The Dark Knight has certainly had a turbulent ride in Generation 8, with Batman: Arkham Knight‘s release marred by PC issues for the first couple weeks. Despite the occasional snags, the Arkham series has been pretty well celebrated by gamers, and why not? Batman is the perfect subject for a video game. His character and backstory simply lends itself to fun gameplay, awesome storytelling, and of course, it’s Batman. On the Internet, Batman is the solution to every argument. The character has practically spawned his own logical fallacy, wherein any argument about “Who Can Win in a Fight” can be instantly solved with “Batman.” Because he’s Batman.
So by that extremely scientific reasoning, of course Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best game of Gen 7. But for the sake of this article, let’s pretend Batman isn’t Batman. Even removing that, Arkham Asylum is one of the classics of Gen 7. It spawned a massively popular franchise that is still going, and every game since has been critically acclaimed. All of that started with Arkham Asylum. Great characters, setting, puzzles, and a fantastically smooth combination of stealth and combat.
The graphics for the time were pretty incredible, and even today you can still appreciate them. That gritty atmosphere captures the dark imagery that has made Batman iconic, but without falling to a level of seeming pretentious. This is definitely what an asylum harboring some of the world’s most notorious criminals would look like. Everything about the design in Arkham Asylum screams Batman. The character design is the best part though. Recall that at the time this was made, the only Batman property more popular was Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation, which took a great deal of creative liberty with the look of the characters, particularly the villains. For the most part, they worked with the film, but it would’ve been easy for the Arkham creators to pull a page out of that. Luckily, they opted to be more faithful to the comics. But they still put their own creative edge on it, giving us some familiar yet still original designs to some of Batman’s most memorable counterparts. Personally I like Poison Ivy’s redesign the best—it’s simply beautiful.
Speaking of villains, you know why Arkham Asylum‘s story is awesome? The linear story, of course, it’s excellent. Batman arrives at Arkham Asylum to oversee The Joker’s incarceration. But of course, The Joker and Batman exist in the same place, so everything has to go wrong. After a fire at Blackgate Prison, The Joker’s henchman are transferred to Arkham and promptly take over the facility with Harley Quinn at the helm (recalling that the Batman universe exists primarily because Arkham prison officials regularly make terrible decisions like this). Joker and his gang capture Commissioner Gordon and begin freeing the inmates, which include primarily people who have many reasons to dislike The Dark Knight.
It’s a fairly simple setup, as it should be. The Joker isn’t really a villain known for poetics. The point of this story isn’t anything of grand scale, but just to put Batman to task. It doesn’t need a lot of complexity, and it’s good that the creators recognized that.
What makes the story awesome is how the stories of the villains are told. It isn’t said explicitly, but instead through tapes and files you find hidden throughout the asylum. Every villain you face has these recordings of their interactions with therapists while at the asylum. Storytelling elements like that have always hit a special spot for me. It’s a great way of expressing a character without telling the player how to feel, or being too direct. And doing this with the villains was such a smart move; it makes it where you want to find every single one, not just for your 100% completion but because you want to hear their stories.
One of Batman’s best qualities has always been his enemies—the Batman universe is loaded with interesting villains, and this game picked up some of the best. The Joker is a staple of course, but the inclusion of Scarecrow, Bane, and Poison Ivy really brings it together. The voice acting just adds to it. With a character like The Joker, you either get it really wrong, or you get it so spot on it makes people question if you are actually insane and that’s why you’re able to do that so well.
Which is why it was the smartest move in the world to get Mark Hamill on that. That guy might actually be The Joker, which means by connection, Luke Skywalker is The Joker. His interpretation of the character has been consistently amazing in every adaption he voices him, and Arkham Asylum is absolutely no different. (He’s also interested in doing The Killing Joke and I am very on board with that).
And then there is the gameplay. The amazing, incredible gameplay. In an age where it sometimes seems like games always lean more towards story or more towards gameplay, Arkham Asylum really seems like the best of both worlds. Because in addition to having a good story with some awesome storytelling mechanics, the game itself is the most fun I’ve had with a narrative title in a long time. Especially with more linear games, this is a rarity.
