January 10, 2010

Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

Batman: Arkham Asylum
Eidos, Rocksteady Studios
2009

When I think of a licensed video game, I think of a toilet. I think of my bowel movement. Did I take my sh*t for today? Because I'd really prefer to do that while hanging from a wall blindfolded and chained to a porcupine instead of playing a modern day version of Superman 64.

Alas, Batman: Arkham Asylum defies all expectations one would typically have for a licensed game, because it is far, far, far, far from terrible. In fact, it is a master class. An avant-garde interactive version of what could've been a 30-minute episode of the classic animated series from the 90s, and for good reason: the animated series is basically the foundation for the game.

Instead of Christian Bale's Internet meme worthy (in a bad way) version, the developers actually got out of their way to reunite the old voice actors, who do a very good job, as well as hire the old writer, Paul Dini (Lost Season 1), to formulate a story specifically for the film. Obviously, Dini is no stranger to the Batman world, so little nods to characters who are lesser-known to the general public are to be expected, and much appreciated.

Going back to the voice actors, Mark Hamill is an obvious standout with his portrayal of Joker, and Batman, Harley Quinn, Bane, and everyone else is just pitch perfect. Heck, even the attention of detail reaches to the voices and lines of the guards and the henchmen. The latter, especially. It's like, before you, as Batman, go in to kick their socks off, they actually engage in conversation. I mean, since when did you ever hear henchmen talk about anything in any game that actually sheds a backstory in a subtle way? And if the player does get in to engage in combat, the henchmen are even smart enough to pick up the weapons of a fallen comrade, and of course attack you with it. If it's a stealth sequence you're engaged in (more on that later), henchmen respond to fallen allies and say something like, "Man down! Man down! Are you okay, buddy?", and if you trim the number of henchmen down, the remaining ones start to visibly get scared. Anything they hear will get shot, and the tension just progressively gets higher like that. Everyone and everything in this game has personality, which is why getting patient interview tapes, and Arkham Chronicles are so addictive and riveting: you'll care about the backstory, the characters, hell, maybe even the henchmen.

Impressively enough, Rocksteady made the world reminiscent to the mood and atmosphere of the old, if not surprisingly mature, animated series, and even though it's just confined to one space, which is the titular mental facility, it doesn't feel too cramped to make you think that it's extremely limited, yet it isn't a true open world that, at first, daunts you like in the Grand Theft Auto series. I just can't get over the atmosphere of the game, it makes everything effective, particularly the outstanding motion capture of the characters, as well as the personality of said characters- even the objects.

Not only that, the graphics, even in a Medium setting if you're using a PC, look mighty fine. Everything feels real, but not real enough to become uncomfortable. If anything's unsettling, it has to be the audio prompts that Joker makes from time to time. Sure, some of them are darkly humorous, but it all becomes rather creepy especially when you think about the fact that Joker's almost omnipresent- watching your every move, calculating the next scheme.

And the sound design is also nothing short of marvelous. The batarang feels that much more like a batarang because of the sound it makes-it just never gets old.

So I've already typed 630 words about the atmosphere, aesthetic, graphics, sound design, and voice acting, yet I've said nary a word about gameplay?! Surely, you already know the next game you'll want to play regardless?

But if you insist for me to soldier on, I will soldier on.

Gladly.

So the story goes on like this: Joker gets caught by Batman and he's sent to Arkham Asylum, a mental institution. Beforehand, an incident at the Blackgate Prison- a fire- occured, and the government was forced to transfer the hundreds of prisoners from that prison to the asylum. Coincidentally, most of the prisoners from Blackgate are all Joker's men, and even Batman notices how much 'easier' the Joker was caught. So instead of throwing Joker inside the asylum and leaving, Batman accompanies Joker to his cell because he feels that there's something wrong, and true enough, Joker attempts to escape the grasp of security and initiates a takeover plan months in the making. It's a classic 'jail takeover' story with a sci-fi twist that involves inside jobs, fake names, shady deals, and of course, science. And it works effectively with the existing Batman lore.

