lowbrowculture

collects stories and ideas from John Kelly

Batman: Arkham Asylum

For a license with so much meat on its bones, it’s a little disappointing to see all the Batman games that have been made, all laid out. The majority are lazy movie tie-ins, knocked out by South Asian sweat shops for a bowl of rice per game. And it shows, you know? Check out the SNES version of Batman Forever and tell me if you think the developers had even heard of Batman when they started working on that game. “What-man? Forget that noise, Jack. Kids today love their Mortal Kombat. Give them some _Mortal Kom_Batman.”

Thank goodness, then, for Rocksteady Studios. Here are a bunch of hardcore, unrepentant Batman geeks who get it. Working very much from an “If it ain’t broke…” mentality, these guys called in the pros. Rather than trying to write their own story and ending up with some fanboy claptrap, they instead hired Paul Dini to write the story. He may not have written the book on Batman, but he certainly wrote the cartoon, as well as the truly amazing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. They also hired a lot of the main voice actors from the cartoon too, like Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin. Even ignoring the rest of the game, the story and voice-acting are pure Batman.

But, thankfully, they didn’t ignore the rest of the game. Having a great, authentic Batman story would be nothing if they didn’t completely understand what makes Batman such an interesting superhero. Apart from a few gadgets (which are all present and correct), the best thing about the character is that he’s a brick shithouse who moves with fluidity and grace. He can hide in the shadows, picking off his enemies one by one, making each remaining enemy progressively more terrified. It also means that he can handle himself when he drops into the middle of a group of thugs and decides to take them on all at once. The developers are proud of their combat engine here, even going so far as to offer a bunch of separate “challenge” modes where you fight groups of increasing numbers of enemies. Kind of like Gears of War 2’s ‘horde’ mode, but with fisticuffs. And they’re right to be proud - this game has the best combat of any game I can think of. It’s simple, it feels natural and it produces devastating, cinematic results. If there’s any film that can offer a more spectacular, perfectly choreographed fight sequence, I’d love to see it.

Okay, maybe that one sequence from Tony Jaa’s The Protector comes close.

It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. It cogs so heavily from Bioshock that it falls foul of the same criticisms that could be thrown at that game – lazy fetch-quests to artificially pad out the game’s length, inconsequential upgrades that make very little difference in the gameplay – but for all it gets wrong, it gets other things very, very right. The world is almost perfect. It’s an open world that you actually want to spend some time in. You’re encouraged to explore, and rewarded for doing so. Through the 240 ‘riddles’ hidden throughout the island, you’ll learn more about the mythology of the place, or characters that don’t actually make an appearance in this game, like Catwoman and the Penguin. British Gaming Blog nails it: “After hunting 200 god-damn pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV last year, I decided to make a pact – make them enjoyable to hunt, or I just won’t bother. Guess what? My Xbox 360 gamercard holds an achievement for solving 240 riddles in Arkham Asylum.”

I’m slightly disappointed that the game didn’t lift a little heavier from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It’s a genuinely brilliant comic that explores Batman’s own psychological state in relation to the so-called lunatics locked up in the asylum. Having read the book, I was hoping this was a theme that would pop up in the game, but it only really appears in passing. Though I suppose beggars can’t be choosers. I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with it only being the best Batman game ever made.

Oh well.