Holy Inmate Riots, Batman!

by Arthur B

What's this? Batman incarcerated with his arch-enemies? The clown prince of crime declared Warden of Arkham Asylum? Rocksteady releasing a decent comic-based computer game? Tune in to find out here, same Ferret time, same Ferret channel...
Anyone developing a Batman game has major hurdles to get over, even before you consider the inconsistent-at-best history of such things. (Anyone remember the clunky old Amiga platformer based on the first Tim Burton movie?) For starters, unless your licence is based on a specific property you need to decide which incarnation of the dark knight you're going to portray - the Golden Age Batman, the Silver Age Batman, the one from the Tim Burton movies, the Nolan and Bale movies, the 60s TV show, the Lego version, Frank Miller's interpretation, Grant Morrison's rendition, one of the cartoons? The possibilities are endless, and even when you've managed to do that, you're still faced with the main challenge: making the player feel like they are Batman, scourge of the night, fearless crime fighter, world's greatest detective and international gold standard of square-jawed masculinity. Batman: Arkham Asylum is the first time I've really seen anyone succeed at that.

The first thing that Arkham Asylum gets right is that it tries to be its own creature; rather than being specifically an adaptation of a particular manifestation of the franchise, it presents the developers' own take on the mythos, with strong influences from both the comics and from Batman: The Animated Series, one of the best superhero cartoons ever (and a fairly loyal take on the comics itself). In fact, it's something of a Batman: TAS reunion, since the story was written by Paul Dini (a scriptwriter for The Animated Series and numerous other Batman cartoons and comics since then), and the voice talent includes several cast members reprising their roles from the series - in particular, Kevin Conroy takes on the voice of Batman, whilst Mark Hammill is clearly enjoying himself immensely as the Joker. (Looks like the Dark Side is a heap of fun after all...)

Conroy's Batman is probably my favourite "serious" interpretation of the character - coldly determined without getting sociopathic like Frank Miller's vision of the Dark Knight, brooding without getting weepy and angsty like Bale's interpretation threatens to, and he's got a dry sense of humour which acknowledges the mild ridiculousness of the situations he gets himself into without going into Adam West parody territory. (Oh, yes, and he doesn't have a stupid growling voice.) I think a lot of the time portrayals of Batman focus on one or two personality traits and crank them up to 11, so it's nice to see someone manage to present him as a bit more of a rounded individual - well, as rounded as monomaniac crime fighters fixated on their parents' death can ever get. Mark Hammill's Joker is precisely as larger-than-life and unpredictable as the character needs to be; one second he's all Cesar Romero goofy pranks, the next moment he breaks out the Heath Ledger murder and mayhem, and you can never tell which he's going to run with. He's also got a great way of saying what the player's thinking - whilst you're picking off his thugs one by one from the shadows, he taunts them more than he taunts you.

The plot of Arkham Asylum is simple enough - after putting an end to the Joker's latest crime spree, Batman becomes concerned that the clown prince of crime gave up too easily, and decides to deliver him to Arkham Asylum personally to make sure he isn't planning something. It transpires that the Joker was, indeed, planning something, and soon enough he's taken over the Asylum's security systems and trapped Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and all the guards and doctors inside, with all of the prisoners running riot. Batman has to spring into action to protect the innocents trapped with him and foil the Joker's plans, but with a decent proportion of his adversaries raising Hell across the Asylum, it's not going to be easy.

Wisely, the developers of Arkham Asylum have chosen to make the gameplay revolve around the three hallmark activities that Batman partakes of in all of his incarnations: beating people up, finding clues using his high tech gadgets and quick wits, and swooping about in the moony twilight. The experience delivered for each of these things is excellent. Fighting is simple, but never gets old, especially when you're taking down dozens of goons at once. It's intensely cathartic, after you've been chased by some of the scarier bosses or come through one of the tenser stealth sections, to come across some baseball bat-wielding thugs and smack the crap out of them, especially when they're yelling stuff at each other like "Don't let him hit you, you idiot!"

