Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360)

It's hard to believe that, at one time, Adam West in his campy 1960s Batman television show was the best portraiture of Batman creative minds had to offer.

Even then, when "Biff! Pow! Zing!" became a clever way to spice up awkwardly choreographed fight scenes, the tragedy of Bruce Wayne was a much darker affair than fluorescent purple and cheese-ball dialogue. A boy witnessed his parents' cold-blooded murder and, once grown, pledged to annihilate the evil in his city. The Batman rose from the ashes of a once-spoiled life to be the protector of a seedy metropolis called Gotham.

Spandex doesn't sound like a good idea under those circumstances.

Yet over the last few years the concept of what and who Batman is to a mainstream audience has experienced a revolution in reassessment thanks mostly to director Christopher Nolan's two movies, 2005's Batman Begins and 2008's The Dark Knight. Both films washed away a decade of popular culture nay-saying after the franchise hit a lull in the mid-1990s because of two awful movies by Joel Schumacher et al. Thanks to Nolan, Batman's been given a clean slate for a new generation of consumers.

Unfortunately, the Caped Crusader's forays into videogames haven't assisted in improving his image. A plethora of developers and publishers have been handed the property over the last few decades to produce titles vacillating from mediocre to awful. It's easy to think there would never be a quality Batman game available, especially after seeing the most recent films and realizing how great a Batman project can turn out.

Well gamers can officially chill and count their blessings in batarangs, as Rocksteady Studio's Batman: Arkham Asylum is not just the unequivocally best Batman videogame to ever sit on store shelves -- it's also one of the most engaging titles released in a very long time, let alone 2009. Arkham Asylum treats its source material with the utmost respect, and successfully blends the comics with a cinematic atmosphere to create an exciting and near-perfect interactive experience.

The old gadget standby, the batarang, turns out great in Arkham Asylum -- it's always a fun tool to use

Being Batman is one of those requisite fantasies most kids (and still some adults) have growing up. Even if your favorite hero was Spider-Man or Superman, Batman represents what it is to be human and what one normal person can do -- without superpowers -- through determination and iron will alone. Oh, and that rad car made quite the impression as well.

Arkham Asylum empowers fans to, for the first time, feel like they're inhabiting the mind and suit of Bruce Wayne instead of simply performing a pantomime with a 3D model of the Dark Knight. It's an entirely wish-fulfilling experience with bursts of developmental genius spattered throughout, and one that's quite addictive.

Even though you'll never drive the Batmobile in the game, the gorgeously fluid martial arts combat, instantly familiar gadgets and surprisingly clever Detective Mode more than make up for the missing aspects of Batman's superhero lifestyle.

Batman broods in a cloud of industrial steam: something he does quite well

One of the most impressive things about Arkham Asylum is even if the Batman mythos was stripped away from the game, what remained would still be a solid action title that plays well, sounds good and certainly looks fantastic. Rocksteady deserves an astounding amount of praise for its capability to construct an impressive framework that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the larger-than-life character on the box. This dichotomy extends to the combat in Arkham Asylum; it's gameplay that feels and looks like Batman, but is good enough to stand on its own.

Batman is a martial arts master, proficient in multiple forms of melee combat. Rocksteady has accordingly created and coined the FreeFlow combat system to keep up with Bruce Wayne. On first glance it seems like a basic series of punches, kicks and blocks with some numerical combo tracking thrown in. Fortunately, combat evolves into an exceedingly deep experience as the game progresses.

Combat can quickly turn into a giant mutant slugfest, which is a good thing

Those seemingly simple kicks and punches are thrown via the X button (on Xbox 360), a stun attack using Batman's cape is performed with B, the life-saving counter moves are tied to Y and quick lunging dodges are executed with A. It all sounds commonplace; boring even. And that's kind of a theme with Arkham Asylum: Because of the spotty history of Batman videogames, one would expect this title to be average and unimaginative. Not the case with this Batman game -- low expectations foster big surprises, time after time.

As far as combat is concerned, the simple button commands work in tandem with a sophisticated animation system. Clearly a lot of physics work went into making Batman move like he does in the comics, and it pays off. There's a true sense of weight behind each kick, elbow and somersault. This isn't a stiff character model rehashing the same type of punch each time X is pressed; it's dynamic, varied and extremely satisfying.

The rush of a brawl -- Batman tumbling from enemy to enemy, countering both a knife stab and behind-the-back kick to toss a batarang at an unsuspecting thug to finish by flipping onto another one's chest, knees first, to incapacitate him -- feels exhilarating every time. Later in the game, combat upgrades can be purchased to help deal out more damage and increase the game's combat multiplier, which, if high enough, speeds up fighting into a flurry of punches, kicks and rolls.

Arkham Asylum's combat is, sans hyperbole, the best part of the game, and unlike a lot of action titles the enjoyment never wears thin over time.

You'll be doing this a lot in the game, thankfully it's amusing each and every time

Besides being a nimble adversary in combat, Batman's known for one of the most varied and sometimes weird collections of technology, tools and gadgets in all of comicdom. Thankfully, Arkham Asylum has thrown out the obscure equipment for the most logical old favorites and a few new variations. Adam West may have had bat shark repellent, but Rocksteady has a sonically pulsating, explosive batarang.

Gadgets essential to progression are acquired during the game's story, while luxurious, non-essential upgrades are unlocked via Arkham Asylum's RPG-like experience system. After each fight or investigation of clues Batman will receive experience points. Fill up the gauge and earn a point to spend in the game's upgrade menu: reinforce the Dark Knight's armor, add new combo moves to his combat repertoire or go for broke and unlock three batarangs to throw at once. Though rather limited in its scope, the experience system encourages some form of customization. Still, players will more than likely obtain every available upgrade by the end of the game, so there's no risk in experimenting with whatever sounds fun.