Later Arkham games were turned into a sandbox, and while they’re still great, I rather liked the linear gameplay of the first one. When you make a game too big, it gives the player more excuses to pick out the flaws and generally means you’re going to have to include a lot more to fill in the blank space, which means you’ll inevitably get more wrong. Arkham Asylum has just as much content as its children of the sandbox, but it never feels stagnant or boring either. Nothing seems out of place or padded. It feels like a total package where everything was perfectly placed with love and affection.
The gameplay combines stealth, combat, and puzzles—the Batman trifecta. You creep up on enemies by climbing the scaffolding, sneaking, and generally being the ninja Batman truly is. You can also fight head on, and occasionally this is the correct move. Most stealth games tend to punish you for just giving up and punching dudes in the face, but Arkham Asylum is kind, and recognizes that sometimes you just got to punch dudes in the face.
Fighting mechanics are perfectly functional and intuitive. You’ll learn very quickly how to win fights, and what’s more, you’ll actually feel accomplished when you do and not just like you’re mashing the controller until all the bad guys fall down.
And of course, there are occasional puzzles. Batman began as a detective of course, so you’re expected to put that to good use, tracking footprints and occasionally solving riddles left by The Riddler, who you never see throughout the game but happily reminds you of his presence.
The combination of these three things feels very natural. Partially because they’re so perfectly balanced and spaced out, never feeling too dragged on but still giving the game the challenge it needs to be fulfilling. But also because, and I must emphasize this, it’s Batman. These three elements make him who he is, and the perfect Batman game will have all three. The expert balancing just makes it all the sweeter. Pretty much the only area that gave me trouble my first playthrough was the fight in the sewer against Killer Croc, which admittedly was obnoxious as hell and took so long that every time you failed it felt more like The Joker was torturing you, the player, instead of Batman.
The boss fights have been pointed at as one of the few true flaws of this game, and while I don’t think they’re all terrible by any means, there are a few that really are letdowns, including the final one. But quite frankly, I can forgive those boss fights, because the “fights” with Scarecrow—in as much as fighting your own nightmares is fighting Scarecrow—were some of the best sequences ever put in a game and I do not even consider that an exaggeration. I haven’t gotten to play Arkham Knight yet (picking it up this week!), but I’ve heard from those who have that Scarecrow isn’t quite as terrifying in that one. He’s the main villain, which I was very excited for because I’ve always loved Scarecrow and found him really underappreciated, but apparently he loses a bit of his mystique. In Arkham Asylum though, it was a perfect representation. Trippy, chaotic, terrifying. I remember distinctly those fights being the ones that left me truly breathless.
That’s the thing about Batman: he never truly fails. Even when you think he messed up, five minutes later he’s made an awesome recovery that even The Joker couldn’t predict. Critically speaking, a Batman game has to have imperfections. That’s the point. Batman is popular because he isn’t a chiseled Adonis with no true faults or weaknesses. He is a dude. A very wealthy dude, but still a dude. He doesn’t have super serum, he didn’t get bitten by a spider, he isn’t an alien from another planet. He is a guy, traumatized by loss, who used the resources he had to train, prepare, and fight crime in a city overrun by psychopaths. And he wins. Even with all his faults, Batman wins.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is like 95% good, and that good is so good it makes you forget the remaining not so good. It’s been a while since I played through this game, but I remember a lot more about the great gameplay, story, design, voice acting, and overall epicness, than I do the occasionally flat boss fights. What Arkham Asylum gets right overshadows its faults.
So to summarize, Batman: Arkham Asylum is good because it’s Batman. It encapsulates everything to love about Batman. If you love Batman you’ll love Batman: Arkham Asylum and the rest of the Arkham series as far as that goes. If you don’t love Batman … I don’t really know how to help you. Have you tried Minesweeper? I hear that’s fun.