Batman: Arkham Asylum Retrospective

The Dark Progenitor
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I had little enthusiasm left for Gotham Knights after realising it was likely to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers. A stylish narrative-driven campaign, sure, but one with a focus on perfunctory coop brawls in an open-world environment, in service of an incremental and grindy progression system. On the upside, the launch triggered plenty of comparisons to RockSteady’s excellent Arkham games and forced me to finally install the “Trilogy” bundle that I had picked up cheaply but ignored as newer games vied for my attention. First up was Batman: Arkham Asylum (the “Return to Arkham” remaster) and, despite my intent to play just a few hours as a refresher, I found myself hooked for several nights and watched the credit roll – even though it’s clearly the most dated. I figured that provided a good excuse to put together a few thoughts as to why I think it still (mostly) holds up and remains worth playing.

Batman: Arkham Asylum The Joker

A perfect introduction to the Batman universe

Although the story takes place well into Batman’s career, Batman: Arkham Asylum serves as a comprehensive introduction to the Dark Knight, an extensive roster of super-criminals, and Gotham as a setting. Even as someone with little interest in Batman outside of video games, I found the codex full of interesting but easily-digestible information. Events kick off with Joker – by far Batman’s most recognisable nemesis – breaking free and, as he does this in an asylum for the criminally insane, he soon assembles a small army of supporting super-criminals and disposable thugs. Harley Quinn, Bane, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, and The Riddler are just some of the big names you’ll go up against – but there’s a large cast of secondary characters that either show up on the sidelines, as Easter eggs, or part of the codex. Arkham Asylum is a character in its own right – a hybrid of gothic-inspired Gotham architecture and the cold, metallic, and industrial look of modern prison facilities. The history of the facility – which you can discover from notes and hidden “memories” – is as horrific and depraved as its patients.

Of course, Batman is the star of the show and Batman: Arkham Asylum goes to great lengths to reinforce his personality, beliefs, martial arts skills, and investigative abilities – including questioning his more nonsensical decisions. Batman is gruff, resolute, and unwavering in his pursuit of justice. However, he’s also just an extremely well-trained human with a ton of snazzy gadgets, so going up against mutated super-criminals requires a mix of brains and brawn – something reflected in the gameplay as many involve gadget or environment-based takedowns. As even casual fans like myself know that Batman never kills, combat revolves around non-lethal fisticuffs to knock out or restrain foes, with Batman seemingly content with repeatedly apprehending supervillains while inflicting maximum pain. What makes little sense is that every escape attempt – including the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum – results in the death of dozens, if not hundreds of innocent guards and doctors. Whatever helps him sleep at night, I guess?

Batman: Arkham Asylum Surprise!

An evolving asylum and tons of environmental storytelling

Arkham Asylum may be tiny by modern standards – with compact exterior zones and interiors consisting of a few important locations connected by corridors – but this allows it to pack in more fine detail and environmental storytelling than most modern open-world titles (and certainly its sequels). The world feels dense, interconnected, and there’s little wasted space. The Gothic architecture ensures everything feels oversized – useful for accommodating acrobatic brawls against increasingly large mobs and working well during sequences with light horror elements. If you can draw your eyes away from looming clock towers and grandiose entry halls, you’ll find plenty of distinctive mementoes scattered about in cells, treatment rooms, and a few out-of-the-way places that reveal more about the inhabitants over the years.

Environmental storytelling is used for more than creating a sense of history and lived-in feel for the titular asylum. Despite taking place over one rainy and windswept night, Arkham Asylum offers up an impressive array of sights inside, outside, and underground. You’ll traverse a grimy high-security facility, a cold and sterile medical centre, a creepy gothic mansion, a high-tech penitentiary, lush botanical gardens, caves and sewers below ground, and the asylum grounds themselves – which offer striking views of Gotham city and the iconic Wayne Tower in the distance. As major story events play out, each location experiences several changes – ranging from early brawls between inmates and prison guards to an invasion of mutated plants – ensuring backtracking is always worthwhile. If you’re also willing to invest the time, you can return to groups of survivors to discover their fates or hear their comments on recent events.

Simple but pioneering combat mechanics

Equal parts impressive and depressing, I’d consider Batman: Arkham Asylum one of the best gameplay experiences I’ve had in 2022. It’s a fast, reactive brawler paired with methodical, Metroidvania-inspired progression and collectable hunting but, most importantly, it manages to maintain a balance between those elements and brisk pacing until the final hour. The Metroidvania-style design is relatively simple and entirely beholden to plot requirements. You can always climb, glide, and grapple but tools for opening new paths – think destroying walls, hacking doors, and creating a zip-line – are doled out periodically to control your access. In contrast, brawling relies on a mix of combos, counters, and evasion with the ferocity of Batman’s attacks increasing with the combo multiplier. Each level gained awards a skill point, so it’s your choice to focus on survivability, combo-multiplier moves, or integrating gadget attacks.

