue to be, but the nostalgia I feel for this bygone time is never going to be topped.
Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel were essential cornerstones of my gaming life at the time. Years have passed since my last trip to the Asylum and as of late I’ve felt an undeniable urge to check in there once again—would the title show its age? Would I even enjoy it after so long?
I was too curious, I couldn’t deny my thirst for bone-crushing, fear-inducing justice any longer.
With the Batman: Arkham Collection in tow, it was time to don the cape and cowl and become The Dark Knight once more.
Holy surprise party Batman!
There is no time wasted in establishing the plot.
The Joker has been caught once again by the intrepid World’s Greatest Detective. We immediately arrive at the gothic Arkham Asylum and The Clown Prince of Crime is being brought to his cell. Sensing something is amiss, Batman escorts The Joker as he’s being processed in the facility. Quickly, what was a routine criminal apprehension is turned on its head as Joker breaks free, capturing Commissioner Jim Gordon in the process.
It was all part of the plan—the inmate is now running the asylum.
With that, the core of the narrative is established within minutes and it felt like returning home. Everything felt immediately familiar and the opening few scenarios, which act as tutorials, were a cakewalk. Gadget usage, the flow of combat, and every mechanic in between didn’t feel fresh to me, but enough time had elapsed for me to appreciate these aspects anew.
The element I missed the most was the visual design. The aesthetic is something I always admired in the series. It’s a perfect mix of the kitschy Joel Schumacher-era films and the inherent grittiness of Batman Begins. In an ideal world, this is what Batman on film would look like for me. This world of greys and browns is beautifully juxtaposed with bright, neon colours and I appreciated it more than ever this time due to the upgraded visuals. I adore the over-the-top character models and how silly they can be. It strikes the perfect balance between taking itself seriously and losing itself in the intrinsic silliness that comes with comic book territory.
What completely swathed me in nostalgia were the voice-acting efforts of series veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who play Batman and The Joker respectively. What can I say about this duo that hasn’t been said before? The gravitas Conroy lends to Batman and Bruce Wayne is unquestionable and time-tested. This is an experienced, seasoned version of The Caped Crusader which is magnificently reinforced by the deep tones of Kevin Conroy. Mark Hamill presents us with an unpredictable Joker. He is the ultimate wild card, capable of doing anything—even risking his health and well-being. These actors instil a sense of credibility in their respective roles. While other performers have done excellent work in taking on these iconic roles, this definitive pairing will never be outshone.
Admittedly, I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed at this point. I was after returning to one of my favourite games, which features one of my most beloved fictional mythoi. After many years, I was so ready to become the Batman again.
All the old, familiar places
I love a good rogues gallery, and there are few deeper than Batman’s.
Being reacquainted with the small but smart selection of foes here was refreshing. In an age where most antagonists are painted in a sympathetic light, it was wonderful to experience true villainy and unwavering evil.
The criminals at play in Arkham Asylum are a diverse bunch, challenging our hero in several different ways. Bane and Killer Croc are physical roadblocks who push Batman to the limit. The Scarecrow forces The Caped Crusader to face his innermost fears. Joker and Harley Quinn are masters of chaos who work endlessly to disrupt the heroic efforts of The Dark Knight. There are some notable major omissions from the game. The likes of The Penguin, Two-Face and Catwoman aren’t present during the events of the plot but they’re referenced. With that being said, anyone who knows the series is undoubtedly aware of their involvement in later games.
Rocksteady showed commendable restraint in limiting the number of villains who appeared on-screen. It would have been easy to overstuff Arkham Asylum with more maniacal madcaps and fortunately, common sense prevailed. For its scope, the conservative number of bad guys is perfect.
The story that interweaves this disparate troupe of nemeses is classic Batman vs. Joker material. It was exceptionally refreshing to play again.
I’m predisposed to playing games which often take themselves too seriously. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but it can leave a lasting, dour impression on my demeanour. This often necessitates a palette-cleansing experience for me—be it in the form of a game, TV show, or some other form of media. The narrative here fulfils this role and also doesn’t at the same time. It’s serious when it needs to be and wholly embraces the absurd at the same time, it’s the best of both worlds. Tense confrontations are frequently underpinned by sadistic humour, largely thanks to The Joker and his hilarious machinations. This multifaceted approach to storytelling is almost certainly a key ingredient to the game’s enduring success, financial and otherwise.
The Joker’s plan really shouldn’t have worked, but that’s part of the fun. I’ve sorely missed this level of merrymaking from my gaming experiences as of late and returning to the Asylum was the perfect remedy for me. It satisfied my internalised need for games to be serious while simultaneously providing me with smirks and guffaws.
As a wonderful Joker once contradictorily asked, “Why so serious?”.
Note to self: Need more henchmen, good ones this time
While the combat was revolutionary at the time for its incredible flow and smoothness, it has become time-worn and cracks are evident.
Hand-to-hand combat is reliably satisfying and handles well even by contemporary standards. Despite there not being as many usable gadgets present, fistfights are as fun and varied as the player wants them to be. It’s certainly a bit more clunky than I remember, with some of the directional movement (which is key to success) being more unresponsive than I initially remembered. In isolation, when inspected out of the context of the sequel games, it holds up well if a bit unwieldy. When examined within the larger backdrop of it being part of a series, the following titles far surpass it in every way.
Regardless of any time-attributed wear and tear, throwing down with themed thugs remains an enjoyable, involved exploit.
Perhaps the most rewarding parts of the action are the stealth-based predator incursions.
In these situations, you’re tasked with defeating armed foes, who often have taken hostages or necessitate not being seen for a myriad of reasons. They require you to dig deep and make use of everything Batman has in that utility belt. These scenarios hold up really well even when compared with the stellar improvements made in the following titles. The stars of the show here are the unfortunate goons you’re methodically eliminating. Their progressive fear makes for some hilarious lines and reactions—they often run away foolishly, brazenly enter lone wolf mode and threaten Batman from afar. These interactions add so much flavour to the tactical action that it’s something that I didn’t appreciate enough back in 2009 upon its original release.
One of my biggest curiosities was regarding how those hallucinatory Scarecrow missions would feel—are they still unsettling?
Yes, they absolutely are.
The visage of the enlarged Scarecrow is enough to unnerve, let alone his sudden and ravening movements. The placement of these nightmare missions is as effective as ever, coming without warning for the most part. These sections serve to break your attention and disturb Batman’s critical path as well as they did in 2009.
Destined to do this forever
There are some outright bad parts of the game. The Killer Croc and Poison Ivy boss battles are not fun and wear thin quickly—the rumble with Croc in the sewers especially. The final angle where Joker takes the Titan formula and becomes monstrous feels uncharacteristic, and the following fight is unchallenging at best.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter, because Batman: Arkham Asylum is greater than the sum of its parts, and feels like the same triumph it was when it was released originally.
This set the blueprint for a generation of action games, and the defining series of superhero games. The success of this title spawned one of the greatest original Batman stories ever created.
This is the set-up, the punchline is yet to come.
All images are taken from the Batman: Arkham Asylum press kit here
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