Every now and then I come across a game that simply feels right. Where I feel hard-pressed to think up any serious complaints against the game, and it contains a large number of elements so great and so well done, I wonder why they haven't been done before in this capacity (Or maybe they were done before, but weren't done right). I believe the last game I played that was like this was Valkyria Chronicles. That game had so many good things going for it, but Sega completely failed to advertise it, and thus pretty much no one played it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is another of those games. It's a game where I don't mind whiling away the hours working at a particularly tough trophy, or where I'm having so much of a blast playing it that I simply don't really care what time it is, or when I need to stop. That's what happened the second day I played it, as I stayed up till 3am working at the 40 hit combo trophy, and enjoying every second of it.
So enough single minded praise for a bit, let's talk about the premise. The game opens just as Batman is driving the Joker back to Arkham Asylum in his Batmobile, having spent the evening foiling the clown's attempt to assassinate the mayor. You play as Batman, escorting the Joker deeper and deeper into the depths of Arkham. You can feel tension in the air as Joker continues to make jokes and be cheerful as usual. Naturally, you soon find that the Joker let himself be captured (as Batman suspects out loud). You watch as he attacks and kills both his captors, and reveals that his men, transferred from Blackgate prison due to a [rather coincidental] fire, have already begun taking over the asylum. Now everyone (including Batman) is trapped on the island, and there's no help coming. So put simply, Batman's spent a lot of the past couple of months rounding a lot of big super criminals and throwing them in Arkham Asylum. Now he's trapped on the island with all of them wanting a piece of him.
Fortunately, you've got the brains, skills, and tools to not only escape the island, but to put every criminally insane individual back in their cell in the process. Arkham Asylum is composed primarily of three things. Brawling, exploring, and sneaking. I'll explore each of these components separately, starting with hand-to-hand combat.
Rocksteady (the developer) has devised one of the most simplistic, satisfying, deep fighting systems ever for Arkham Asylum. I've spent a lot of time cracking skulls with this system, and it works so ridiculously well, I can't imagine how any game with close combat in it could possibly compare favorably anymore. It's completely off-balanced my scale on how I would compare combat systems. It's called the FreeFlow Combat system. At the most basic level, you only need to use Square and Triangle to do pretty well. Square is the attack button, you mash it continuously until you see a dude trying to attack you. Then you press Triangle to counter his attack. Eventually, you'll come across enemies that have to be stunned with O or dodged with X before you can attack them. If you want to get fancy, you can also quick-throw Batarangs with L1, and (once you get it), pull enemies with the Bat Claw by double-tapping R2.
At the beginning, you can get by fine enough just button mashing. But in later fights, you'll find that hordes of thugs won't let you just hit square all the time or rely on a simplistic strategy. As Batman, you need to keep an eye not just on the guy who's arm you're breaking, but on everyone around you. If you're not observant, you won't notice that guy on the fringe of the battle who runs off to rip a pipe off the wall to attack you with, or to break into the gun depository. At a more basic level, you won't notice the guy slowly making his way towards you, getting ready to throw a punch. An experienced brawler is paying more attention to the battle at large, than just Batman and the poor soul getting kicked in the balls.
But you can't just sit around, either, because another important element to combat is the combo counter. You'll need to throw three punches in quick succession before you go into FreeFlow mode, where you can easily direct Batman's attacks. From there on, you'll want to maintain your combo. Getting a high combo chain is the basic key to a high score and getting large heaps of EXP in one sitting. Every time you get hit, miss a punch, or stop attacking for about two seconds, your combo drops back down to zero. Unless you rely on heavy variation in your attacks, it's pretty difficult to get a high score without getting good at combos.
Occasionally you'll have to fight a boss. Even though (without spoiling much) these are generally famous enemies of the Bat from the comics, in my opinion boss battles are actually one of the lower points of the game. There's a Zelda-esque simple pattern to beating each of them, and but they don't really ramp up the difficulty each time you outwit them. So the battle becomes boring.
