Who would have thought that “Batman: Arkham Asylum, the latest Batman videogame in series which has fallen notoriously short on its trips to home consoles, would come up as one of the best-reviewed and best-selling games of 2009 when it made its next-gen debut on XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3? Well, I did. I watched all the trailers, knew that the story was by Paul Dini, that Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy were coming back as The Joker and Batman, respectively, and that this would be the first adaptation to actually take advantage of Batman’s abilities beyond his fighting skills and the darkness of the character’s attitude which sets him apart from all the other big-name superheroes.
“Batman: Arkham Asylum” is better than every Batman adaptation including “The Dark Knight”. Hit the jump to find out why before your brain explodes.
The game is mechanics and those mechanics work flawlessly. But it’s understanding the character, his world, and his abilities that make “Batman: Arkham Asylum” stand apart from every film adaptation and I feel that I have to explain why this works better than the six major motion pictures.
Batman is a cool character to see in movies. He’s brooding, smarter than his enemies, and has an awesome rogues gallery. But no movie could, and I suspect ever will, do the character justice. The limitations of budget, technology, time, and audience appeal all limit the character and so we’re not really looking at Batman but merely cosmetic changes which can alter the take on Batman but never provide a full look at the character nor an honest look at Gotham City.
Now take away all the trappings of a film and give them to, oh say, an animated series. You could call this show “Batman: The Animated Series”. And in that format unbound by time, budget, and technology with the only limiting factor being audience appeal in terms of graphic violence, and there’s potential to adapt the character fully and not just piecemeal. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini did just that from 1992 to 1995.
The two most important characters in the Batman mythology are Batman and The Joker. At their base level, one is a character operating from absolute reason but could possibly be insane while the other operates from complete chaos with disturbing hints that he may possess what Grant Morrison, author of the comic “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” which serves as one of the sources for the game’s narrative, called a “super-sanity”.
Kevin Conroy played the voice of Batman and Bruce Wayne and the voices were different but common and were a product of mood and tone rather than inflection or gimmick. In short, the character didn’t speak in guttural growls like Christian Bale does.
And then there was Mark Hamill as The Joker and to this day, I cannot believe that the voice comes out from his mouth. Hamill will always be remembered for “Star Wars”. There’s no way around it. But I’m far more impressed with the extent of his voice work and his characterization of The Joker. His performance far exceeds the work of Jack Nicholson and doesn’t compare to Heath Ledger. Both Hamill and Ledger are amazing, but Ledger’s Joker operates outside the comics and in the “real world” that Nolan has chosen as his interpretation of Gotham and the characters who inhabit it. Ledger did his homework and there are many Joker trademarks in his performance so it goes beyond the costume and make-up. Nolan’s “Batman” works in the sense that larger-than-life figures are using a major city as their playground. But that real world tends to shun an artistic interpretation of a twisted metropolitan city and that’s why in “The Dark Knight”, Gotham City looks like Chicago. You can say what you want about Tim Burton and Joel Schmacher’s films but I know they don’t take place in Chicago.
It’s this understanding of character plus tone that makes Mark Hamill’s performance the one TRUE Joker in my book. This is the Joker who grew from the comics, who had the capacity to shoot Barbara Gordon through her spine, kill Robin/Jason Todd (although the readers forced him to!), and acts of delightful psychosis that kept the character terrifying but firmly within the confines of the whacked out nightmare that Gotham can be. He may not be performing the physical movements of the character, but his voice is The Joker’s and it’s his performance, Conroy’s performance, and the writing of Paul Dini that proves this isn’t a cheap cash-in or a “Batman” fighting game. This is “Batman” and you are Batman.
Creating an original story but drawing from canon and from Morrison’s and Dave McKean’s graphic novel (the latter mostly so they can incorporate the horrifying history of the asylum and its founder Amadeus Arkham), Paul Dini has Joker choosing to be locked-up and Batman knows he’s planning something. It’s kind of a lame way to start the story but I think it works if you think about it*.
Of course, shit does get real and Joker’s not in the Asylum for more than five minutes before he’s running the place. Now it’s up to Bats to track down the clown and stop his mysterious plot. It’s made slightly difficult by the fact that he’s in a prison full of inmates he put there and some of his most dangerous foes like Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Harley Quinn, Bane, and Poison Ivy. All of Batman’s rogues have left their mark on the Asylum and it’s a thrill to try and find out where. The story takes its twists and it’s not a bad Batman yarn but the main idea is to finally provide a convincing, three-dimensional world for Batman and “Arkham Asylum” is the best adaptation to do ever do that. Any time you’re in a building, you can count on The Joker taunting you non-stop and if Mark Hamill wasn’t providing the voice, these constant taunts could have ruined the game. Instead, the integration of his voice work make Joker a constant companion to Batman rather than just the big bad creating a series of obstacles for Batman to overcome. Oh, they also brought back Arleen Sorkin to voice Harley Quinn so that’s another nice touch.
I’ve mentioned Nolan’s “real world” but all Batman movies had a limit of how dark they could go with most folks shocked by The Joker’s brutality in “The Dark Knight”. That’s nice but Arkham Asylum is littered with the dead bodies of guards, psychotic scribblings decorating the walls, and places you won’t want to go with your lights turned off. It’s “gritty” as gritty should be: a circumstance of setting without needing blood or swearing to convey that grit; not a way to make a character and his world feel mature so they’re not embarrassed to be playing a “Batman” videogame (although I’m pretty sure with the decades of “Mario” that’s not really the issue).
