Ah, Batman. After first appearing in comic book form in 1939, the Caped Crusader has gone from strength to strength, appearing in several TV shows - animated and live action - as well as many films, the latest of which, Batman Begins and the stupidly-successful The Dark Knight, have catapulted Batman back to his money-drawing best. However, despite success in most other forms of media, the Bat never really took off on the videogame medium. He's seen some solid adventures - Batman on the NES, for instance - but he's never exactly set the world on fire. That is, until now, because Batman: Arkham Asylum is simply brilliant.
Right off the bat, Arkham Asylum's story fits wonderfully well into series lore. Unsurprisingly, The Joker is up to no good in Gotham City, but Batman manages to save the day by apprehending the psychotic clown. He takes Joker back to his native home, Arkham Asylum, but can't shake the feeling that it was all a bit too easy. Shockingly, once back deep into the asylum, Joker springs his trap, killing an awful lot of the asylum's staff and causing general chaos for Batman. However, as Batman attempts to beat The Joker as his own game, it becomes clear that there is a method to his madness. It all slots into the Batman universe perfectly.
Aiding the story with the Batman feel are the game's visuals - they are fantastic. All characters in the game are very well built - Batman himself looks like a tank, while The Joker, for instance, looks quite puny by comparison. Arkham Asylum itself looks great too - it's a bleak, dreary, depressing place, that really looks like it has seen the worst of what Gotham has to offer. Worth noting are the voice acting contributions of Mark Hamill as The Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman, both reprising their roles from the DC Animated Universe. Both do a great job and really help bring the story to life.
Arkham Aslyum is actually a distinct blend of the action and stealth genres. Batman himself is a weighty fellow. His movement feels heavy and methodical - but he's definitely not sluggish, as the Bat is capable of some pretty impressive acrobatic work. The game kicks off with a nice interactive cut scene, as Batman unsuccessfully attempts to deliver Joker to his cell. After Joker escapes, players are introduced to the core elements of the three button combat system - attack, counter and stun. It's simple to button bash to dispose of low-level enemies, but later in the game the tougher inmates in the asylum will require the other elements to be utilised. It's far deeper than it actually looks - as there are also slient take-downs, weapons and other moves at Batman's disposal.
It's not long before Batman's more agile side comes to the surface. Thanks to his trusty grappling hook, Batman is capable of ascending to the rooftops in order to get the drop on his enemies - and that's where the stealth aspects of the game come into play. At various points throughout the game, Batman will be dumped into a room full of gun wielding maniacs. Given his rather negative view on firearms, players are forced to be quiet with their take-downs of Joker's goons. Thankfully, there are usually many options available. Batman can drop beneath various floor grates to move around, or take to the rooftops to swing across the conveniently placed gargoyles, as he takes down each enemy one by one. What makes it all the better is the fact that Joker's men get more and more distressed as his comrades are slowly picked off, one by one. One can't help but feel like a superhero as they silently dispose of a room full of gun-toting maniacs.
Unfortunately, this raises one of the biggest problems of Arkham Aslyum. The enemies are, for the most part, somewhat lacking in intelligence. Sure, The Joker isn't known for hiring the best and brightest - but you would think that if half of your buddies had been offed by Batman, you might try and look upwards to spot him. Or, even better - you wouldn't split up to try and hunt him down, either. One can't help but feel that they are exposing the weaknesses in the AI, rather than using all the cunning Batman is known for. Still, it doesn't hurt the game too much, as the stealth sections are still tremendous fun regardless.
It wouldn't be a Batman game without gadgets, and Arkham Asylum has got them in spades. Of course, we've already mentioned the trusty grappling hook, but the Bat has plenty of other toys at his disposal. The Batarang, available from the start, makes an obligatory appearance, and can even be upgraded in several ways - it can be made more powerful, and can even be remotely controlled mid-flight. Players will quickly acquire the explosive gel - useful for blowing up damaged walls and advanced take-downs. Zip-lines and a door-cracker, among others, also make an appearance during the game, so players are never short on gear to aid them against Joker's minions.
Then there's the most important gadget of them all - detective mode. With a flick of a button, Batman is able see all enemies in any given area (and whether or not they are armed), enabling players to plan for the best method of disposing them. It also highlights damaged walls, as well as potential targets for the grappling hook and other gadgets. There also also several sequences in the game where Batman is forced to use his criminology skills in order to determine where to go next - for instance, at one point, Bats - as The Joker affectionately calls him - must scan a crime scene in order find a trace of DNA. Once the DNA is found, Batman can then use detective mode to follow the trail. While, ultimately, it is just a dressed up way of following breadcrumbs, it really helps immerse players in the role of Batman and thicken the atmosphere.
What really pushes Arkham Asylum into elite territory is the fact that all these elements - the fighting, the stealth, the gadgets, the fan service - are so wonderfully balanced. Just when you think that punching enemies might get tedious, there's a stealth bit. When you've just cleared a room absolutely full of Joker's goons and can't bare the thought of doing it again, there's a set piece requiring detective work. When you get bored of following a trail, there's more guys to punch. It all flows so wonderfully well throughout the game and, when combined with the amount of fan service on offer, it's something that Rocksteady Studios deserves a hearty pat on the back for.
If you're a fan of Batman, chances are that you are going to love the amount of characters from the comic book that have been crammed into Arkham Asylum. It's difficult to go into detail without giving away any spoilers, but more than a couple of the Caped Crusader's adversaries make an appearance in the game. But what is most impressive is the amount of effort that's gone into revealing their origins. Scattered around Arkham Island are patient interview tapes with a number of the nasty folks you'll meet across the island, along with biographies that become unlockable once a character is encountered. It's the little details like this that go a long way to making you really feel like you're part of Batman's universe.
The tapes that you will pick up around the island are just one aspect of the many riddles that the dastardly Riddler has left for Batman to find. There are 240 in total to find around the island - some are just collectibles, such as Riddler trophies, some help reveal the back story of the island, and some are actually cryptic riddles. It might seem like a boring collect-a-thon tacked on to extend the length of the game, but generally speaking, they are an enjoyable diversion from the main game that will undoubtedly have players coming back until all 240 are solved. They also generate a healthy amount of experience points, which can be used to purchase upgrades such as tougher armour and additional combat moves.
In addition to the riddles, there are also Challenge Rooms to tackle. Unlocked after progression is made through the story mode, players are asked to clear a room of bad guys, either silently, or in fist-to-fist combat. There are several different scores to achieve on each room, as well as online leaderboards if you're into that sort of thing. While they aren't really any different to the main game, they can prove to be surprisingly addictive, and are well worth having in the game.
It's really hard to find many faults with Arkham Asylum. Aside from the aforementioned questionable artificial intelligence and slightly short game length, it's really only the little things that get in the way - boss battles can be slightly disappointing, Joker's goons only come in about six different varieties, Joker's incessant cackling can become repetitive. Oh, and having to hammer the A button in order to pull down a wall grate is really, really annoying. These faults are really, really minor, and, when compared to how many things the game does so gloriously right, it's pretty tough to complain. Batman: Arkham Aslyum is easily the best game the Bat has ever been in, and is a definite game of the year candidate. You'd be batty to miss it.