Before Arkham Asylum, few games were worthy of the Batman license. Most of the games which made use of the license had off-canon and generally disrespectful portrayals of DC’s Dark Knight, e.g. having him kill people or being more of a brutish protagonist than he is supposed to be.
Arkham Asylum is perhaps the first game to make use of the full spectrum of Batman’s not-superhuman but nonetheless-impressive capabilities. In this game, Batman is a master of hand-to-hand combat, a technological genius, and a consummate detective – and he does not kill people. There were plenty of pleasantly nuanced game designs in Arkham Asylum which made this portrayal possible, as will be described shortly.
In Arkham Asylum, Batman is already well into his role as the hero/vigilante of Gotham City. He has put away many villains into the prisons of that city, with the craziest of them being thrown into the titular Arkham Asylum.
Lately, Arkham Asylum had been saturated with inmates from Blackgate prison. It so happens that the game starts with Joker being brought back to the Asylum after a spree in the city. Ever cautious to the point of being almost paranoid, Batman decides to escort Joker right into the Asylum – and as he predicted, Joker and his cronies sprung a trap.
The Asylum is compromised, and Batman wastes no time in lifting the siege. In the meantime, Batman will learn how to navigate the massive complex that is the Asylum, while learning about its grim history.
VISUAL DESIGNS – GENERAL STATEMENT:
Arkham Asylum wastes no time in presenting one of its best sides – its graphics and artwork. Rocksteady was not exactly known for graphical achievements before this game, so this came as a great surprise. Perhaps Warner Bros. Interactive has wisely shifted resources around to ensure that the game looks as good as it could, or some people at Rocksteady had then realized their talent at artwork and graphical design.
Rocksteady has certainly invested a lot of effort into designing the models for the characters. Most of the iconic characters which are associated with the Batman franchise, including Batman himself, are immediately recognizable.
There are also minute details to be seen from their models. For example, there is the model for Batman, whose body-fitting composite material suit can be admired in the main menu screen as it pans about his model. Even minor characters, such as (the short-lived and throwaway) Frank Boles, benefited from the attention to detail.
In the case of Batman, his model changes gradually over time, taking on more decals such as fabric tears and minor injuries; most of them look quite convincing (at least back in 2009).
In fact, Rocksteady itself was seemingly convinced that some people would be enthralled by the models. It has included a feature to let the player examine the models closely; this feature is named “Character Trophies” in-game.
Of course, Rocksteady has also used this feature to implement what passes as collectibles in this game; most of the models are not available for viewing in-game until the player has collected substantial amounts of collectibles. The gameplay element of collectibles will be described later.
The Unreal- and PhysX-powered lighting for the game makes itself seen at the same time as the character models, thanks to the uneven illumination of the interiors of the asylum. The lighting is mainly used to enable the copious normal mapping which is used to highlight the textures on the models of characters and the environments.
The titular Asylum is obviously the place which the game takes place in – just about entirely, in fact. Appropriately, there has been plenty of effort which Rocksteady has invested into its visual designs.
That the Asylum is a combination of the old and the new is almost immediately noticeable. Additional plastic and metal partitions have been installed into the stone and concrete edifices which survived the years.
Seeing visually contrasting things such as new glossy plastic screens next to old cloudy glass windows can seem a bit jarring at first. However, players who invest themselves in the story are likely to appreciate such contrasts, which are explained away in bits of lore which the player would uncover.
The player will also get opportunities to visit the buried-away segments of the Asylum, which highlight how old and storied the locale is.
However, the game does resort to reusing the same locales over and over, due to Batman being given objectives which have him shuffling from one part of the island to another and back again. On the other hand, every revisit – if the player follows the story without deliberately backtracking – has each locale looking quite different each time, due to plot twists.
However, the game also uses these changes to cut off rooms to the player, thus giving the impression that the game is shoe-horning the player into scenarios which have to be completed before the player is given freedom to explore.
ANIMATIONS – IN GENERAL:
The animations are the next aspect of the game’s visual designs to be seen. Understandably, the first few animations to be seen are not particularly exciting to look at, seeing that they are for the prologue. Still, there is plenty of foreshadowing to be had, such as Killer Croc’s introduction and Joker’s askance look at Batman as he was wheeled into the interior of the Asylum.
When the action begins, the player gets to see the more energetic animations. Typically, Batman has the most animations, seeing as he is the player character and the character with the most tricks up his cape. Joker comes a close second; it can be entertaining to watch him dance and scamper about, all the while making so many hand gestures.
The most impressive animations are pre-scripted, of course. For example, most of Batman’s punches and grapples on enemies force their models to be noticeably re-positioned for these animations to occur in convincing manners, though the sliding of their models can detract from their believability.
There are some attempts to make use of – or rather, tone down – the game’s physics-scripting in order to make convincing ragdoll animations, but most of them result in enemies taking up hilarious positions anyway; there will be a screenshot which shows an example of this later.
There will be more remarks on model animations in this review later, where relevant.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Joker has the most facial animations of all characters in the game. Joker is canonically mercurial, and he is certainly that way in this game. Perhaps his facial expressions can seem exaggerated at times, but they are still characteristic of the Joker.
