Batman Arkham Asylum review

Photo courtesy of Epic Games

Photo courtesy of Epic Games

Ever since I was little, Batman has always been my favorite superhero. Even when I didn’t like superheroes at all, Batman has remained the one I’ve always liked. 

So when I played “Batman Arkham City” at my cousin’s house, my mind was blown. From the gameplay to the story premise, I had become obsessed. When I got home, I immediately asked my parents for “Arkham City”, and after a few days, I received a copy of it in the mail from game fly (how about that for nostalgia). I ran upstairs and installed the game, and so my journey began.

The Arkham games have always had a special place in my heart as I pretty much grew up with them, and they effectively served as my introduction to the more mature aspects of the character. With the recent passing of Kevin Conroy, the legendary voice actor behind Batman since the 1990s animated series, I think this is the perfect time to delve into one of his defining works as the caped crusader.

2009’s “Batman Arkham Asylum” is one of the most important games of the past 20 years because it revolutionized the superhero genre of video games and paved the way for games like “Shadow of Mordor” and “Marvel’s Spider-Man.” This game proved that superhero games didn’t have to be lame and cheaply made tie-in games. Sure there were good superhero games before this but none really stood among the pantheon of legendary games like “Arkham Asylum” had.

With that said, the game is now 13 years old and its age does show especially after playing the later games in the series.

First off, the combat is pretty good, but parts now feel a bit stiff and clunky by modern Arkham standards. It simply doesn’t feel as kinetic or fluid as the other games, which is fine as it’s the first in the series, but after playing the others, it becomes noticeable. For example a lot of times it feels like batman will leap across the room to hit an enemy then he won’t go forward two feet to hit one guy

This is honestly a relatively minor issue as the gameplay has significantly more pressing matters. When it comes to the game’s level design, it can either be really good or really disappointing. For example, early in the game, there are some excellent stealth segments, but as the game progresses, they get increasingly repetitive, and some of them are just outright bad. Some try to put annoying handicaps on you, and others are just reused maps with no changes the second time through.

Another area where the level design sufferers is backtracking. I’ve noticed this problem in many games designed like this, such as “God of War” and “Jedi Fallen Order”, where the game has you going back to the same location multiple times with little variation. “Arkham Asylum” tries to mend this issue a bit by having slightly different scenarios when you come back, but honestly, they aren’t significant enough. There isn’t anything more annoying than having to spend five minutes coming out the way you came just to get out of the building.

Another major problem is the story itself. While there isn’t anything horrendous about it, there isn’t anything great about it either. Besides the engaging performances from Mark Hamil as the Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, and others, the characters are about as deep as a kiddie pool. The story has a brilliant opening pitch, but as it goes on, the story and characters are just bland. Rocksteady had a missed opportunity to tell an excellent story that delves deep into Batman’s psyche as he’s put in this claustrophobic night of hell. 

This is especially egregious when the comic that primarily inspired this game, Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum,” is a psychological thriller and horror that delves into the madness of all who enter the infamous asylum.

There are a few other sequences that try to delve into Batman’s psyche, but they almost always are things we’ve seen a million times before, or they are short-lived and lead to another set piece. One example is the part where you walk down Crime Alley. While it’s visually beautiful and does an excellent job at cluing in the two people who don’t know Batman’s origin, it has nothing interesting to offer or say about the character. And if we’re seeing this origin story for the millionth time, there should be something new, engaging, or inciteful it brings to the table.

When you have such a large cast of characters, and the biggest character arc is the Batsuit getting damaged as the story progresses, you know you have a major problem. This honestly wouldn’t be a problem if the game weren’t so focused on cutscenes and dialogue, but it is, and that makes it all the more a missed opportunity. 

The story does its job and gets you through the levels, but it doesn’t do anything interesting or have anything to say it’s not much more than a baby’s first Batman story, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any rising tension at all. It feels like you just bounce from villain to villain until Joker invites you to his “party” which leads to one of the worst final sequences I’ve seen in a video game.

The final boss is straight-up garbage. I honestly find it kind of insulting just how poorly designed this is. Instead of embracing the already absurd circumstances of the battle, they decided to have this disgusting and gross monster who somehow got a mohawk barely interact with Batman. Instead, you fight his goons until you pull him down with your grappling hook and get his giant fingernails stuck in the wooden floor.

And it’s not only this fight that sucks, but almost every boss in the game is terrible. Bane is just a reskinned titan (who gets annoying after the first fight anyway), scarecrow keeps having the same repetitive nightmare sequences, croc’s novelty wears thin after 5 seconds, and Harley is just another arcade-brawling sequence.

Now that’s enough complaining, let’s talk about what I actually like about the game.

First off, the opening is great and serves as the perfect introduction to Batman’s character and mythos (and while the story never really moves past this) the intro is nevertheless amazing. Straight from the first frame of the game, they set the scene perfectly with the dark and rainy sky slowly revealing the bat signal and pans down to a gothic statue. Developer, Rocksteady, expertly establishes the overall tone and mood of the game. 

Next, the game is visually beautiful even 11 years later, and when compared to other 2009 games like “Assassins Creed 2,” the graphics blow them out of the water. This is mostly due to the excellent art style that perfectly encapsulates Batman and the dark tone they went for this game. I’d say this game has the most stylized art direction of all the Arkham games. 

As I already said, the combat was great for its time, and now it’s just good. There is a lot of inconsistency in where Batman will go to hit an enemy, and it sometimes just feels stiff and unresponsive. 

Along with the art direction, the best part of this game is the performances and voice cast. While the story doesn’t do anything interesting with the characters, the voice talent completely steal the screen. From the obvious picks, I already mentioned to the new actors Rocksteady delivered the definitive voices for almost every character in the game. I legitimately cannot imagine a better voice for Batman, Joker, Harley, Bane, Killer Croc, Oracle, Victor Zsasz, and more. I honestly think this is why people view this story so fondly because of how fantastic these performances are. They elevate a pretty mediocre story and script to being extremely entertaining.

Another thing that is great about this game is all the Easter eggs. From head to toe, this game is filled to the brim with easter eggs. Unlike other games though because the riddles make you actively seek them out they significantly increased my enjoyment of the game. Finding cute little nods like Catwoman’s equipment in Arkham Mansion or the various cells of Arkham inmates such as Two-Face, Clay Face, and Calendar Man is just fun. This continues throughout the series, but I generally found myself enjoying them the most here.

The character designs are also incredible. Pretty much every character has what I’d call the definitive design for them except for Batman, who gets a far better design in the sequel “Arkham City,” and Bane because his design is atrocious. Joker, Harley, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and others have spectacular designs. There’s not much to say in this department except that the character designs are near perfect for the most part, even if the faces in gameplay look like polished mud.

Even though I don’t think this game is as good as it used to be, Asylum completely raised the bar for superhero games. While there had been some decent ones in the past like “Spider-Man 2,” “Spider-Man Web of Shadows,” and “Lego Batman,” “Batman Arkham Asylum” set a new standard for what a superhero game could be and its effects are still seen today, especially in games like “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” “Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor,” “Assassin’s Creed,” and that “Mad Max” game everyone forgot about.

From its atmosphere, art design, combat, performances, and music, asylum showed the gaming industry the untapped potential of AAA superhero games. From this point forth, they weren’t just some cheap tie-in games but their own thing, which made way to many other franchises outside of comics. Arkham Asylum was a truly revolutionary title for its time and while I’m not as fond of it as I used to be, its impact is something I will never forget.

Score 7/10