Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Joker's wild
By MITCH KRPATA  |  September 1, 2009
4.0 4.0 Stars


Batman: Arkham Asylum | for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Rocksteady Studios | Published by Eidos
Although Heath Ledger fully deserved the Oscar he won (posthumously) for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, a less heralded actor had staked a claim to the character years before. On Batman: The Animated Series, Mark Hamill brought a fearsome edge to the role that outstripped any previous dramatic effort. Hiring him to reprise the role for a new video game was the smartest of many smart moves by the makers of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Hamill owns this game. His Joker leers at Batman from video monitors, taunts him through crackling loudspeakers, and positions homicidal inmates like chess pieces.

The Joker is the mastermind, but he isn't the only villain lurking within the walls of Arkham Asylum. Several characters from Batman's rogues' gallery make an appearance, each drawn without irony or comic relief. Bane is as massive and imposing as he's ever been. When the amphibious Killer Croc gets close, you can almost smell the rotting fish on his breath. The Scarecrow's burlap hood has been augmented with a gas mask, and his fingers are hypodermic needles loaded with fear toxin. Hallucinatory sequences in which Batman falls under the toxin's spell are among the game's best; they transport him to a nightmare realm where a massive Scarecrow hunts him across a ravaged, free-floating Arkham.

The real Arkham Asylum is no less nightmarish. The grounds house a wide variety of environment types, none of which seems tacked on. The crumbling penitentiary and the dingy medical facilities bespeak the asylum's decline from its days as a state-of-the-art mental-health center. The island's tunnels can open up to reveal spectacular vistas, like the Gotham City skyline.

In its way, Arkham is as much a foe as the Joker and his minions. Its pathways can be treacherous, and high-tech security systems controlled by the Joker make some areas impassable. Batman begins with some essential gadgets in his utility belt, like the Batarang, a grappling hook, and "detective vision," which highlights enemies and environmental hotspots. Even so, much of the map is inaccessible until he earns upgrades. Over the course of the game, he will criss-cross the island, acquiring the ability to blow through walls, traverse gaps, and hack Arkham's security system.

It wouldn't be a Batman game without some good old-fashioned fisticuffs, of course. Arkham Asylum strikes a nice balance among three types of combat. Batman can take on a crowd of low-level thugs without much problem, thanks to a simplified interface in which a context-sensitive attack button and an easy-to-time counterattack function result in a balletic beatdown. Better still are the stealth sections against firearm-wielding enemies. Picking off terrified gunmen one by one and then retreating into the shadows gets to the basic appeal of the Batman myth.

Then there are the boss battles, which are few in number but cleverly designed. The Scarecrow sequences include some memorable fourth-wall breaking that at one point seems to reboot your console. Killer Croc stalks Batman through the sewers, leaping from the depths with fangs bared. Only the final tilt against the Joker is disappointing: most of the fighting is by proxy, against the same enemies Batman has been obliterating all game, and the clown prince of crime is dispatched all too easily. It's not a satisfying release of the tension that's been building. It is, however, the perfect opportunity to begin a second playthrough.

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