The alternative to facing foes head on is sneaking. These areas, where it's better to take a stealthy approach, are known as predator challenges. Of course, you're the predator. Again, this is a very well-designed aspect of the game. In predator challenges, the only goal is to take out every single enemy. How you do this is entirely up to you. There are usually numerous hidden pathways, hiding spots, and alcoves for you to hide in, as well as gargoyles that you can perch on to survey the area and plan your moves. As you systematically take out each person, the Joker will make comments directed at both you and his henchmen. The funny thing is, he often spends more time chiding, taunting and threatening them than he does Batman. For example, by the time you've taken out all but the last person, that dude is just completely terrified. He turns this way and that often, and looses off shots at even the slightest hint of your presence. Meanwhile, Joker will constantly insult and threaten him over the loudspeaker, definitely not helping his psyche. You almost feel sorry for the guy.
You have numerous moves and tools at your disposal for dispatching henchman. One signature takedown is to hang from a gargoyle and wait for someone to walk under you. Then you can immediately swoop down, grab him, and string him up from the gargoyle. Later on, goons will start wearing suicide collars, which alert the rest of the crew when someone is taken down. One of my favorite things is to dispatch a guard, then boobie trap his body with explosive gel. You can guess what happens when the others come to investigate. Another fun one is to take advantage of structural weaknesses to bury a henchman in falling debris. Besides gadget based attacks, you also have a number of physical takedowns. Sneak up behind an unsuspecting henchman to take him down cleanly and silently. Hang from a walkway and wait for someone to walk by you, then rise up and pull them over the edge, Assassin's Creed style. Alternatively, you could lie in wait behind a corner, and wait for your prey to walk up just close enough to pop out and KO him in a corner takedown. These predator challenges really are made of good stuff.
And finally, there's exploration. Though you'll constantly feel propelled through the campaign, and rarely lost, the fact is Arkham Asylum is one big sandbox. At most points in the game you're free to explore and backtrack, either to solve riddles or just to see the sights. I say most because one of the villains, Poison Ivy eventually breaks out and wreaks havoc on much of the island structure. Gameplay wise, this could actually be a good thing, as it often forces you to take different routes when backtracking, because your normal way might have been blocked off.
The game provides incentive to stay observant with riddles and other secrets hidden all over the island. There are over 200 Riddler challenges to solve, from hunting down Riddler trophies to scanning the various Amadeus Arkham plaques left behind. Besides the latter example slowly unraveling an interesting side story, completing Riddler challenges not only net you a hefty XP bonus, but also unlock combat and predator challenges, patient interview tapes (all of which are quite amusing to listen to), and biographies for a bunch of famous and not-so-famous characters in the Batman universe. I know I learned quite a lot about Batman and his past through the character bios. If the campaign secrets aren't enough replay value, each combat and predator challenge also has it's own online leaderboard, including the ones in the Joker DLC.
Finding and these challenges is simple enough, but solving them might be another story, as many of them are real head-scratchers. A lot of the Riddler trophies and riddles are only accessible with the use of certain gadgets though, so it's nice that you can continue strolling the island after you've beaten the game.
Arkham Asylum is also visually crisp and impressive. The animation especially is very fluid, and it shows during combat and ingame cutscenes. It also makes notable use of depth of field blur effects, and overall a very dark (almost horrific at times) style, fitting for the Dark Knight and the tone of the game. The audio is also pretty good, with the Joker obviously having the best performance. Just like the Dark Knight movie, you can expect to hear a lot of deep woodwind instruments as you stroll through the ruined halls of various Arkham facilities.
Ultimately I found I was unable to find much fault in Arkham Asylum. It's just an excellently done game with great pacing, superb controls and gameplay, and impressive replay value. The PS3 version even comes with free DLC that let's you play as the Joker through several Predator and Combat challenges. Really, just go play it if you can. A 9.5/10.
Note: By the way, there's also an Alternate Reality Game going for Arkham Asylum. It involves the fire at Blackgate, and how one of the employees there thinks how incredibly strange it is. Visit ArkhamCityMunicipal.com to start.