Even Batman does not have a lot of expressions beyond his near-perpetual trademark scowl. The secondary characters have even fewer ranges of expressions. The ones who have the least are the tertiary ones, especially the guards.
Being a Batman game, Arkham Asylum includes some characters from that franchise as the protagonist(s) and villains – mostly villains. Batman is obviously the protagonist, who happen to be in the right place at the right time thanks to his habitual near-paranoid distrust of the all-too-familiar Joker.
As for the Joker himself, the story for the game acts as a reminder that as crazy as he is, Joker is very much capable of planning far, far ahead, making one scheme as the cover for another and so on.
The other characters are expectedly not as prominent, but they still have significant roles to play. Allies of Batman act as either sources of information (e.g. Oracle) or as people whom Batman has to save (e.g. Commissioner Gordon) so that Batman actually has something to do. Villains, of course, act as bosses for boss fights, as well as characters who usher in the next act in the game. This can seem a bit disappointing, but expecting more would have made one too demanding.
Some characters are just there as filler, excuses to rationalize another excuse to have Batman huffing off somewhere, or even to justify the presence of some optional gameplay elements. Chief of these is the Riddler, whose “contribution” to the game will be described (and slightly lamented) later.
Then there are the tertiary characters, such as the guards at the Asylum. At the very least, Rocksteady’s writers gave them names so that they are not entirely nobody’s. However, a seasoned story-goer or veteran game consumer would know that they have little part to play in the story other than to inform the player of what is to be done next and what to expect later.
Some of the best sound designs make themselves heard early on, via the banter between Batman and Joker. Many of the talented people who worked on the acclaimed 1990s Batman: The Animated Series lent their voices to this game.
There is Kevin Conroy, perhaps the most iconic Batman voice-actor because he can deliver the stoic no-nonsense personality which Batman is known for. Mark Hamill, in turn, voices the Joker, and he is still as natural as ever in voicing the demented but cunning villain.
The other characters have been given similarly competent voice-overs too. Even tertiary characters sound quite convincing, such as the guards at the Asylum when they make remarks about the much-despised lunatics in it, especially Joker.
During the prologue, to get more voice-overs out of another character, the player can have Batman bumping into him/her; he/she will usually spout one line from his/her assigned list of lines.
If there is any problem with the voice-overs, it is that Batman is even more taciturn than he canonically is. Referring to the aforementioned bumping-triggered lines, Batman almost if not never replies to any query or make a supplementary remark.
The conversations between the characters happen to highlight the tense situation after the Asylum became under siege from within. The guards try their best to sound brave, but it is obvious that the supervillains are very far out of their league.
There will be more mentions of the voice-overs later, where relevant.
That the Asylum is not a happy place but rather a foreboding one is notable from the start, due to the use of ominous music. Throughout the game, similar soundtracks can be heard as Batman skulks his way through the incredibly vast Asylum.
Some players might notice some similarities between the music heard in the first Batman movie starring Christian Bale and the music in this game, such as in the use of deep string instruments, but the similarities end there.
There is a noticeable re-use of the same flourish in some tracks. For example, the track which plays in the main menu has the same starting segment as the tune which plays before Joker’s speaker announcements.
These soundtracks give way to more exciting ones during segments involving enemies. A much more tense soundtrack plays when the player is having Batman stalk them, waiting for the right moment to strike. This in turn gives way to an adrenaline-rushing one when Batman must take down already-alert enemies. Finally, the player is rewarded with a flourish when he/she accomplishes something.
A sceptical person might think that with so much emphasis on the aesthetics of the game, the gameplay would suffer from lack of design effort. Such a suspicion is not entirely unjustified after all; there had been more than a few Warner Bros. Interactive games which has more style than substance, and even then the style was already a bit stale, such as that for the F.E.A.R. series.
Fortunately, this is not the case for Arkham Asylum. Batman is canonically a very competent detective, an accomplished stalker and a martial arts expert; the gameplay will showcase all three aspects of the Dark Knight of Gotham.
(For the purpose of this review, a playthrough with “Hard” difficulty was used.)
Unfortunately, not all of the gameplay elements in this game are respectful or mindful of the source material. The first of these is the system for Batman’s durability.
Batman may be a “superhero”, but he is still very much a human, albeit an exceptionally talented and skilled one. However, the game makes use of generous interpretations of injuries inflicted on Batman; he is barely slowed down by any of them, regardless of how much damage he has taken.
Of course, there is the excuse that the damage that he has taken is not representative of the severity of his injuries. There is also the argument that he has sheer grit and advanced body armor to help him survive.
However, this does not explain the observation that Batman is rarely, if ever, seen applying first-aid on himself – or anyone else for that matter.
In fact, Batman regains health through the time-worn mechanic of defeating enemies; being more efficient at defeating enemies grants more health replenishment for Batman. There are other means of course, such as finding collectibles or overcoming/bypassing obstacles, but these at best act as means of healing during downtimes between engagements.
Yet, as unbelievable as this system is, it does reward carefulness on the part of the player. To conserve Batman’s health, the player must not take too many risks during combat and work towards finding collectibles to replenish his health, if the player does not want to exploit the checkpoint system of course.