The combat system deserves special mention as it’s served as the foundation for dozens, if not hundreds of third-person action games since Batman: Arkham Asylum’s release. Sure, you could argue the counter mechanic – which involves reacting to clearly telegraphed prompts – was partially lifted from 2006’s Assassin’s Creed, but that was a crude and overpowered implementation that broke the game. The counter and evade moves are equally powerful in Batman: Arkham Asylum but they serve two important functions. Firstly, they reinforce Batman’s status as an ordinary human; he needs to remain nimble and avoid damage as he can’t just tanks blows from weapons or mutated super-criminals. Secondly, and most importantly, they integrate defensive moves into the flow of combat and sustain the combo multiplier. Rather than the action grinding to a halt whenever you need to avoid damage, you can counter and redirect in a heartbeat. It’s a fantastic system and, mechanically, Batman: Arkham Asylum’s combat still holds up today.

Artistic vision is timeless

There’s no denying Batman: Arkham Asylum shows its age – even with updated textures and Unreal Engine 4 features in the remaster – but that’s only true when it comes to the limitations of the technology that powered it. From an artistic standpoint, it’s as distinctive, striking, and atmospheric as ever. An impressive amount of work went into designing both the character models and the dense environments to strike a balance between functional and heavily-stylised to better match the comics. Sure, most exteriors are dark, desaturated, and rain-slicked, but each location associated with a boss encounter feels distinctive and demonstrates more creativity. Encounters with Scarecrow send you into a twisted 2.5D version of Arkham merged with Batman’s memories, Poison Ivy hides within a lush and vibrantly green botanical garden, while the scaled Killer Croc lurks just below the water in a modified sewer enclosure. When it comes to the villains themselves, they stands out thanks to their unique profile, distinctive attire, exaggerated mannerisms, and quality voice acting.

In addition to the art style, a lot of thought has gone into contextual animations during combat and exploration. If you just focus on the close-up finishers you’ll see at the culmination of each battle, by modern standards they look rough. The impacts don’t always line up and there’s little regard for camera positioning as the view is often obscured by foliage or even Batman’s cape. However, from the pulled-back view that accounts for 99% of battles, Batman’s ability to flow from strike to strike, transition smoothly into a brutal counter, or perform an evasive vault over an enemy still looks fantastic. The higher your combo meter, the faster and more furious the blows, the more impressive the beat-downs look, and it makes animation transitions easier to hide. Outside of the combat, there are subtle touches that still impress and reaffirm Rocksteady’s impeccable attention to detail – like how damage accumulates on Batman’s suit during the night, or how he alternates between aggressively or quietly opening vents and doors based on whether you need to maintain stealth or not. In some ways, Batman: Arkham Asylum still surpasses modern titles.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Scarecrow

So. Many. Collectables.

Even at the time of the original release, the insane number of “Riddler Challenges” – a collectable checklist for each zone – felt like a dated form of padding; albeit one with a bit of narrative context and a far cry from its open-world peers that were content with you collecting tat for the sake of it. In hindsight, it was only going to get worse, but I was surprised to complete my run with 85% of collectables found – a feat that took only 10-15 minutes of backtracking in each area of the island before the finale. It helps that a good number of these challenges are riddles that task you with scanning the appropriate object that encouraged you to appreciate the detailed environments. The challenges felt worthwhile too as they rewarded you with character bios, Easter eggs, and, most importantly, a healthy chunk of XP towards improving Batman’s skills.

The bad news is that at least half of these collectables amount to old-fashioned busywork for completionists – such as picking up riddler trophies, destroying chattering Joker teeth, and lining up fragmented “?” symbols using detective vision. Mercifully, you can find “Riddler maps” for each area that highlight the approximate locations, but given the relatively dense and often vertical nature of some environments, wrapping up that final 10% is an exercise in frustration. It’s also mandatory if you want an achievement/trophy and the canon ending where Batman traces the Riddlers signal to have hime arrested. Issues include collectables, like the Joker’s teeth, that only spawn once you’ve hit certain story milestones and aren’t marked on maps, while some secrets forced me to backtrack through an entire area – often made harder by story events blocking off paths – to destroy one wall or hack a single panel left behind after the first visit.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Easter Eggs

The Dark Progenitor

So despite a few gripes, would I consider Batman: Arkham Asylum worth picking up if you missed it at launch? Absolutely. If you’re concerned about visual quality and performance, the PC versions still hold up and so does 2016’s Return to Arkham Asylum – even if the remastering efforts are sometimes hit-and-miss.

It had been a long time since I played it, yet I still found the limited scope and shorter runtime refreshing, the narrative well-paced, the traversal and puzzle mechanics simple but satisfying, and the tight combat as enjoyable as ever. What’s obvious is that Batman: Arkham Asylum was developed with incredible care and, even if some elements now feel outdated or underdeveloped, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the lasting impact it had on both action games and the medium as a whole.

If you’ve not played it, consider it an essential slice of history that’ll force you to reassess your expectations. I’m probably oversimplifying things, but when a game released in 2009 offers up a better gameplay and audiovisual experience than a similarly big-budget title released in 2022, I have to start questioning the intent of developers and publishers.

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