There are two kinds of superhero games out there: ones which are based on recent Hollywood movies and ones that are not. The games in the first category all suck, with no exceptions. The ones in the second category can sometimes actually be fairly decent. I would normally not put my money against these odds, but Arkham seemed like a safe bet. You see, it one of those rare super-hero themed games that are actually good. And I know this, because every single game critic out there said so. This includes the infamous Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation who is rarely pleased by anything. So I don’t really have to tell you the game is good. You know it is. I knew it is – this is why I bought it.
Now, let me say this – it is not the best game ever. In fact, I recently played a game that I would consider superior to it. That game was called Amnesiaand it was remarkable.
Why? Because Amnesia was innovative. It was a game that made risky interesting choices: it decided to eschew combat, when most games these days focus on it almost to exclusion of everything else. It chose to focus on intangibles such as mood and atmosphere rather than on effective bump shading. It created great physics engine and used it for puzzle solving rather than for making great explosions, and rag-doll animations for slain opponents. And it worked. Arkham Asylum is the exact opposite of that. It is anything but innovative. It is a standard, by the book, action game that goes out of it’s way to hit every single played out trope out there:
- The most prevalent theme in the game is princes is in another castle. Almost every single villain in the game narrowly evades you at the last minute in a cut-scene at least 3 or 4 times before the final showdown when you get to beat them up for good. Joker and Scarecrow are the biggest offenders here
- Other characters will kill-steal from you all the time. The most infuriating example of this was when Killer Crock snags Scarecrow away so you can’t even get revenge for subjecting you to the annoying dream sequences.
- Batman’s progress can be thwarted by a waist high walls, and he can only use his grapple hook on specifically designated grips. Fortunately they are plentiful in the game but still…
- Forced game logic: when you first enter Killer Crock’s lair, you can easily fend him off with a single batarang in the face (which makes him fall into the water and leave you along for a while). But after you reach a certain point this no longer works, and now you are forced to run away in a classic chase sequence.
- Plot driven powers: Batman gets access to new gadgets and upgrades only when the plot demands it
- You know that gimmick when the game pretends it glitched out and is restarting? Yeah, this one has that too…
The list could go on and on. All of the stuff you see in this game has been done successfully in other places. But does this take away from enjoyment of playing it? No it does not. Arkham Asylum is an example of good game engineering. The developers took existing well liked game mechanics (button mashing combat, stealth elements, RPG-like upgrade system), time tested tropes and plot hooks and masterfully assembled them in to a game that is fun and enjoyable. The combat is fluid, simple and exhilarating. The mechanics for platforming, grappling, gliding and scaling obstacles just work. While the cut-scenes are ubiquitous they don’t actually steal away your thunder. They are mostly used for dialogue, plot exposition an the like – Batman almost never does anything spectacular during them. You do all the cool and awesome stunts during the game-play as you should.
But the most remarkable thing about this game is that it was designed to appeal to just about every single Batman fan:
- The mood is dark and gritty, reminding you of the excellent Christoper Nolan movies
- Arkham’s funky Gothic architecture seems like a homage to the horrible, horrible but visually interesting Tim Burnton movies
- The most of the voice acting is done by the cast of the immensely popular animated series, so everyone sounds familiar
- The plot and character back-stories are slavishly faithful to the comic book lore
Dare I say this is possibly one of the best Batman incarnations ever? It doesn’t matter if you were introduced to Batman via the new movies, the old movies, the animated series or the comics – you will most likely love it. For example, my brother is a big fan of comics and the animated series, but he does not really like Heath Ledger’s joker. Naturally like almost everyone in the world he agrees that this was probably Ledgers best performance ever, but for him this is simply not the real Joker. I’m sure that there are others out there who share this notion. So when he saw me playing this game, he immediately wanted to know how the Joker was, and if they Ledger-hime-up for this game. When I finally got to a Joker cut-scene he fully approved the design. So yeah, the game got my brother’s seal of approval.
I honestly don’t know why has no one ever though about doing this sort of thematic fusion before. It works very, very well.
So I guess this is my review. I liked it. The game is not very original, there were no game play surprises, the plot was serviceable but not brilliant in any way. It was just a solid, reliable entertainment. But you already knew this. It probably isn’t all that entertaining to see me repeat what every other game critic out there already said. But since I spent god knows how many hours playing this thing, I sort of feel like I need to give the game some credit here.
Have no fear though. My next review will be filled with rage and bile so it ought to be much more entertaining to read.