Speaking of which, Arkham Asylum resorts to a checkpoint system to record the player’s progress. To anyone who is used to freer save-game systems, this can be annoying. On the other hand, it is not hard to manipulate it in order to force the game to make a save.
To help the player gauge his/her performance and to have some kind of progress indicator for the progression system in Arkham Asylum, there is the score system.
As the player completes objectives, retrieve collectibles and defeat enemies, he/she gains points, which are indicated in a dial which appears in the top left of the screen. Parallel to the dial is the curved meter for Batman’s health too; this is just as well, because earning points generally grants health replenishment, which is proportional to the amount of points scored.
Anyway, these points are needed in order to partake in what passes as the progression system in this game.
Perhaps just for the sake of following a video game trend, there is a progression system for the player character’s capabilities – even though Batman should already be a veteran vigilante in the timeline of this game.
Anyway, the player obtains points which go into a dial, which in turn indicates how close Batman is to an “upgrade”. An “upgrade” opens up capabilities such as more health, more hand-to-hand damage and more Batarangs to throw.
As functional as it is, Batman fans might consider the concept behind the “upgrade” system to be quite contrived. Furthermore, it may even seem unbelievable; as an illustrative example, Batman’s composite suit becomes damaged over the course of the playthrough, but the player can purchase “armor upgrades” to increase his health.
Moreover, Batman only obtains more of his tools at certain points in the playthrough. For example, he obtains his explosive gel spray after he has secured his Batmobile. Although one could argue that he has some tact so as not to bring explosives into the Asylum, it is also uncharacteristic of him to be this unprepared.
Still, one could argue that with this progression system, the player is not inundated with so many options right at the start of the playthrough.
RUNNING AND JUMPING:
Being an already accomplished athlete, Batman can run and jump ceaselessly without getting tired. This is just as well, because this will be useful when trying to run away from enemies.
Rocksteady has implemented scripts which make Batman perform context-sensitive actions automatically while the player holds down a single button (namely the button to run).
For example, when the player characer runs off a ledge and there is an opposing ledge, Batman automatically makes a jump to attempt to reach the other ledge. As another example, the player character automatically vaults onto a low ledge or wall if he happens to run into it.
GLIDING & FALLING:
The same button to run is also used for gliding. Gliding automatically occurs when Batman is falling down from a considerable height and the player is holding down said button. Batman does take a couple of seconds to spread out his cape, however, so the player might want to consider this delay when trying to gauge gliding distances.
Batman can presumably die from falls – but to prevent any carelessness on the part of the player from inflicting a painful and embarrassing demise on the Dark Knight, Batman will automatically perform motions to somehow lessen the impact of the fall.
CLIMBING & SHIMMYING:
The same button which is used to run, jump, vault and glide is also used to climb onto ladders and crevices. It so happens that Arkham Asylum has many of these.
This action is not automatically done when Batman is running though. Instead, the player must have Batman stop in front of them and then wait for the prompt to come up. In other words, they are probably not good means of escaping if Batman is already under attack.
Another way to hang from ledges or crevices below Batman is to have him approach them while he is sneaking. A prompt will come up when Batman is a foot or two away from them.
Batman can shimmy along ledges or crevices after latching onto them. Being very fit, Batman can shimmy along or hang onto these indefinitely.
If the player has played many 3D platforming games before, this would seem par for the course. However, curious players who experiment would soon realize that shimmying is a good way to take out enemy snipers; the animations are shorter than other kinds of takedowns (more on this later). Coincidentally, the game will not include a built-in lesson for this.
Batman would not be Batman without his signature grappling hook. It is already available to the player from the start of any playthrough. With it, Batman can get up onto higher places almost effortlessly.
Not everything can be grappled onto, however. The hook can be anchored on concrete and steel edifices, but mouldy rocks and bricks crumble.
Initially, the game points out which surfaces can be latched onto with icons which appear when the player is looking at said surfaces; a big yellow cross is shown for surfaces which cannot be latched onto. At first, it might seem odd that the game would include such an unnecessary visual indicator. Of course, the player can always try to latch onto these surfaces anyway; he/she is “rewarded” with the sight of the hook dropping off and some particle effects for crumbling rocks, followed by a remark from Batman.
Interestingly, grappling can be used during fights. Indeed, grappling is a good way to escape from enemies – as long as they do not have guns. Those which have guns are surprisingly capable of shooting Batman even when he is zipping through the air.
Even when enemies do not have guns, the player might want to consider putting some distance between enemies and Batman before using the grapple. This is because the hook-firing and zipping animations do not grant invincibility to Batman, who can be punched and kicked (or shot) during these animations. The animations are not cancelled, however.
The mechanism of grappling also reveals some oddities about the architecture of Arkham Asylum. Chief of these are the gargoyles, most of which are indoors. Although there are indoor gargoyles in the real world, they are used for when an imposing look is desired for interiors.
Yet, in this game, the gargoyles are sometimes mounted on steel girders, as if they are the result of some renovation work which was done half-heartedly with little regard for the resulting aesthetics.
