The list of adaptations from other mediums flopping in the gaming field is depressingly long and seemingly ever increasing. As such, expectations have been slowly eroded to the point where anything approaching a coherent and playable videogame will find those willing to laud it as a passable success. Occasionally though, a developer will crack the mould and produce something that not only emulates the subject material, but also adds enough fresh twists to be taken seriously as an extension of the franchise. Rocksteady Studios’ 2009 smash Batman: Arkham Asylum is one such example.
It focussed on the character as portrayed in his native comic books as opposed to his cinematic outings, and this sidestep, combined with the scripting talent of Eisner award winning writer/TV producer Paul Dini (whose work includes several Batman graphic novels), as well as solid gameplay made it an experience that was hailed by not only fans of the material, but by almost all who played it. Rightfully gaining numerous accolades along the way, and now having received a BAFTA award for “game of the year”, Square Enix/Eidos have decided to release a Game of The Year Edition which includes the extra content that was previously only available to download, as well as giving gamers the chance to play it all again, only this time in 3D.
The story is about as straightforward as they come; The Joker has taken over Gotham City’s famed Arkham Asylum, and only Batman can stop him!
Upon opening the box and firing up the game for the first time, the initial aspect most will want to assess with this new edition is just how well implemented the 3D is. Being the catchword of the moment for both film and television, we are seeing it seeping even into the field of videogames now, and the hope will be that this fares somewhat better than the ill fated Nintendo Virtual Boy, with its headache inducing, eye straining visuals of yesteryear. Well, given that this is something implemented after the fact, it works to a certain degree.
It does create a sense of depth at given points and makes particular areas even a touch easier to navigate. The downside is that the anaglyph stereoscopic image, comprising of differing coloured lenses through which you view two differently coloured pictures, destroys any semblance of colour fidelity that the original visuals had. Were this a brighter game the impact would arguably have been greatly lessened, but as it is the textures and subtle shades of the shadows are eroded of their delicacy and instead what we are left with is a duller, purple-tinged Batman who is skewed back to life by a ramped up contrast to the point where particular aspects positively beam out of a large screen.
From a personal perspective, I found myself feeling vaguely nauseous and the overall effect was one of less than settling comfort. I’m afraid in this instance the implementation falls closer to the gimmick end of the spectrum than the cutting edge push into the third dimension we are likely to see in the next few years.
Thankfully, with the ability to toggle the 3D effect on or off at any moment via the pause menu, nobody is forced to endure what they may find a less than stellar experience. A quick flick of the thumb-stick and you’re back to the original visuals, and when they look as nice as this it seems a pity to mess with them. Just about every aspect of this game seems to have been designed around the ideal of finding variation in the shadows. Detail in the darkened rooms and dingy corridors of Arkham Asylum is always well defined.
Pedants may point to the re-use of stock textures that show a degree of monotony, but in the half-light these are never strikingly obvious. One area that does take on a certain familiar feel is that of the enemy characters. Unsurprisingly, with this being a game developed around the Unreal 3 Engine, virtually all the criminals that cross your path have a steroidal muscle-bound nature to them and there is little in the way of difference to them other than their clothing/haircuts.
The real tour-de-force is saved for the introduction of the Detective Mode, whereupon Batman uses one of his nifty little WayneTech devices to see the world in a very different manner. Once toggled, an almost X-Ray vision becomes available to you, with skeletons of possible assailants being visible through walls, otherwise invisible clues now being as clear as day, and items of particular significance glowing with an orange aura.
It is very reminiscent of the effect created by Retro Studios for the GameCube update of the Metroid franchise, Metroid Prime, with the player able to switch between different visor scanners. Rocksteady Studios have perhaps not added the same layers to the concept, but the result is just as slick, with environments almost demanding to be seen twice – once through normal eyes and then again through the Detective mode.
Not all the effort of the developers has been placed upon the visuals as it must be noted that the audio side of proceedings is similarly capable. Much of the game is played in relative quietude, with our eponymous hero stalking his foes, but there are several rousing musical cues that segue into sections and introduce key characters. Speech is one area that games have often left to those playing to balance, with various levels available to be monkeyed with via the pause menu, but here I found there to be little in the way of tinkering necessary.
Dialogue has a nice deep timbre to it and the voice acting, though comic book in nature, fits the material and mood to perfection. Environmental effects work extremely well too, with voices echoing through the loudspeaker system in the Asylum and the empty halls with pleasing reality. There really is very little to fault when it comes to presentation, both in fields of sight and sound, and apart from a few texture repetitions and static particle effects, this is just about as good as even the most enthusiastic Batman fan could have hoped for.
As one would expect for a game that, although not directly based upon any of the numerous silver screen offshoots of the franchise, still maintains many of the same iconic imagery, the foremost emphasis has been placed upon the dark and brooding cinematic atmosphere. Gameplay is woven around the story in a manner that few developers seem capable of in current climes, with there being a firm arc to proceedings, both in terms of the narrative and the difficulty of the game. It would be all too easy to define Batman: Arkham Asylum as a straightforward third-person action adventure, and the similarity to other titles of this ilk is fairly obvious.
The combat in the early stages relies heavily on a single button being used for the execution of a routine punch-punch-kick combo and there can appear to be little in the way of incentive to alter this tried and tested approach. Delve a little deeper though and you’ll uncover a game that owes far more to titles such as the modern Metroid incarnations than it does to any mindless street brawler. Progression through the grounds of Arkham Asylum emulates the aforementioned series’ well established approach to level design.
Newly found equipment and upgrades to existing items are drip fed to the player throughout the experience and these new implements allow for access to previously unavailable areas. In conjunction with these handy products of WayneTech, the use of Batman’s “detective mode” becomes key to your exploration, with this mode’s ability to view areas of interest such as structural weaknesses proving vital to making headway.
