Review | Batman: Arkham Asylum
Each area is accessible via a surprisingly large hub section, out in the open air on Arkham Island. There’s little to do there other than clamber up towers, glide through the air or beat the living daylights out of any stray baddies on the way to your destination, but it serves its purpose well, reinforcing the impression of a place that exists despite your presence.
Only rarely does the fiction break a little, but there are still some curious holes that Rocksteady could have done to disguise. Particularly odd is the lightweight levelling system. Successfully beating down enemies and discovering new areas gains you experience points, which can be spent on new equipment and abilities. It means the sense of progression is fluid, with new skills introduced carefully and never overwhelmingly, but it does raise a few questions. Why, for example, are the majority of Batman’s gadgets locked until some arbitrary point in the adventure? And where do his upgrades magically materialise from? Only twice does the game attempt to work this into the story, and even then it’s hardly satisfying – once, you’ll pick up a new gadget from the Batcave, and another time a friend conveniently drops an item through a glass ceiling. Arkham Asylum’s minimal effort in working the system into the plot is something that increasingly begins to grate.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of occasions where your actions fail to have a meaningful impact on the story. An early hostage rescue, which ends the game should you fail, turns out to be of literally no consequence just a few seconds later, and a number of boss fights feel like they’re won by the computer, rather than yourself. They’re minor irritants that don’t leave a lasting impression, but the sort of thing that could have elevated Batman even higher should they have been addressed.
Each mission follows a largely predefined path, and Arkham Asylum frequently finds ways to block entry to irrelevant areas. But exploration is still encouraged, with plenty of secrets to be uncovered. The history of Arkham’s there to be decoded should you search hard enough, and the Riddler frequently pops up with hidden items to find – though they never really amount to anything other than added experience, something that’s already in plentiful supply through just following the story.
The focus, almost always, is on a combination of environmental challenge and dynamic combat. Arkham Asylum’s a diverse enough game that shades of Splinter Cell, Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and Street Fighter are frequently identifiable – often all at once. Basic melee combat is gleefully brutal, with an excellent combo system becoming increasingly satisfying as you become more adept. There’s no block button, but you’ll find yourself effortlessly countering enemy attacks with a quick button press, before finishing them off with one of your special moves.
But the action really shines in some of Arkham’s more open areas. Fire a grappling hook at an appropriate structure above, and you’ll calmly perch with an overhead view of the area. Switch on Detective Mode, and you can carefully analyse your environment and any human activity within it. By swinging between vantage points, and using your toolset to lure enemies into your traps, you can silently take down your foes in a whole variety of imaginatve ways.
Some of Arkham Asylum’s greatest moments arrive through the sadistic thrill of tormenting your enemies. As you tactically remove each of the Joker’s thugs, the remaining forces become increasingly worried, their heart rates rising and their behaviour becoming more erratic. Get them nervous and they’ll argue about whether to stick together or split up. Get them really scared and they’ll cry out in terror, firing blindly into the air, before you quickly swoop down, tie them up, and leave them hanging from the rafters as you slunk off to the next part of your mission.