I’ll admit that I was a little nervous when I hit that button for the first time last Friday. As the games flashed onscreen, I wondered: what would my fate be? Would the game I was to play be a AAA title I’d neglected? An indie darling that I’d played for half an hour only to get distracted by something shinier?
It was Batman: Arkham Asylum – a game that I had beaten on console when it released. Not only had I beaten it, I had actually spent more than a few hours after finishing the campaign in the numerous challenge rooms, trying to outscore one of my friends who was playing it at the same time. This was a game I had given more than the time of day oh-so-long ago. What would it be like to be Batman again, especially after a two-sequel interlude? I installed the bugger and proceeded to find out.
I started a fresh game on Normal difficulty and prepared to face what I thought would be my first obstacle: relearning the controls on mouse & keyboard over the more familiar controller button layout, which I’ve used to play both Arkham Asylum and City, as well as the similar and more recent Shadow of Mordor. I needn’t have been so worried; the controls felt relatively natural and I picked up the attack/parry/batarang combos that I remember loving so much quickly and easily. The keyboard did feel a bit clumsier for the combo moves, like throwing, ground finishers, and combo finishers, but after the first few hours of play I didn’t feel like I was at any disadvantage.
What surprised me was the intentional slow pacing of the game. My memory clouded by Arkham City and Shadow of Mordor, I expected to be swooping down on groups of enemies fairly constantly, engaging in satisfying Bathand-to-face combat. Not so fast, the game cautions. Why don’t you take a look around? it asks. Enjoy being Batman, it says. The game turns out to be a series of puzzles, platforming, and boss encounters with those grunt fights scattered in-between. It is not, as I had mistakenly remembered, throwdown after throwdown with a dozen guards.
The intro sequence itself is some Touch of Evil opening shot meat. After the opening cutscene, the interactive walk into the asylum both manages to give you enough agency to feel like you’ve become Batman but keeps you on the rails to set up the claustrophobic and controlling fiction that you’re not in control of anything other than yourself. It introduces several major players and establishes the playful relationship between Batman and the Joker that will fictionally drive the rest of the story.
And that’s where the major strength of Arkham Asylum lies – story, character, and atmosphere. Sure, Batman is a bit of a meathead – isn’t that part of his charm? – and his interactions with genero-guards is fluff, but the dialog that matters, that drives the story forward, is compelling. The collectible villain interviews that fill out the world made me want to be a completionist in a way few games ever do. And the Joker is sublime: disturbing, yet genuinely funny.
The game also, as I succinctly remember putting it when I first played it, makes me feel like Batman, which is no small feat revisiting an older title that I’ve already played all the way through. I tried to pick apart exactly why it is so successful at doing this, and I think it does it in two very intentional ways.
First, the combat is centered around making you feel like a better fighter than everyone else. It’s not that you can take tons of hits; initially, only a half dozen punches from the any old hooligan will put you down for the count. It’s not that you’re super-powerful; Batman still needs to wail on enemies a bit before they get knocked it. Instead, the game manages to make fights feel as if they’re happening in slow motion for you; as I got better at the muscle memory of knowing what to do when, it felt as though I was able to see the way the fight would develop, like a master general watching a battle unfold. Of course, this is based entirely off of the design decisions made on how and when enemies attack (never overwhelming) and the gameplay incentive of chaining together long combos and hitting the timing on critical hits. Together, it all adds up to a simple feeling when fighting: I’m Batman.
Second, the game lets you feel like a superhero by giving you superhero vision. It admirably does double duty, both filling the fictional need to make Batman feel like he has a considerable technological and strategic advantage before making his move, and giving the player much-needed information like which enemies are priorities (the ones in red!) and where secrets may be hidden. The disadvantage is that it’s really easy to end up playing the game with a Batman-colored glasses at all times (and sometimes feel like you’ve ended up in some kind of Pirates of the Caribbean crossover where you’re just fighting hordes of skeletons).
The game’s not perfect, of course. Batman’s cape, though it physics admirably when you turn and run, clips with just about every single enemy you ever subdue which can get a bit distracting. The fact that takedowns are shown in awkward-angle slow motion only helps accentuate that every thug’s arm ends up embedded in some part of Batman’s armor or cape. Ground takedowns are particularly egregious; sometimes Batman’s lower body ends up entirely inside of another human.
I also don’t fully agree with the way that utility belt unlocks get paced throughout the game, especially because there is little explanation early on as to why I can’t access what looks like a normal grate that’s at chest level instead of on the ground or why I can’t grapple a Riddler statue that’s across a gap. I liked how Arkham City was able to give you almost all the gadgets immediately, and I wonder if unlocking the entire arsenal earlier in Asylum wouldn’t have made for a better experience as well.
In the end, Arkham Asylum is still a great game. Look at how batarangs sometimes get left on surfaces when you throw them around indiscriminately! Savor the spot-on creepiness and curveball of the first Scarecrow encounter! Let the cinematic approach wash over you as the game transforms a simple player into a tortured hero! Admit that you’d have started writing your blog post a half hour earlier if you hadn’t wanted to just keep playing the game!
I have no regret going back to Arkham Asylum for the past week. I don’t know that I would so fondly replay many games that I had so thoroughly dug into, and I think that speaks volumes about this game.