Why are super-hero games so hard to get right? You’ve got tailor made settings, abilities and bad guys that you can just lift straight off the funny pages. Seems like an easy sell, right? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the number of below-average super-hero games this generation, this task seems like a trickier prospect to pull off than at first glance.
The problem with most super-heroes is that they’re just that: super. When you think about it, every comic book character is practically invincible. Superman only has kryptonite to fear, and Spider-Man has his astonishing reflexes to fall back on. Only one comic book crusader has the right amount of limitations to make a challenging video game: Batman.
He’s almost perfect for a developer to take a hold of. No super-strength, no bullet-proof skin. He’s only got his wits, his body, and a handy assortment of gadgets. Many studios have tried to make the lightning strike with Batman, and now it’s Rocksteady’s turn to put the Dark Knight through his paces.
The best thing the game does with Batman is that it outright nails the feeling set by The Animated Series and to a lesser extent, the comic mythos. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voice Batman and the Joker respectively, and notable Batman scribe Paul Dini handled the scripting duty. You feel like you’re watching your favorite Batman adventure that you get to control, and that’s already leaps and bounds over Batman’s last few outings in the video game medium.
Concerns were raised over the possible simplicity of the combat controls, but nervous bat-fans can put their fears aside. Batman is an expertly trained ninja, and he performs as such. You have one button for your basic attack, but you can bounce back and forth between enemies and deliver the hurting in a very stylish manner. You also have a counter button, and these don’t interrupt the combo you’re building. When the very “spider-sense”-ish lines appear over enemy thugs, this is your clue to start the counter and disrupt their plans. The combat can get going fast and furious, but you never feel out of control. For the tougher foes, Batman is able to temporarily stun them with his cape.
In addition to his combat prowess, the Dark Knight carries an assortment of tools to help him out in exploring Arkham Island and thwarting the Joker. You start your quest relatively unprepared for Batman: all you’re carrying with you is a ridiculously large number of batarangs and your trusty grappling hook. Fortunately, you build experience through bashing thugs and unravelling the Joker’s plot, which can be used to upgrade your health, combat abilities and your gadgets. Along the journey, Batman picks up more and more pieces of equipment which helps him reach previously inaccessible areas of Arkham.
Besides Batman’s obvious combat capabilities, Arkham Asylum places a great deal of emphasis on the Dark Knight’s reputation as the world’s greatest detective. To unravel the myriad mysteries of Arkham, Batman uses his detective vision, which is essentially a full CSI lab built into his cowl. When you activate the vision mode, the world becomes tinted a different colour depending on what substance you’re tracking (i.e., alcohol, tobacco or fingerprints). Enemies show up as highlighted skeletons; blue for regular baddies, and red-tinged for firearm wielding hoodlums. Detective vision is so useful, however, that you’ll find that you’re spending a great deal of time looking at Arkham Asylum through the filter. If Arkham Asylum wasn’t so well put together this wouldn’t be too much of a gripe, but you can walk through entire areas without fully appreciating the work that went in to making the island penitentiary what it is.
The story mode will run you about ten hours on average, but helping to pad this out is the Riddler’s Challenges, which can add some length to your Batman experience. The challenges take the form of a variety of word puzzles, item hunts and picture matching games. For example, the Riddler will give you a clue, and your need to find a question mark hidden within the level. Sounds simple, but you need to perfectly line up the curve of the mark with the dot at the bottom. The word puzzles revolve heavily around Batman lore, and you might be stuck if you’re not as familiar with the Caped Crusader’s rogue’s gallery as some. Additionally, you can put Batman through his paces in the challenge rooms, which consist of both straight up fights against an ever increasing number of baddies, and Invisible Predator style arenas, where you’re tasked with taking the guards out as stealthily as possible.
As great as Arkham Asylum is, it does have a few small problems besides the aforementioned detective vision over-usage. The use of EXP to regain health after combat works well in smaller fights, but against a large number of foes, whose ranks are often padded with mutated henchmen, you’ll be wishing for health regeneration after every combo string. This may sound like a weird complaint, but as great as it is to have Mark Hamill play the Joker, they use him almost too much. At some points in the game the overwhelming need for a little silence from the loudspeakers will overtake you, especially when you start being taunted by the Joker during the game over screens. The guard’s simplistic AI is also a source of some minor grumbling, but let’s be honest, the game would be much harder and much less enjoyable if you weren’t able to strike from the shadows with impunity.
Another relatively small strike against the game is the unavoidable fact that the boss battles, with the notable exception of Scarecrow, are mostly unimaginative and fairly easy. Rocksteady seemed to realize that the fights would be over too fast if they were strictly mano-a-mano affairs, and almost all the boss encounters are stuffed with waves of henchmen that are obviously nothing more than challenge multipliers.
Despite its minor foibles, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a fantastic game, and you owe it to yourself to try out this definitive take on the Dark Knight.
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