Of course, Batman's fighting style has one fatal flaw - he doesn't use firearms - so when you encounter parties of enemies carrying guns you need to take the sneaky approach. The stealth segments are tense, neatly nonlinear in terms of your options, and enormous fun; goons generally don't look up, so you're normally safe perched on one of the many gargoyles that clutter the decor, but at the cost of not being very mobile, whereas if you move about on the ground you need to stay mobile to avoid being caught, but between the air vents and your handy grappling hook there's normally plenty of options. The various forms of stealth takedowns are quite cool - I like the one where you use your grappling hook to spring down from a gargoyle, snatch a henchman, knock him out and leave him dangling by his foot from the gargoyle. (I especially like doing it when he's travelling with a buddy, and his friend suddenly panics when he realises he doesn't know where his backup went... and then panics even more when you use your batarang to cut down the first guy). Enemies get more and more nervous and fearful as you pick off their allies one by one, and it's immensely pleasurable to watch them fall apart.

Detective work is accomplished using "detective mode", in which Batman uses special goggles to find clues. (Detective mode is also handy for finding interactable objects, as well as detecting henchmen standing behind obstacles.) Most of the detective work essentially boils down to presenting the player with a means of finding the next bit of the plot, for example, there's a part where, on locating a traitorous guard's hip flask, Batman calibrates his detective goggles to track the man down by detecting traces of whisky fumes in the air - daft, but appropriate, since Batman really is the World's Flukiest Detective.

Despite being its own entity, the game has a strong sense of the franchise's history, and especially the comic's history - as you go along you collect little biographies of the people you encounter, which includes their first appearance in the comic. I was often surprised to find that some characters who I had thought were new to the game did in fact have previous appearances in the comics, or how many I thought must have come from the comics were in fact Arkham Asylum originals. This is the real success of Batman: Arkham Asylum: it makes the Batman mythos its own, comes up with its own ideas which fit seamlessly into Batman's universe. It doesn't reinvent Batman or subvert the dark knight's tropes like it's the mid-1990s and everyone is still goofy over Watchmen, and it doesn't drown in DC universe continuity wank; it just tells a really good Batman story, and is a hoot to play as well. My only real complaint is that some of the later boss fights are slightly frustrating, and the game is quite short, but I think this is a sacrifice that is worth it - you'd lose the feel of the comics if the plot slowed down too much.

All this is forgiven because gliding out of the darkness and kicking people in the head never stops being awesome.

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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 22:06 on 2009-10-30
I've only watched while Kyra played this, but I particularly appreciated the fact that while you got to take the bad guys' weapons away and whack them with them, you always threw them away afterwards.

Because let's face it, Batman running around with a baseball bat would look really dumb.
Arthur B at 22:36 on 2009-10-30
Indeed, it's a nice contrast to other games where you're constantly nicking the bad guy's stuff. Evildoers have nothing that Batman wants; he desires only justice.
Arthur B at 01:11 on 2009-12-15
What's this??? Gotham city set ablaze? The coughing, cancerous clown prince of crime free from his renegade's cell and battling his renegade cells? A new Arkham care in the community program endorsed by a curiously faceless political figure? Where there's success, there's a sequel, dear viewers! I for one will be tuning in, same Rocksteady time, same Rocksteady channel...
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:54 on 2011-10-22
So, um, Batman: Arkham City has come out. Anyone played it?

I started watching a playthrough on Youtube a few nights ago (because I'm poor), and it isn't quite "getting" me like the first one did. The core combat is pretty similar to the first game, and there's even quite a few new doodads. All the same, the story seems more unfocused, which is probably a side-effect of moving the game to a more sandbox-type playstyle and of the need to shoehorn in as much of Batman's rogues' gallery as possible.

That being said, I really, really like this rendition of Mr. Freeze. He's implacable and distant, yet sympathetic and vulnerable, and he's backed up by Maurice LaMarche's godly voice talent, all without a single goddamned ice pun. He's easily the best part of the game, and I do wish he had got more to do beyond an "oh let's fight now" boss fight.

Also, Selina...I know you're Catwoman, and I know seduction is kinda your standard MO, but would it kill you to zip up your suit? We're not here to ogle; we're here to kick people in the face, dammit. It's distracting.
Wardog at 11:56 on 2011-10-22
I ... I ... was tempted but currently I'm dying like a small, whimpering child in Dark Souls, and I don't really want to buy any more full price games this month. I will likely pick it up but I really liked the claustrophobia of the Asylum setting ... and so I feel less passionate about the game than the hype is telling me I should.

Also, Catwoman, blah. You can be seductive WITHOUT having your boobs hanging out.