Taking place only on the asylum grounds (and undergrounds), the area feels massive which each building have its own disturbing feeling. The only one that stuck out was the botanical garden. You know exactly why it’s there for the purposes of the game but if it really existed, how did that conversation happen?
Manager: We’re going to build a botanical garden for the patients! It will be so soothing and relaxing. I’m a genius.
Assistant: But sir, we keep Poison Ivy locked up here. It’s really not safe to have a botanical garden in such close proximity.
Manager: I don’t follow.
Assistant: Um, she controls plants. She can make poisonous plants and manipulate branches to the point where hentai looks tame by comparison. Having the calmer inmates tend to flowers isn’t worth the risk of the murder and mayhem she could cause.
Manager: No, I don’t follow because I said “I’m a genius,” and that was the end of the discussion. Build me a botanical garden.
But “Arkham Asylum” isn’t a sandbox experience but one akin to “Metroid” and “Castlevania” where you will backtrack based on new tools and weapons along with an RPG element where you can upgrade your weapons and abilities based on the XP you earn from punching consciousness out of enemies and solving riddles left around the asylum by a villain whose name I can’t recall. You’ll be doing a lot of back-tracking but you won’t mind because you’ll be facing new challenges even if you’ve already visited the area before. Even the non-challenges are highly enjoyable. Wait until you start taking down the screaming, charging, insane inmates with just one punch. It never gets old. And even when you’ve taken them all down, it’s a world just worth walking. There have been games set in asylums before but nothing has ever been done in a videogame with the depth, character, and attention to detail like “Arkham Asylum”.
Fighting is another limitation of the movies. What was the big technical innovation for the Bat-suit in “The Dark Knight”? He can move his neck a little more. Batman can take down thugs but it’s not very entertaining and there’s no fluidity of movement that one might expect from a man who has learned every martial art that’s ever existed. “Arkham Asylum” doesn’t have that problem. Not only can Batman move fast, but he can move just about anywhere and contort his body to smash apart his opponent’s bones. The game relies on timing more than combos so you try to build up a streak which produces faster takedowns and a higher XP bonus. And watching Batman land the final hit on his last enemy of a group? That never gets old either.
Speaking of things that never get old (other than Ra’s-al-Ghul, ::rimshot::), there are stealth challenges throughout the game where Batman, being mortal, has to taken on a room full of guys who all have guns and if they see him, he’s a dead (bat)man. The objective is to take out each enemy without being spotted and I hope Hideo Kojima plays this game and realizes that the “Metal Gear” games and his life have been a waste. I’m not big into stealth games and I now probably never will be because I can’t imagine anyone eclipsing this game.
The game continues to spoil you by offering challenges both in fighting and stealth and only the hardcore shall score gold medals on all. There are plans for DLC with the first of which arrives this Thursday and more DLC the following Thursday. Oh, and they’re both free. You’ll want to pay them money but I don’t think a “Thank You”-card would be out of the question.
Finally, Dini and the developers over at Rocksteady understand that Batman is a detective. His first appearance was in “Detective Comics” #27. One of his titles is “World’s Greatest Detective”. In the movies, he does very little detecting because it doesn’t fit into his schedule of hiding his alter-ego from the woman he loves, a set piece involving the Bat-mobile, screen-time devoted to the exciting villain, and letting the Bat-computer do most of the puzzle-solving.
In “Arkham”, Batman does have his visor which provides easy paths to follow to his next objective. That’s the Bat-computer solving stuff. He also has Oracle (Barbra Gordon) in his ear-piece helping him solve the problem. But when you try to solve every one of the Riddler’s challenges even when you have his map of where they’re located, you’ll get a nice brain strain trying to solve those puzzles.
Yes, the final boss fight is a letdown and there are times where you feel like you’ve back-tracked endlessly to find just to get that one Riddler Trophy, but when you see the little details like how Batman’s costume gets beat-up as the night wears on, those minor issues wash away as you realize this is the most complete Batman experience ever created. You’ll see this game on a lot of videogame critics Top Ten lists and that’s impressive considering the title doesn’t include the words, “Halo”, “Final Fantasy”, “Zelda”, or any other major gaming franchise who all get a pass because they have those names. “Batman: Arkham Asylum” easily earns the title of Best “Batman” Game. It’s already one of the best-selling games of 2009. Some will say it’s the Best Game of 2009. I may even go so far to say it’s one of the Best Videogames of All-Time. But what I do say without hesitation is that “Batman: Arkham Asylum” is the best “Batman” movie never made.
*My response is “What can Batman do about it?” He can’t torture the Joker but he knows the Joker is planning something. You may roll your eyes because during the opening credits (one of the all-time best for a videogame) because Joker admits that he was having his goons shipped in from Blackgate Prison, but when Batman says, “He’s planning something,” it’s not a statement of the obvious. It’s Batman trying to work out what Joker’s plan because he knows its coming but he’s powerless to do anything about it beyond trying to get the Arkham staff to refuse standard admission to Joker. Unfortunately, not many people listen to the man dressed as a bat even though he’s never wrong and may know a thing or two about criminal behavior.