You, the player, will control Batman for the bulk of the game, and you'll be able to access his martial arts prowess with just a press of a button (or in the PC version's case, a click of the mouse). Initiating combos is as easy as clicking the left mouse button in conjunction to the direction of the enemy you want to attack (W, A, S, D, natch), while countering will only require you to press the right mouse button. When you press the right mouse button at the right time (you'll intuitively know when to do so because of the attack indicators of your enemies), you'll see a very well-animated counter attack unfold. Once the enemy is on the ground, you need to take him down, else he'll get back up. As the game progresses, you'll unlock special moves, Batarang combos, and critical hits as well.

But Batman wouldn't be Batman without his arsenal of gadgets: the Batarang, the explosive gel, the Batclaw, even some sort of hacking machine that initiates a little minigame, among others. Every single one of them is upgradeable, and using each one of them is just a ton of fun.

Speaking of upgrades, all 20 of them will require you to collect a certain amount of EXP or experience, which are also essential to your survival since instead of a "Potion" type item, your HP or life gets replenished through EXP which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but whatever. You get them either by engaging in combat, making men unconscious, discovering hidden Riddler trophies, solving riddles and scanning the Chronicles of Arkham, all of which are scattered in and around the island. The Riddler's challenges and trophies can sometimes get challenging if you have yet to find the Riddler's map which lists the locations of all his riddles. Some will require you to unlock a specific gadget before being able to collect/solve, while some will just require your eyes and ears. And of course, some are located in front of your face. Early on in the game, you'll have to watch for a riddle that requires you to listen to a radio even, so yes, the riddles are mostly visual and sometimes aural. But how to solve these riddles? You tap and hold the X button on your keyboard to initiate environmental scanning, although some riddles will require you to be in Detective Mode first.

Ahh, Detective Mode. A reviewer of this game would fail to the nth degree if he were not to mention Detective Mode. If you saw the movie The Dark Knight, you'll see that at the latter part of the film, Batman acquires a sort of night vision-esque sensor that reacts to soundwaves, basically a sonar. Detective mode is a bit like that, but definitely more capable than the movie's version. By tapping the X key lightly, you'll be able to activate the aforementioned vision mode, and you'll be able to strategize your combat methods as it'll differentiate armed men from unarmed men (especially since what Kryptonite is to Superman, is what bullets are to Batman... in this game, at least), obviate brittle walls that you can set explosives on, highlight special items, isolate a crime scene, and even scan fingerprints from a distance. Detective mode makes life easier to the point of it being a bit too easy. The graphics of the game will degrade exponentially to tints of blue, black and a bit of green on the side in Detective mode, which is a shame, but it simply is essential for Batman to survive (and truth be told, the beauty of the graphics is the least of Batman's worries).

As said a few paragraphs before, mastery of the easy-to-learn, hard-to-master hand-to-hand combat is key to completing Batman, and if you max out your combo, you'll earn points and experience galore. But sometimes, full-frontal combat is not how you'll want to focus on every situation, as there'll be quite a few encounters wherein you'll have to dispatch henchmen in a stealthy manner without getting discovered. Otherwise, it's either someone gets killed, or you get killed, whichever goes first. You can take advantage of a series of stealthy moves that only Batman can pull like a silent takedown (an attack from behind), ledge takedown (an attack from a ledge), and even an inverted takedown (an attack from above that lets the enemy end up dangling from, say, a gargoyle). Speaking of gargoyles, as odd an interior design choice it is, are effective for your survival against bullets. They're usually scattered all over the expansive rooms, and you can grapple from gargoyle to gargoyle to escape bullets.

Make no mistake, the game will test your mastery of your skills and the environment, as it will put you in situations where the gargoyles are not there to save your ass, and you'll have to think fast... like a fox (it's a reference) in order to dispatch the henchmen and move on.

The game, as it is, already has much variety, but there's much more of that than you'd think. Now, I won't divulge more details about this, you'll just have to play it for yourself.

If the past 1700 words weren't enough to make my point extremely crystal clear, let me shorten it for you: the game makes you feel like Batman, as if you are Batman. You are the world's greatest detective, and your ego will thank you for it.

I am madly in love with this game and obsessed with getting a full hundred percent with the riddles and stuff, and chances are, you will too.

This is how you make a Batman game, and it was about time a licensed game came out and was regarded as much more than just 'respectable'. This is why Batman: Arkham Asylum is automatically my personal game of the year for 2009. Go play it, if you already haven't.

Rating: 9.8/10 [It doesn't take a perfect score because of teensy flaws... seriously, I'm just nitpicking]


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