And this is just my personal problem, rather than specifically feminist criticism, but I'm having increasing difficulty navigating the portrayal of women in video games, and it's making me unhappy. I used to be able to ignore it but there's *no space* for me left, no acknowledgement that anybody making games gives a damn about me as a woman-person, as well as somebody who wants to kick people in the face, dammit. It's not even about having decent portrayals of women, I like to see women being awesome, or just being *there*, but that's optional, it's just about not pushing me out.

*massive whinge*

And the portrayal of Catwoman is one of those "push out" factors - a bit like her boobs. I know seduction is her deal but just blah blah adolescent blah blah blah. Dan points out that he thought cat-burglary rather than seduction is her deal...

Weirdly, the last game I played that felt it could have been "for me" was Space Marine. Firstly, it incidentally has a cool female character in it. But the point is you get to play a massive fuck off Ultramarine of manly manly manliness - and it seems weirdly open to the idea that playing a massive fuck off Ultramarine of manly manly manliness is something the whole family can enjoy. You don't have to be a dude to enjoy inhabiting that kind of tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated machismo. STOMP STOMP BOOM! In fact I'd say it's so far removed from any sort of portrayal of realistic gender identity that, to me, it's practically gender neutral. They've essentially taken masculinity so far round it's come out the other side... rofl!
Arthur B at 13:16 on 2011-10-22
I think Arkham Asylum and Space Marine are actually two of a kind, because they both a) make you totally feel like you are the main character, even if IRL you don't resemble them in the slightest and b) the main character is awesome and said awesomeness is supported by the game.

Which is why reports of the Catwoman DLC are dismaying me so. If I'm playing Catwoman in a DLC I want to be a devilishly ruthless sneak-thief who pilfers shit from under people's noses, taunts them with their total failure to catch me, and very occasionally makes cat puns. I don't want to be called a bitch and be tied up all the time because firstly, ew sexist, secondly that's not really what I think of Catwoman as being about.
Wardog at 15:01 on 2011-10-22
I don't want to be called a bitch and be tied up all the time because firstly, ew sexist, secondly that's not really what I think of Catwoman as being about.

Wait? WHAT?!

Catwoman Bondage Simulator Pro?
Arthur B at 15:19 on 2011-10-22
My understanding is that Catwoman gets captured and tied up multiple times during the DLC mission.
Melissa G. at 18:55 on 2011-10-23
I'm watching one of my roommates play through. When you first encounter Catwoman, she is hanging upside down and tied up. Haven't seen it happen again yet, I don't think. What's bothering my roommate more is that her stealth mode consists of her running about on all-fours with her butt sticking up in the air. His reaction: "Oh, come on, I know she's supposed to be like a cat, but this is just stupid."
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 21:36 on 2011-10-24
The Incredible Hulk, of all people, unpacks the Catwoman issue in his latest blog post. Rather nicely lays it all out on the table, in my opinion.
Wardog at 10:33 on 2011-10-25
Thanks for the awesome link.

*still sad in the corner about it all*
Fin at 19:20 on 2011-10-25
There's a sequel to that article here. I saw it posted in a comment on a friend's Facebook status. Naturally, it went over his head, and the fallout is making me rethink that whole 'friend' thing. :/

Re: Arthur's article. I'm wondering if I should give Arkham Asylum another try. I got bored with the game halfway through when I played it a few months ago, but reading your review is really giving me the feeling that I missed something.
Craverguy at 17:15 on 2016-09-17
I bought this the other day, and I really quite enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I can't finish it because there's some sort of glitch that causes the Ultra Batclaw not to pull properly, which makes the final boss battle (the one everyone always complains is too easy) completely unwinnable.

Favorite part of the gameplay: the Predator sections. Nothing makes you feel more like a god in black and grey spandex than stringing up three mooks from the ceiling, grabbing a fourth from under the floor, and taking out the last guy with a cape-spread aerial kick to the face.

Least favorite part of gameplay: the boss fights. The game is really quite bad at explaining what you're supposed to do to win these. When I fought Bane, it didn't tell me I was supposed to throw a batarang in his face when he charges until it appeared as a tip on the game over screen the first time he killed me.

Gameplay I have mixed feelings about: the three Scarecrow sequences. I loved, loved, loved the bits at the beginning when Batman starts tripping out and reliving past events in actual gameplay. I hated the endings when you have to sneak past the fifty-foot Scarecrow. The sudden switch to side-scrolling properly screwed me, and I died at least ten times on each level as I blundered across the screen through trial and error.