It'd be cruel to spoil the fun in uncovering all of the new gadgets, but each one truly serves a distinct purpose -- their individual usefulness will depend on your playstyle. One player may prefer to incapacitate Joker's henchmen with explosive gel placed on weak walls; another might enjoy luring Joker's henchmen away with sonic batarangs to take them out one at a time with glide kicks or hanging takedowns from the game's many gargoyle statues. Any way you slice it, it all feels like something Batman would feasibly do himself.

One of the most Batman-like actions in the game is the inverted takedown

Detective work is an integral part of Batman's identity. After all, he was introduced in the Detective Comics series, which is still published today. He's quite the dogged gumshoe, and some of the best moments in Batman's career involve him hunting down crooks with the tiniest bit of evidence. Batman made forensics cool long before CSI and Gil Grissom's beard made CBS relevant again. Rocksteady has such a grasp on who Batman is that they implemented the Detective Mode to help him live up to the title of World's Greatest Detective.

Technically speaking, the mode isn't much more than what feral sense in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was -- a clever way of moving the game forward without relying on too many obvious visual clues or an omnipresent mini map. But in Arkham Asylum, how Detective Mode is used makes all the difference. Batman will track down clues to lead him to the next section in lieu of pulsating directional arrows flooding the screen, which is thankfully a very clean and minimalistic space.

Detective Mode can be activated anytime with the left bumper, and it allows Batman to see x-ray of enemies' skeletons (those with firearms are colored red) and interactive objects (colored a bright orange). It all seems typical; then players start tracking a kidnapped Commissioner Gordon via his tobacco droppings in such an intrinsically Batman experience that it feels innovative. Visually the mode is fantastic with its own distinct aesthetic: blue and purplish film grain brighten the darkness of Arkham's halls.

To make up for characters not included in the main game's plot (sorry, no Mr. Freeze to be seen...physically), the developers have filled the disc with audio files and character profiles to be found through the Riddler Challenges -- Arkham Asylum's variation on hidden collectibles.

What are generally tedious collect-a-thons in other games turn out to be enjoyable deviations from the main plot. Sure, some challenges are frustrating (Sasquatch tip: if you're stumped on a riddle, try looking around in Detective Mode for a question mark painted onto a surface -- find the separate period and align the two images to form a full "?", and scan away), but the reward is admiring fantastic concept art, collecting 3D model trophies and listening to asylum doctors interview Batman's most famous foes. Players can't help but feel deeply ingrained in the world of Batman after hunting down every last riddle.

Once in awhile a videogame comes along that is a success because of its strong story; this is certainly one of those titles. The plot is a great one-off story that incorporates many elements from the comics while being wholly original. Batman trapped in Arkham for the night with some of his greatest foes? It works, and works well.

And while it may seem lazy to leave out specific details which can't be learned by reading the back of the box, it's because Rocksteady's work deserves to be played spoiler-free. Sure, there aren't any reveals of a caliber like Revan's identity in Knights of the Old Republic, but this is a game certainly worth making your own way through. We all know Batman wins in the end; you've rightfully guessed he defeats the Joker once the curtain falls, but how it all transpires makes for quite the treat.

The Joker is quite the entertaining villain in Arkham Asylum -- Mark Hamill portrays the character perfectly

The tiniest details reverberate the most to make Arkham Asylum a memorable game. Batman takes a lot of beatings throughout his hectic night in the asylum, and Rocksteady changes his model on more than one occasion to reflect that. In one night, Batman's iconic costume rips -- the well-modeled cape perforated with holes and his chest logo deeply scratched -- and stubble starts appearing on a face mottled with flecks of blood and bruising.

As a result, Batman seems more human in this game than in films where a living person portrays the character. That's because, thanks to one luxury of the videogame medium, players are permitted see Batman, second by second, experiencing the evil of his enemies over several hours of fierce encounters. There aren't flashy, cutaway film scenes to move the plot ahead a day, and there aren't comic book panels condensing a full range of movements during a brawl -- in this videogame, the player does everything Batman does and truly sees who this person is. Fans have never seen a more accurate representation of Batman outside of the comics; it has never felt so real, and -- to be blunt -- it's extremely cool.

What else is there to say about such a great game? Small nitpicks like the occasionally frustrating camera and the questionable end boss battle only serve to make this review sound less biased, but in truth Arkham Asylum stands tall above even the most minor of issues and remains a proper example of how to treat a licensed property.

Gamers have rallied around 2004's Spider-Man 2 as an example of a superhero videogame that embodies both the comic and filmic spirit of the titular character. While that assessment still holds true, I think it's about time we're given a superhero game that does more than exceed such a precedent. How does playing one of the most polished and fun action titles to come out in years sound? Good?

Then I have one thing to say to you: Holy-go-out-and-buy-Batman: Arkham-Asylum, Batman!

Apologies to Burt Ward, and our readers.

Recommended for:

  • Comic fans, and even the non-Batman inclined -- after playing Arkham Asylum you'll wish more superhero titles could be so generous
  • The polished, addictive and wholly original experience
  • Those who've never played a competent superhero title -- this game will blow you away
  • Action title fans who love a solid combat system
  • Basically everyone: nerds (like myself) and non-nerds alike can take something away from this experience
  • Voice acting: Kevin Conroy (of Batman: The Animated Series fame) and Mark Hamill (also Batman: TAS; oh, and he's Luke Skywalker) are phenomenal as Batman and the Joker

Not Recommended for:

  • Unless you truly despise Batman and/or action games, there's not a single person interested in videogames I wouldn't recommend Arkham Asylum to

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