The beauty of the Castlevania/Metroid template for level design is that it allows for the reuse of multiple locales rather than assaulting the player with countless new areas to familiarise themselves with. That isn’t to say that Rocksteady Studios haven’t made a great effort to populate the eerie Asylum halls and the surrounds with enough ground to be traversed, just that they have mainly focussed on filling the various localities with layers. Some areas remain tantalisingly out of reach, and a multitude of ways may be tried to reach them until the correct way is found.
There are flaws to this though, and the reuse of the same air-vents and breakable walls is a little disappointing, but thankfully they are well spaced apart and this almost demands players take note of locations. Backtracking is often a dirty word when it comes to game design, but when implemented correctly, as it is here, it creates a sense of ease with the environments, which is something paramount to the experience of actually being Batman. The first time you face a rowdy mob of insane inmates you may not know where your nearest vantage point is, but come the second or third time you re-enter one of the main sectors of Arkham’s grounds you’ll know instantly how you plan to assail the ne’er-do-wells that block your path.
The variety of ways in which you can take down enemies is a prime facet of the game’s appeal. This being Batman though the difficulty is skewed towards using brains rather than brawn. Rush in headlong and you may get by in the early stages, but come the halfway point it will prove your undoing. Those hunting you become not only markedly more difficult due to newfound weapons, but also start to take direction from The Joker himself as to your possible whereabouts, which forces gamers to follow a more guileful path, with caution becoming imperative.
A stealth versus action dilemma is hardly new, but the manner in which you can go about your task of eradicating a room full of foes is certainly inventive. Perform glide kicks and grapple back to a vantage point, use inverted takedowns whilst hanging from gargoyles, plant explosives, throw batarangs or simply sneak up behind a goon and send him violently to sleep, the list of ways in which you are able to resolve scenarios is extremely liberating. The environments and story may be linear, but there is nothing restrictive about the way in which you are allowed to apply yourself to the task of combat.
The final layer to this polished affair is added by way of a slight role-play game angle, whereby Batman gains experience points for performing just about every task, be it destroying joke clockwork teeth or defeating a boss character. Once a set amount of points have been accrued, you become informed that The Dark Knight has access to upgrades thus a new ability can be chosen. These can range from new combo techniques and armour enhancements, to extra item functionality and added weaponry.
It may not drastically alter the way in which you deal with violent confrontations, but it does at least force you to slightly amend your approach. If you’ve got level 4 armour you can take a fair beating and run headlong into combat a fair few times, whereas if you’ve favoured triple batarangs it would be wiser to keep a degree of distance between you and the escaped convicts. The beauty of the way in which Rocksteady Studios have gone about designing the game is that the greatest variations are held within the choices given to the gamer and how they approach combat, not merely the settings they are forced to play in. It is the ability to have individual preferences regarding how to tackle sorties that makes this such an appetising prospect.
The story is well rounded for comic book fare, but it is the experience of being Batman that’ll no doubt hold the greatest draw for most and the developers have absolutely captured his combat style as well as his scientific view towards exploration, and thus the essence of the source material, perfectly.
The central story of the game will likely take most proficient gamers in the region of six to seven hours to finish. Running through sections is not the entirety of Rocksteady’s design though, and a fair amount of patience must be employed in order to soak up the atmosphere. In order to force gamers to tarry a while the developers have opted for the tried-and-tested approach of including a series of collectible items that have been dotted around the various stages.
These take the form of riddles given for Batman to solve by, unsurprisingly, The Riddler. Luckily they are not all of a uniform nature, with some being simple trophies or character interview tapes hidden away, others being challenges to destroy a certain amount of chattering joke teeth and the final assortment are cryptic lines that hint at a scene that must be photographed by The Dark Knight using his nifty “environmental analysis” device.
Completionists will no doubt take great delight in hunting down all these treasures and with their collection new extra features such as character models and bios are unlocked. Unfortunately, the vast majority are fairly easy to find, with only the final third/quarter taking any real re-exploration beyond that which anyone playing the game at a reasonably slow pace might find themselves doing.
The only area that has a true unlimited appeal is that of the “challenge mode”, which pits Batman against differing amounts of enemies in various combat scenarios. There is a total of 16 that can be unlocked through your in-game achievements and a further six that were only previously available to download. These act as handy bite-sized chunks of Caped Crusader action that can be delved into and then left in minutes or hours depending on your mood and as such add some much needed incentive to return the disc to your Xbox 360’s tray.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is thoroughly deserving of its award as the BAFTA game of the year. It may not break any new ground but Rocksteady Studios have concentrated on polishing every aspect of the experience so that it not only works as a solid videogame, but also as a fitting piece of Batman fiction. The voice acting hits the right note, keeping proceedings well tethered to their dark yet kitsch comic book roots.
The repetition of enemies and locations is finely balanced against the plethora of opportunities to try different takedown routines. The combat and exploration of the grounds ultimately proves to be the core of all that is woven around it and the linearity of the progression never mires enjoyment of these aspects. It’s brief but captivating and could rank as one of the best adaptations from another medium the videogaming industry has ever produced.
- Free-flowing hand-to-hand combat
- Atmospheric presentation
- Excellent voice acting
- Variation in stealth tactics usable
- Limited longevity
- Uniform character models
Batman: Arkham Asylum GOTY Edition Xbox 360 Review
A great piece of Batman fiction, Arkham Asylum can easily sit alongside the best adaptations videogaming has yet produced. Dark, brooding, violent and laced with superb voice acting from the plethora of oddball villains the caped crusader has to face, it rarely misses a step. As engaging in its exporation, combat and stealth gameplay as it is cinematic.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.