So now that I (more or less) have the hang of the gameplay, I've put in an order for the Game of the Year Edition of Arkham City, which is dirt cheap used on Amazon. Did anyone here ever get around to playing it?
Craverguy at 00:15 on 2016-09-20
It only took me three days, but I finally managed to win that damn boss battle and complete the story.

The ending was...a bit abrupt. Batman knocks the Joker senseless and the credits are rolling in under two minutes.

Once they were over, it only took me a little more than an hour to find all the remaining Riddler challenges and wrap things up.

Final verdict: outstanding combat and stealth gameplay, great voice acting, teeth-grinding final boss fight.
Craverguy at 09:00 on 2016-10-06
So, having now gotten 100% on main story and side missions in Arkham City, I can safely say that anyone who commented on this review that they were leery of playing it, well, if they haven't yet, they should. Asylum was a good game, but City is better in almost every way: the combat is smoother, there are more cool toys to play with, the boss fights are better (with the endless bullfighting almost totally scrapped in favor of fights you need to combine dodging, melee, and clever gadget use to win), the side quests (particularly the ones with Azrael and Deadshot) are really neat and filled a void in Asylum I didn't even know was there, grapnel boosting yourself hundreds of feet in the air and gliding from one end of the map to the other never gets old, and I liked the story a lot more. I kind of felt like the whole TITAN angle in Asylum existed solely to give a reason why Joker could provide a serious boss fight for Batman in the finale, not because it was actually an interesting, novel, or even thematically appropriate idea for Joker to have, and the story in City is of a generally higher quality. Sadly, I had the big ending twist spoiled for me by every single article, review, and conversation about Arkham Knight, or it probably would have knocked me right out of my chair.

This is not to say that City is a perfect 10/10 game (although I don't think I've ever played a game I would rate 10/10, so bringing it up even to debunk it is sort of praising with faint damnation); there are certainly some problems. The misogyny of the game's treatment of Catwoman and the other female characters like Harley and Vicki Vale is a serious concern. I mentioned to someone toward the end of her last DLC mission that if you played a drinking game where you had to sip once every time someone referred to a woman as a "bitch," sip twice every time it was Two-Face saying it about Catwoman, and finish the glass every time a goon in melee made a veiled rape threat, you'd give yourself alcohol poisoning.

Second issue: the Riddler Challenges. Dear God, the Riddler Challenges. I seem to recall that Asylum had just north of 200 Riddler collectibles to find, and that seemed to be just about right. This game, including the extra challenges from the Catwoman DLC, has about double that number, and I have to say that by the end of it I was just about physically sick of the damned things. I didn't time it, but I am convinced I spent about three times as much play time on trying to unlock the various Riddler puzzles (particularly the ones that involve precision gliding, which I'm not very good at all at) as I did playing the rest of the game put together. If the devs hadn't given Batman a good in character reason to do these challenges (by having Riddler take hostages), I would have abandoned them somewhere around number 300.

Finally, the two pieces of story mode DLC are very...meh. I liked combat as Catwoman, and in fact I'm slightly better at it than combat as Batman, but her missions really don't bring anything to the table in terms of moving the story along (there are four Catwoman missions and her story intersects with Batman's exactly twice) and they have a nasty habit of coming up at cliffhanger moments in the main story, so they feel like something you have to wade through to find out what happened to your real character. Also, her Riddler Challenges are obnoxious for almost the exact opposite reason that Batman's can be: she has no gadgets to speak of, so her trophies aren't hidden behind any puzzles. The only challenge to getting them is that they're almost all in areas patrolled by enemies with guns, and Catwoman is both fragile and not that good at Predator mode. It just feels like 40 bits of make-work. As for Harley Quinn's Revenge...it's very slight. Having completed it and gotten all the Xbox Live achievements for it, I don't think I'll ever pick it up again, as I eventually will the main game. It also has kind of a steep learning curve if, like me, you didn't play any combat or Predator challenges as Robin beforehand. It makes no effort whatsoever to explain what all of Robin's gadgets are used for until they become relevant to the plot, and doesn't even tell you which button combination activates which in combat.

But these are fairly minor quibbles when stacked up against everything the game gets right (especially since you can obviate most of them by just not installing the Catwoman DLC). The goal of the designers was to make you feel like Batman -- a badass, cape-gliding, mook-crunching creature of the night -- and for the most part they succeeded admirably. On the Totally Original Craverguy Ratings Scale™, City is easily a 9 out of 10.
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