If you’ve played the original Arkham Asylum, no doubt you have fond memories. Not tied to any specific movie or other property (though loosely based on Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth) Arkham Asylum achieved something that few licensed games ever had.
It was good.
More than good. It was great. It was well polished, thoughtful, engaging and managed to make players actually feel connected to Batman. For one of pop-culture’s most well loved characters, Batman is difficult to nail down tonally. Recent history is littered with Batmen that have been either too light or too dark. Appropriate for the time perhaps, but in hindsight, really not true to the character.
He’s also difficult to empathise with at times. Sure, we all love seeing him kick the living shit out of some bad dudes and we feel sorry for him that his parents were gunned down in front of him, but sympathy isn’t empathy. So while we may root for him, it’s often difficult to share his mindset, to understand his motivations and see things from his perspective. We watch Batman do the things he does, we feel excitement and horror, but we don’t live his actions.
Arkham Asylum changed that. Playing it, you became Batman. His goals were your goals. His morals, your morals. Rocksteady managed to make you feel for Batman and Bruce Wayne in a way that comics and movies never could. It helped tremendously that the story was written by the legendary Paul Dini (creator of Batman: The Animated Series) so every character feels true to the source material. Having Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin reprise their roles as Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn respectively elevated the legitimacy of the title and immediately sold it to skeptical fans, burned too many times in the past by licensed dreck.
None of this would have mattered of course, if the actual playing of Arkham Asylum wasn’t up to scratch. But of course it was. It’s one of those rare titles that actually revolutionises an entire genre. Third person adventure games changed, for the better, following the release of Arkham Asylum. How many titles now include a clone of its famous combat system? How many blend narrative and gameplay in much the same way? The sequels (City and Knight) both tried to add and improve on Asylum, but Rocksteady had it right on the first go.
The tightly scripted narrative and pacing of the plot were perfectly placed within the small, enclosed island on which the asylum is located. With the increasing size of the game world in the sequels, story took a backseat to features. City’s story was almost as good as Asylum’s, but it took me a couple of playthroughs to realise it, because the world kept distracting me from the plot. Arkham Asylum keeps you on track. A deliciously tantalising trail of breadcrumbs leads Batman and the player from location to location and back again. Encounters with villains are parceled out between sections of exploration, puzzle-solving and backtracking. There’s always enough to do, but not too much so that it overwhelms, The balance is perfect.
For a title released in 2009, Arkham Asylum is still a joy to play today. The remaster doesn’t add much to the experience though. In fact, in some instances, it detracts. Developer Virtuous, who handled porting duties, has upgraded from Unreal Engine 3 to 4 and improved textures and anti-aliasing, but something about the visuals just don’t look right. Everything is to clean, to bright, to sterile and there’s this weird brownish quality to it. The newly introduced crispness makes even the slightest visual foibles stand out a mile away especially character’s faces. Especially, especially the no name NPCs. The GCPD officers are creatures of your worst nightmares. I found myself skipping any of their dialogue just so I didn’t have to stare into their lifeless, dead eyes.
You’d assume that with the added power of the PS4 and Xbox One that Arkham Asylum would run as smooth as silk, but it doesn’t. Targeting 30fps, I’d frequently find my game stuttering as Batman ran down a hallway or simply ducked into a vent. Not enough to be game breaking, but enough to be confusing and a bit frustrating. It doesn’t make sense that a seven year old game is struggling on a current-gen console. But it does and it’s enough to pull you out. It breaks the delicate bond formed between Batman and player and reminds you that you’re just playing a game
Visual and performance issues aside, Arkham Asylum ranks up there with the best of the last-generation and is simply a must-play. Whether you’ve played it before or not, it’s still one of the best games you can play today. If you still have your last-gen console set up and a copy floating around, then probably stick with that. If not, or if you’ve not played (and shame on you) then you should definitely play it. Now. Like, immediately. Go on. You can thank me later.
Batman: Return to Arkham – Arkham Asylum was reviewed on PS4 using a retail copy as purchased by the reviewer.
Game Title: Batman: Return to Arkham - Arkham Asylum
Brooding - 8/10
Dead Parents - 10/10
Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy - 10/10