Some of the indoor gargoyles are visually obscured by Gothic pillars, e.g. in Arkham’s library/archives building, but gargoyles are supposed to be immediately noticeable; this visual oddity gives rise to the impression that the gargoyles simply had been placed there for Batman to grapple onto.
Indeed, this impression is made all the stronger because gargoyles tend to appear in stalking segments; there will be more on these segments later.
Batman only brought in the most compact variant of his grappling hook. The hook was adequate for anywhere else but the new-and-old edifices of Arkham Asylum, so Batman did not come completely prepared. Fortunately, he is paranoid and wise enough to have secretly stashed away supplies in Arkham Asylum, which he will access in the course of this game to upgrade his equipment, especially his grappling lines.
The first of these upgrades is the Batclaw. Where the default hook is a device which punches into stone before deploying spikes to get a grip, or lasso itself around a pole as another way to secure itself, the Batclaw simply holds onto something. This means that the Batclaw can grip onto vents, and also be used against enemies without harming them.
(The player can attempt to fire the default hook at enemies, but they either dodge the hook or the hook bounces off them harmlessly. Nope, the player won’t be able to get Batman to stab someone with the regular hook.)
Curiously, the game informs the player that the Batclaw can be used to pull containers around. However, this rarely needs to be done, because such kinds of obstacles to exploration are rare compared to the others. Instead, the player will be using the Batclaw to yank grates off vent openings which Batman cannot reach.
At a later part in the story, Batman gains another upgrade to the grappling hook. This allows him to pull apart weakened walls from afar, essentially doing what the explosive gel could not do.
Batman has no qualms about crawling through dank and cramped places, namely the vents in Arkham Asylum. Most of the time, these places are safe spots to hide from enemies. Armed enemies will shoot into vents if they saw Batman creeping into them, but there is not an enemy which will pursue Batman through them, meaning that the player can have Batman using vents to flank them.
Other than this, the vents are used to give an opportunity for the player to eavesdrop on the conversation between Jokers’ thugs, which number in the hundreds.
There is an interesting nuance to opening vent grates. When there is not an enemy around, Batman brutishly rips them out or kicks them off their securing. When there are enemies around, he can somehow pry them out without them hearing the noise.
For the most part, this difference is merely there for cosmetic purposes. However, if Batman is trying to pry out a vent grate while he can potentially be seen by enemies, the longer animation is a factor to consider.
EXPLOSIVE GEL SPRAY:
As mentioned earlier, Batman eventually obtains an explosive gel spray from his Batmobile. Batman can spray a loop of hideous blue substance onto most surfaces, and then somehow remotely detonate them.
The gel is mainly used for destroying already-weak walls, of which there are many in Arkham Asylum. The explosion of the gel can also be used against enemies. However, for whatever reason, it will be completely incapable of killing anyone, even if the explosion throws them around for several meters or debris from the explosion is hurled painfully at them.
Anyway, a cunning player soon learns that the gel can be sprayed on the ground to be detonated when enemies come near (though an upgrade renders manual detonation unnecessary). Enemies which are affected by the explosion are hurled around, writhing in pain for several seconds after they land. This is often a good way to eliminate a gaggle of closely-packed thugs, assuming that the player quickly performs takedowns on them.
Alternatively, gel can be sprayed on weak walls so that when it explodes, debris from the walls hits nearby thugs; they are immediately knocked out in this case.
SHOE-HORNING INTO FIGHTS:
Early on in the game, the player is introduced to the major gameplay element of fisticuffs. This is just as well, because for better or worse, there are many moments in the game where Batman must fight thugs, simply because there is no way to go around them.
At the very least, the observant player can see that such an encounter is coming up: Batman must go into a location which obviously has no quick exit other than the way from where he came and if there is any other exit, it cannot be immediately gone through, e.g. it is covered with a vent grating.
Perhaps players who are used to combat-heavy games would find this alright, but other players, especially those who favour the more open-ended encounters, are not likely to appreciate being shoe-horned into fights.
Anyway, at least Batman is a proficient close-combat fighter – if the player has the reflexes to press the right buttons at the right time.
FIGHTING - FOREWORD:
Indeed, Arkham Asylum is a game which rewards reflexes as much as it does cunning – perhaps even more so. In a situation where enemies can be defeated with either cunning or straight-up brawls – at least when they are unarmed – the latter option can potentially reward more points. That is assuming that the player is proficient in making use of the system of combos, counters, take-downs and ‘chains’.
Anyway, the following remarks on combat apply when the player is fighting the regular still-human thugs. The other kinds of enemies circumvent some of the rules on combat, as will be described later.
During combat, it is the player’s interest to get the “combo counter” as high as possible; the “combo counter” is technically a counter for the number of hits which the player has successfully inflicted on enemies without getting hit. Not only is the player rewarded with more points for getting the counter higher, Batman becomes more ferocious with his attacks as it goes up, potentially ending the fight more quickly.
Pressing the attack button repeatedly while Batman is beating up an enemy makes him go into a combo of attacks, eventually ending that combo by knocking down said enemy.
