Solo Gamer Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum
Solo Gamer Reviews are dedicated to the gamer who does not play well with others, doesn't care about multiplayer modes in his or her games, and who absolutely despises things like multiplayer achievement points. These are reviews for guys and gals who prefer to play with themselves, and thus games will be penalized if developers spend more time on slayer deathmatch options than on the single-player experience. We solo gamers prefer a well-thought-out story, an immersive universe, and hours upon hours of enjoyment without having to shoot an endless horde of twelve-year-old punks in the head over the Internet. So throw away your WiiSpeak and your X-Box Live headset, and all hail the solo gamer!
|Batman: Arkham Asylum|
Batman returns his arch-nemesis, the Joker, to Arkham Asylum, but he knows right away that something is wrong. He follows the guards deep into the asylum where the Joker and his main accomplice, Harley Quinn, spring their trap and take control of the entire island facility. It is up to Batman to follow the Joker's twisted game and return law and order to Arkham while fighting off the ambitions of other escaped inmates including Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, the Riddler, and more. This is the set-up for the highly anticipated Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Mainstream reviews have already hailed this game as the greatest superhero video game ever made. In fact, it currently holds a Guiness World Record for 'Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever.' Is it really that great? And, more importantly, will it please the solo gamer?
Fans of Batman, both casual and hardcore, will be satisfied by Arkham Asylum. The story, written by Batman veteran Paul Dini, centers around Batman navigating Arkham Asylum while many of its notorious inhabitants are roaming free. At the time of the Joker's insurrection, several (hundreds, really) of his henchmen have just been captured by the police and transfered to Arkham due to an accident at Blackgate Prison. The Joker is, appropriately, the main villain, but he is hardly the only major one.
|I wouldn't call it a deep story, but it is definitely a Batman story|
Batman encounters Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, and Bane, among others, and can visit the cells of dozens of other notable criminals in Batman lore. Many are of course familiar--the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, etc.--but some are obscure or old enough to baffle the casual fan while delighting those who have studied the dark knight for years. Additionally, the game's main collectables come in the form of riddles from the Riddler himself, who has scattered trophies around the island, among much else.
Best of all, however, there is nothing in the game that seems obviously out of place. Characters not known for physical strength (Harley, for example) do not engage in brawls with Batman where they inexplicably fight toe-to-toe with him (as in many other Batman games), but instead present challenges to Batman that are far more appropriate. And, of course, Batman doesn't kill his enemies or pick up their guns, sticking true to form with his martial arts skills and wonderful toys.
If pressed to come up with any flaw at all in the story, I would point out the arbitrary collection of those toys. At one point, Batman goes into a makeshift batcave and collects one of his devices, but neglects to collect another one that he has to come back for later. When it is apparent that he can hold all of these items simultaneously, one has to wonder why he doesn't just get all of his toys together right at the beginning of the game. Still, this narrative cheat is nothing to get worked up about.
All in all, the story feels ripped out of the pages of the best Batman graphic novels. Everything makes sense and works, and nearly all of the video game necessities are handled with logic and fan appreciation.
The gameplay is, at its heart, a classic third-person adventure game, very similar to a Zelda or Legacy of Kain game. There are also shades of action and stealth thrown in, and these are handled extremely well. The fighting system is both intuitive and deep, and the parts of the game where you can hang in the shadows and pick off your foes one at a time are incredibly satisfying. The boss battles are also exciting, with just enough difficulty to keep you on your toes and just enough complication to keep you thinking. You are unlikely to survive the first foray into some fights (Poison Ivy, for instance), but they are never controller-hurlingly difficult. (This is all on normal difficulty, I rush to point out.)
|The fighting system is brilliant|
You will also find that you can explore nearly the whole island from a very early point in the game, though large segments will be blocked off. This gives the illusion of a huge complex of buildings, offices, and wards, though in the end and after repeated backtracking, you will discover that the game world isn't as big as you thought.
The Riddler's secrets are also fun to hunt, though if you keep up with them as you go, you will find that it isn't too difficult to track them all down before you beat the game the first time. To assist in the hunt, there is a "detective mode," which is a vision option that makes key items and enemies glow against a monochromatic blue background. It's a neat effect, but a little too useful; I spent well over two-thirds of the game with this mode active, and no doubt missed out on some cool visuals as a result.
There are also a few run-ins with the Scarecrow, which sends Batman into a twisted dreamworld where he must avoid the scarecrow's gaze. These scenes are trippy and awesome--reminiscent of such masterworks as Psychonauts, Eternal Darkness, and American Magee's Alice--but they ultimately don't make a lot of sense. There is also one extended sequence involving Killer Croc that is ridiculously long and tedious, and since Killer Croc can affect a one-hit sudden kill, it can fuel a lot of unnecessary frustration.
|Killer Croc is definitely the scariest villain in the game, but you'll learn to hate him for a completely different reason|
Additionally, there is a light RPG upgrade system. You can improve your armor or add combo moves to your fighting arsenal, but there are only about a dozen upgrades in total and many of them are useless. And, like with the Riddler's challenges, if you don't speed through the main plotline, it is difficult not to get all of the upgrades before the final boss battle.
But what makes the gameplay shine are the toys. Whether you're swooping down on your enemy with your cape or zipping across a chasm with your grappling gun, the game does a very good job of making you feel like Batman. While Batman is a capable fighter (vulnerability to bullets notwithstanding), it is definitely more fun to covertly set explosives, throw a sonic batarang nearby to attract some henchmen, zip up to a gargoyle on the ceiling, and watch the carnage.
Unfortunately, once you get through the game (about a 10-15 hour experience), there isn't much else to do. The riddler's challenges are too easy to find, the asylum is too small, and there aren't any optional side missions to keep you occupied. The game does come with "challenge rooms" where you can test your skills in beating henchmen, but it is obviously tacked on and pointless, especially for the solo gamer who doesn't care about leaderboards.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is polished. The graphics aren't spectacular, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any anti-aliasing glitches or texture pop-ins. The load times are acceptable, and there are absolutely no drops in the framerate. From a technical point of view, the game is almost perfect.
|The Joker may be voiced by Luke Skywalker, but it's really hard to tell because the Force is strong with his voice acting talents|
The sound and music are also well-done. The sound is moody and ambient, and the music, when it isn't being minimal, feels like a perfect mix of Danny Elfman's themes and those of the animated series. Better yet is the voice acting. Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorken reprise their roles from the animated series--playing the parts of Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn, respectively--and infuse them with slight twinges of extra darkness to match the much seedier feel of the game. Never does the dialogue feel forced or inorganic, though the Joker's taunts tend to get old after the first few hours.
For the solo gamer, there is nothing to annoy you. As there is no multiplayer option, there are no multiplayer achievements. The game developers spent all of their time coming up with a one-person game, and thank goodness. Can you imagine several different Batmans all trying to out-Batman each other? Or worse yet, how much would it suck to have to play a henchman while some foul-mouthed twelve-year-old punk gets to kick your ass as Batman? The only thing thrown in to appease the online multiplayer addicts is the leaderboard for the challenge rooms, but that doesn't intefere with the single player experience at all.
[Solo Gamer Score: 10/10]
SOLO GAME SCORE: 10
TOTAL SCORE: 9.3
Yeah, they're right; it's the best video game based on a comic book ever made.
-e. magill 09/22/2009