Sunday, September 6, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

I'm not a Batman fanboy. My experience with the Dark Knight consists of afternoon cartoons in the 90's, the various terrible to spectacular movies, and a couple comics my dad bought in an attempt to convince me to forsake Marvel.

But Arkham Asylum leaves me saying just one thing: I am Batman.

Let's start with what AA does worst: combat. Yes, yes, it's absolutely gorgeous. You fluidly chain combos together and you trounce huge swarms of pipe-wielding whackjobs. You look like a total badass. But you achieve this badassery by mashing over and over again on the same button. You do need to mash the other button on occasion to counter an incoming attack (indicated by, for some reason, spidey-sense lines around the head of the attacking character). But it's somewhat unsatisfying. It's not frustrating or annoying, mind you, so it doesn't really detract from the game. But it doesn't add much either.

On the other hand, everything else is amazing.

I really enjoyed all but one of the boss battles. None of them consist of dodging and pummeling. Instead, each boss must be defeated in a unique way using your wits. The only letdown, in my opinion, is the late-game battle with Poison Ivy: it consists entirely of dodging projectiles and throwing batarangs.

The puzzles are really first class, with a good mix of platforming and gadget use. There aren't many puzzles that are strictly logic, but you it does take some smarts to get where you need to go.

But the best puzzles, and the sequences that make you feel most like Batman, are what I'd call the combat puzzles. These take the form of a room with half a dozen or so gun-wielding goons spread about. If you simply jump in and start bashing, they'll tear you apart. So you do what Batman would: you lurk in the rafters until one of the goons foolishly wanders off by himself, at which point you silently swoop down and knock him out before returning to the rafters. As you reduce their ranks, the remaining badguys begin exhibiting progressively more terrified and irrational behavior. These sequences are so much fun I really wish there had been about three times as many.

The graphics and art are also excellent. Arkham Asylum is appropriately scary and spooky, with just the right touch of creepy. I was genuinely afraid at times.

On the other hand, if you're anything like me, you'll miss most of the art. You see, there's a feature called "detective mode", which is a special vision mode for your cowl/visor that you must use in certain situations to scan for evidence and follow trails. It also allows you to see enemies through walls, and it highlights interactive items. Since a big aspect of the game is getting ambushed, there's a huge advantage (and no disadvantage) to leaving detective mode on all the time. Of course, this means that you'll play the whole game with a heavy blue tinge to everything--ruining the art and atmosphere.

The story is quite good: basically, the Joker takes over Arkham Asylum and hatches a dastardly plot to destroy Gotham City by pumping chemicals into the river and water supply. All the old villains come out of the woodwork: Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Bane, Poison Ivy, Zsasz. Maybe a couple others, but I don't recall. Really, everybody. To be clear, AA is set in a fairly standard DC comics continuity; it is not related to the recent Dark Knight movie continuity.

The voice acting is also about the best I've found in a video game. Mark Hammil plays the Joker, as he did in the 90's cartoon show. And much of the rest of the cast sounds like the show's--I haven't bothered to cross-reference on IMDB, so don't get mad if I'm wrong.

Go buy it. You, too, can be Batman.

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