Combos are the easiest way to get the “combo counter” up, but the player must be mindful of enemies which are about to hit Batman.
Speaking of which, Batman can deal with incoming attacks, as long as he is not already making attacks of his own. If he is, he will get hit, even if the player saw the attack coming and tapped the counter button. Therefore, the player must be mindful not to just spam attacks willy-nilly. Batman is also similarly vulnerable when he is performing a take-down animation. There is no way to cancel these animations.
If the player can be cautious enough, he/she can have Batman counter attacks when he/she sees them. This is easier in difficulties lower than “Hard”, because visual indicators will appear over the models of enemies when they are about to attack.
There is also a possible design oversight which makes the button prompt for counters appear when enemies are about to attack, regardless of difficulty. However, this prompt is more difficult to see than the icons which appear over enemies’ heads.
Upon countering an attack, Batman follows it up with quick flurry of hits, all of which contribute to the combo counter. Therefore, countering can be a lucrative (albeit risky) way to earn more points and power up Batman more quickly.
Enemies which have been knocked down on the ground can be taken down for the count through take-down animations. Batman is vulnerable during these animations, so these take-downs are not to be done when there are still enemies who are too close.
Some take-down variations can also be performed on enemies which are not down on the ground; these variations have to be unlocked via the progression system, however. Moreover, the combo counter must be sufficiently high enough. These take-downs do occur more quickly though.
Anyway, take-downs obviously knock out enemies. They are no longer threats, but they can no longer contribute to the combo counter either. Greedy players might try to rack up high counters by avoiding take-downs, though this requires a lot of crowd control.
All of the aforementioned combat designs thus far are hardly anything new in video games. However, Arkham Asylum does have at least one innovation of sorts: a power-up mode which is not activated with a button, but rather the combo counter.
When the combo counter is high enough – usually above 10 or more – Batman becomes a human whirlwind. The combo counter flashes orange when this occurs.
As long as the player can keep the camera looking at an enemy which is a viable target for a strike and said enemy is within a few feet of Batman, the player can have Batman leaping over to said enemy to deliver a strike. This strike often knocks them down, stunning them.
If there are enough enemies, generally more than half a dozen, the player can chain together these strikes if he/she is observant enough to look for them as soon as Batman has struck down the previous one. As long as the player can maintain Batman’s momentum, victory against these many enemies is all but certain.
BATARANGS & QUICK-TAPPING:
Batman is canonically known for using Batarangs to do a lot of things, usually knocking things off ledges or cutting ropes and cords. Batman can certainly do such things in Arkham Asylum.
The player can use Batarangs in one of two ways: manual aim or “quick-tap”. Activating manual aim immediately has Batman readying a Batarang – or two, or three – and looking at the general direction where the camera is looking. There is no crosshair for the player to use for aiming.
Instead, the game tries to figure out what the player wants to hit. Generally, the player has to try to bring the target to the center of the screen for the game to detect it. This is convenient when the player only wants to hit a single isolated target.
However, when there are many targets close to each other, the auto-targeting falters. It fails even faster if the targets are moving about. Fortunately, such occurrences tend to happen only when the player is trying to destroy Joker teeth toys, which are by far the least easy targets to hit with Batarangs.
It is generally not a good idea to use manual Batarang aiming during fights, unless the player is quick enough to adapt to the camera transitions.
“Quick-tapping” a Batarang can be triggered with just a press of a button. When this happens, Batman tosses out Batarangs at anything in front of him – with emphasis on ‘in front of him’.
If Batman is facing the camera, he tosses Batarangs in the direction of the camera instead. This makes ‘quick-tap’ difficult to use during battle without actively trying to have Batman face enemies, which is usually a waste of effort and time which could have been spent on having Batman leaping around instead.
Perhaps ‘quick-tapping’ would have been more useful if Batman automatically tosses Batarangs at whatever the player can look at ahead of Batman. However, Rocksteady did not realize this.
(The player can partially work around this limitation by manual aiming for a short moment in order to have Batman quickly turn to face what is ahead of the camera.)
BATARANGS IN COMBAT:
Unfortunately, Batarangs are more useful outside of combat instead of during combat. Even if the player wants to use them for combat purposes, they are best used to start combat with, e.g. against enemies who would not see them coming.
As for enemies who can see them coming, they either dodge the Batarangs (surprisingly well; Batman should be embarrassed), or shield themselves from being hit somewhere sensitive. Using Batarangs on them is usually a waste of effort, unless the player can somehow exploit the couple of seconds which their dodging or blocking animations take.
Interestingly, the only good reason to use Batarangs during combat is for blinding brutishly huge enemies, who will never see them coming – likely because they think that they could not be hurt by them. (They are indeed barely hurt by Batarangs, but a patient player can plink them down with Batman’s unbelievably unlimited Batarangs.)
When these enemies charge, they are rather vulnerable to Batarangs – specifically Batarangs to their eyes. When this happens, they lose control of their charge and they slam right into walls and stun themselves.
Batman’s cape is not just for gliding or looking ostentatious. Batman can also use it to disorient enemies in hand-to-hand combat.
Generally, using the cape on a single opponent is a waste of time; the time spent on the animation could have been spent on other actions instead.
However, if there are a few thugs who are too close to each other, using the cape on them disorients all of them; that attack has a very generous hitbox. On the other hand, the attack does not inflict damage.
One of the last two gear pieces which Batman gets is the Line-Launcher. As its name suggests, it fires a line, specifically a zip-line, which Batman can use to traverse across long chasms. The player will mainly use them to reach places which cannot be reached through any other means.
Interestingly, the Line-Launcher can be used during battle, or to start battles with; the latter option is less risky. Batman is almost unstoppable when zipping across the line, though aiming takes too long for it to be reliable when Batman has several enemies who are already too close for comfort.
ENEMIES - OVERVIEW:
The majority of enemies which Batman will fight are Joker’s ruthless thugs whom he had somehow recruited at Blackgate. They are ridiculously muscular brutes who either try to punch and kick Batman, or they may come armed with various weapons. Almost all of the aforementioned combat options work on them.
Then there are enemies on which some of these tactics do not work. They will be described later in their own section.
As mentioned earlier, the thugs are the most numerous enemies in the game. As such, a cynic might have the impression that encounters are going to become stale quite quickly.
Taking each individual thug down eventually does become a tad formulaic, but what makes encounters with them more bearable are the scenario conditions which affect the encounters. For example, there are scenarios where there are electrical force fields which the player can force enemies into for quicker knock-outs. However, some of these scenarios are little more than the aforementioned shoe-horned fights.
It is also worth putting a warning here: despite Batman’s fantastic close-combat prowess, the player is unlikely to be able to handle more than several thugs at once. Getting surrounded is a sure-fire way to lose. Fortunately, Batman can vault over thugs quite easily.
In other situations, the player is given a bit more room to work with. These situations usually involve the outdoors of the Asylum grounds. If they are unarmed, the player can alert them and then escape, usually with grappling. After that, they might disperse themselves, though they might choose to stay as a group too. In either case, the player can use cheesy attrition tactics against them.
If they are armed though, alerting the thugs is definitely a bad idea. For whatever reason, each and every Blackgate thug is trained in the use of firearms, and they are terrifically good shots.
These scenarios are usually where the game requires the player to exercise stealth. There will be more elaboration on this later.
Next, there are thugs which arm themselves with clubs and stun batons. These can be disarmed with some fisticuffs, but any other thug can pick up their stuff; there will be more elaboration on thugs grabbing stuff later.
Clubs obviously hit harder than mere fists or feet. Interestingly, Batman has no issue turning a club on the very same thug who is using it, if only for one hit or two. These hits appear to do a lot more damage too; this is more noticeable on “Hard” difficulty, for which enemies take more damage before they go down.
Thugs with knives are capable at blocking punches and kicks. They can be countered, but they always get a bit of a cut in before Batman knocks them about. They are generally enemies for which the cape is made for. Ironically, they are even more formulaic to deal with than regular thugs, because they always prefer their knives over anything else.
Then there are thugs with stun batons, apparently taken from Asylum guards. They seem trickier than other thugs, because attacking them head-on or countering them causes Batman to suffer damage. However, the game simply tells the player how to defeat them; vaulting over them stagger them temporarily, making them easy to defeat.
These particular thugs do not make the thugs any more interesting to fight in general. Sure, they may make fights a bit more complicated, but that is it.
THUGS GRABBING STUFF:
Most Blackgate thugs are unarmed, but they will usually attempt to get something in their hands to get an edge. This is perhaps their most colourful and expressive gameplay design, which make them less tedious to deal with.
On one hand, letting thugs pick up weapons – especially guns – can lead to trouble. On the other hand, thugs need to perform a slow animation to pick things up, effectively putting them out of combat for a few precious seconds. If they are plucking stuff from the environment, such as pipes from walls or guns from cabinets (which will emit loud alarms, conveniently), the animation is even longer. They are also very easy to knock down when they are performing either animation.
This element of gameplay makes for a functional risk-versus-reward experience.
Perhaps whoever wrote the script does not realize that the phrase “Titan” has already been used in DC Comics lore, specifically to refer to a member of the Titans, a group of young superheroes.
Anyway, there are enemies in the game which have been dosed with Titan, a mutagenic drug which turns them into massive savage brutes.
It would not take long for the player to realize that Batman should not be getting close to them at all, unless they are stunned in some way. Typically, this is done by hitting them with a Batarang when they are charging; hitting them while they are about to do the charge animation does the same.
Interestingly, when aiming or quick-tapping a Batarang, these brutes will be targeted above all else. This is just as well, because they are the most dangerous enemies in just about any situation. It is also worth noting here that blinding them while they are charging and then letting them hit a wall or obstacle is the main way to damage them.
This can get tedious quickly for a jaded player who has played many games which have the player luring chargers into obstacles.
If there is any innovation to be seen from them, it is what happens after they hit obstacles while they are blinded. The player has two choices from here on.
The first choice is to rush Batman over to them to give them some beating. This will knock sense back into them quickly though; the pay-off is not exactly good either, because the damage done is small compared to having them crash into obstacles.
The second choice is to just let them be. For a minute, they lose their sense of direction. They are not completely defenceless though; they flail about, making them dangerous to bystanders. This might be desirable, if there are thugs about. Typically, the thugs are too dim-witted to keep away from the brutes.
Each brute in any encounter has his health dial shown on the right side of the screen. After losing one ‘arc’ of health, a brute is stunned for close to a minute and kneels down for a breather. This is the player’s chance to mount them so that they can be ridden, not unlike what the player could do in the earlier God of War games. This is generally a good way to thin down a throng of thugs.
There are scenarios which are called “predator” sequences. (The naming is not exactly pervasive throughout the game though.) In these scenarios, the player gets to have Batman stalk enemies – all of whom are armed.
Slipping up by getting Batman detected is very costly; as mentioned earlier, the thugs are rather good shots.
In most of these scenarios, the enemies start off quite complacent, walking around while muttering about what they would do to Batman.
The player can make use of this lull to sneak around, doing things like placing explosive gel on walls and observing the enemies’ patrol patterns. Once any of them is alerted though, every enemy is alerted and their behaviour will, understandably, change drastically.
Curiously, when they are alert, the thugs are a bit cleverer than they are in other scenarios. After they have been alerted to Batman’s presence, they start looking into floor grates, up at gargoyles and move around in twos, backs facing each other. They even look over railings.
Learning what they can see and what they cannot see may take a while. For example, as long as Batman has not been spotted and he is on top of a gargoyle, a thug looking up at the gargoyle is considered as not being able to see him. This is not immediately clear to a new player. On the other hand, if Batman moves when a thug is looking at a gargoyle, he will be spotted immediately, understandably.
Speaking of Batman being spotted, if he is spotted, he is immediately shot at. There is no mechanism of suspicion to give the player some breathing room such as those which stealth-oriented games tend to have.
(To elaborate, in other games, this mechanism has enemies being alerted to the player character’s position if they caught a glimpse of him/her, but they are yet to be entirely convinced of the player character’s presence until they can make a second sighting while they are being suspicious.)
However, there is a mechanism of suspicion for distracting enemies by making noise or throwing Batarangs. The thugs are somehow capable of knowing the general location from which a Batarang is tossed if the Batarang landed somewhere near them, but they do not immediately know what is lurking around said location and will go over there to investigate. Similarly, they will investigate noises, such as the yells of other enemies or explosions, by going over to the source of the noise.
Learning these can be a bit entertaining, whereas exploiting these is much more fun. For example, it can be hilarious to watch enemies being lured into explosive gel which has been placed close to a source of noise, such as a screaming enemy who has been hung from a gargoyle.
NERVOUS & TERRIFIED ENEMIES:
By using Detective vision (more on this later), the player can see the emotional state of characters. This is usually for little more than gratuitous purposes. However, in the “Predator” scenarios, the state of mind of enemies does have some gameplay effects; nervous or terrified enemies are scripted to become jumpy at noises in their surroundings, such as the hissing of boilers or the impact of Batarangs on hard surfaces.
This jumpiness can be used against them. This is just as well, because such enemies are next to impossible to creep up on due to their tendencies to look around incessantly.
In “Predator” sequences, getting behind enemies to knock them out is the only silent means of doing so. Any other means, such as glide-kicking into them or inverted take-downs, make noise, which will attract enemies.
Interestingly, stealth take-downs are not without risk; the animations are long and there is no rhythm to how frequently enemies look behind them.
Thanks to Joker’s surprisingly considerable knowledge about electronics, the collars which are used to control the more unruly inmates of the Asylum have been repurposed for use by the Blackgate thugs.
When a thug with a collar is taken down, it emits sobs, obviously recorded by Joker. If this is not enough, Joker announces over the speaker system that someone has been taken down. The other thugs rush over to this thug; obviously, the player might not want to have Batman tarry around.
The collars turn an otherwise easy “Predator” scenario into a more complicated one, though not necessarily more difficult. Thugs can be diverted in such a manner, which may be desirable to the cunning player.
CANNOT MOVE BODIES AROUND:
Most competently designed games about stealthy skulking include a feature to allow the player character to move bodies around. Arkham Asylum is not entirely such a game of course, but it is still disappointing that Rocksteady had not implemented such a feature, if it knew about it at all.
Therefore, the player must keep in mind where he/she takes out thugs, lest another thug comes by the body of his homie and sounds the alarm.
There are unnamed inmates of Arkham Asylum – each one of them somehow turned feral, despite (or due to?) the Asylum’s best efforts.
For whatever reason, these enemies are impossible to creep up on. They are actually quite easy to defeat, however. Furthermore, in the story mode, they are rarely encountered with other enemies (understandably enough), so the player does not have to worry about these enemies particularly complicating an encounter.
They do appear with other kinds of enemies in one of the Challenges though. Having to worry about them jumping on Batman while fending off thugs can make for a far more difficult fight than those in the story mode.
For better or worse, much of what the player learned from the most common scenarios in the game has to be thrown out the window during the encounters with the supervillains.
This is especially so for the boss fight with a certain crazy green-thumbed person. It is technically a “hit the weak spot” boss battle, but it requires a very uncomfortable amount of timing in order to avoid taking damage from some of the boss’s cheaper attacks.
At least the other bosses are a bit more manageable. For example, a certain brutish supervillain is really nothing more than an example of the “brute charger” archetype. However, the player will be punished for his/her hesitation in exploiting his vulnerability via an unpleasant health regenerating trick.
A couple of the boss fights are disappointing though. One of them initially seems to be a tense one, involving an enemy who can take down Batman in a single lunge and whom Batman can only run away from. However, it soon turns out that this enemy can be suppressed by throwing Batarangs at him whenever he appears.
Perhaps the most disappointing boss fight is the finale itself. Batman does not fight Joker as much as he would be fighting his lackeys. When Joker does join the fray, there is nothing which the player can do except avoiding him until he gets distracted.
Early on in the game, the player is introduced to Batman’s “detective vision” tool. Presumably, this might be built into his cowl, or it is built into contact lenses.
Whatever the case may be, this device grants the player the ability to see enemies through walls, as well as pick out interesting objects in the environment. It also reveals power lines, in case the player is looking to disable a barrier.
The player can use detective vision in the “Predator” scenarios as well, in order to keep track of the thugs over long distances. However, the detective vision is more useful when exploring the Asylum.
EXPLORATION & COLLECTIBLES:
Speaking of which, the Asylum has many nooks and crannies, most of which have been supposedly scouted out by the Riddler. He has – somehow – placed tokens and other things such as tape reels which he has made himself or pilfered from the Asylum. Early on in a playthrough, he will challenge Batman to collect all of them.
Coincidentally, many of these collectibles are placed behind barriers such as containment fields which zap and repel anyone who tries to walk through them. Not all of these barriers are surmountable when the player comes across them the first time around, but the game does eventually have the player coming around to them again, usually through a story-related excuse. The second time around, the player usually already has the means to get through these barriers.
Interestingly, after a playthrough ends, the player can load that playthrough again, which places Batman outside of the Visitor Centre of Asylum. The centre is closed permanently, but the rest of the island is open for the player to explore from here onwards, usually with no opposition.
A MINOR COMPLAINT ABOUT THE RIDDLER:
It can be a bit disappointing – and unbelievable – that Edward Nigma, a.k.a. the Riddler, has been used as the excuse to implement a system of collectibles. Although strewing around collectibles in unlikely places and concocting image puzzles is something which is not thematically at odds with the Riddler’s personality, the game could have been given him a more prominent role.
Of course, the same could be said about many other Batman-associated villains, some of whom are diminished to mere curiosities in the Asylum, such as Clayface, who remains in his (its?) special cell despite the breakdown of order.
As the player retrieves more collectibles and progresses through a playthrough, the player unlocks what the game calls “challenges”. These are one-off scenarios, of which there are two main overarching categories: scenarios which are about straight-up brawls, and standalone “Predator” scenarios.
These challenges are mainly only there for players who cannot get enough of Arkham Asylum’s gameplay. Of course, there are high scores and secondary goals, but these would appeal only to completionists and/or leaderboard-chasers.
Part and parcel of the so-called “Game of the Year” edition of Arkham Asylum is the downloadable content for the game. For better or worse, this DLC does not add to the story mode, but rather the “Challenges” instead. There are additional scenarios, such as an endless slog against a mix of enemies which is not seen in the story mode, such as Psychos among thugs.
REMARK ON STORY DESIGN:
Despite what has been said earlier about how great the game and its characters look, it has to be said here that seasoned story-goers might shake their head at the progression of the story.
The beginning plotline of Joker planning a take-over of the Asylum is believable. However, the plot twist of his plans to exploit the research of an Asylum staffer whom he had tricked earlier is not as convincing. One would wonder how said staffer could ever think that Bane’s Venom drug can somehow be used as treatment for mental illness, much less so when it is somehow produced with Poison Ivy’s deadly plants.
There are more loose ends or wasted plot elements than just these. For one, how does Joker ensure that Titan-mutated brutes are loyal to him? In another, Batman made some antidotes for the mutagenic drug, but these antidotes are used so as prove that Batman will stay true to his principles by not resorting to the drug.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Rocksteady surprised even the most jaded watchers of the games industry during 2009, especially considering its very short portfolio before Arkham Asylum.
In fact, one could say that for the first time, Warner Bros. Interactive made good use of its resources – namely DC Comics’ franchices – for something other than yet another LEGO video game.
Of course, the game does not deserve praises and nothing else. There are many liberties which it took in order to fit Batman into a video game, such as the hackneyed health and progression system. It also used some characters such as Riddler as little more than an excuse to implement even more time-worn video game tropes. Some of its story elements are also unbelievable.
There is also the fact that its gameplay has since been recycled many times in the later Arkham titles. This may seem an irrelevant and an unwarranted criticism, but it has to be said here that Arkham Asylum did not have gameplay which made it one of a kind.
Nevertheless, Arkham Asylum was a game which made a (mostly) respectful, canonically appropriate and, at the time, refreshingly fun video game based on the Batman franchise.