This article was originally published at Kombo.com on September 9, 2009.
When the Joker goes on a rampage in Gotham City, Batman intervenes and apprehends him. After delivering him back to Arkham Asylum, the clown prince of crime escapes custody and flees, forcing Batman to intervene yet again. This is no escape attempt, however. The Joker is putting his latest mad plan into action this night, and the other residents of Arkham - Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and a few others lurking in the shadows - are eager to take a swing at the Dark Knight. As Batman, players must not only use his formidable combat skills to bring down Joker and his henchgoons, but also his sleuthing skills to save the Arkham staff from Joker's mad plot.
Let us begin at the end: Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best Batman video game ever made. The creative team behind Arkham understand what makes Batman such a heroic figure in that he doesn't kill and he abhors guns. Think back to so many other Batman games released over the years and consider how many of them arm Batman with a gun of some sort. Cowering behind a gun is against Batman's core beliefs, and as such you'll find him armed with upgradeable melee combat skills and an assortment of handy gadgets. Entire rooms of goons can be cleared in a single smooth motion of punches and knock-downs if one handles the situation properly. Moreover, many of Batman's gadgets such as batarangs and the bat claw can be used to knock opponents to the ground. While direct combat is a central part of the game, there are also times when Batman will have to keep to the shadows and take down enemies one at a time without being seen. These silent predator scenarios are one of the most enjoyable aspects of Arkham Asylum, and it's very satisfying to try and clear the room in different ways. Should Batman execute a glide kick from a high ledge? Throw a batarang and then swoop in for a final take-down? Rig a nearby wall with explosive gel and then cause debris to rain down on foes? The possibilities go on and on.
The combat portions of the game tend to get a lot of attention, but players will probably spend more time using Batman's detective skills to follow hidden trails of discarded tobacco or someone's alcoholic breath. Flipping into the game's Detective Mode allows Batman to see through certain walls, identify which enemies are armed, and other such helpful tips. Detective Mode also plays into solving the many puzzles left around Arkham by the Riddler. Solving the riddles and collecting special question mark trophies unlock character biographies, character models, and special Challenge Mode levels in which certain portions of the game involving combat and predator skills can be replayed on demand for fun and points.
While the gameplay is divided into these two major parts, Arkham Asylum's storyline and voice acting deserves to stand in praise as well. Written by Paul Dini of the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, the plot centers on the eternal conflict between Batman and the Joker, but manages to integrate other figures from the popular rogues gallery in an appropriate way. None of the major characters that appear feel shoehorned into the storyline, and while the Joker's endgame becomes obvious a little too soon, it's still satisfying to see it play out. Part of that satisfaction comes from hearing Kevin Conroy as Batman verbally sparing with Mark Hamill's Joker, both reprising roles from the aforementioned animated series (along with a few other familiar voices). Joker constantly appears on Arkham's closed circuit TV and public address system to taunt Batman, give orders to his goons, and provide sarcastic commentary on events. While Heath Ledger's portrayal of Joker in The Dark Knight turned the character into a force of nature, Hamill's performance here reminds once and for all that he is the true voice behind the character. I could not get enough of his remarks, and while I could quote a few of my favorites here, I wouldn't want to spoil the experience of hearing them for yourself.
There's very little wrong with Batman: Arkham Asylum. There are no glaring errors or faults, and anything I listed here would just be nitpicking. I could go on about the game's distinct lack of Two-Face, Catwoman, Penguin, and a few other of Batman's more famous foes. I could complain that I don't care for Harley Quinn's new costume. I could criticize the absence of a New Game + option. However, what we have here does not suffer for these things, and while the game does not hit every item on my list of desired elements, it does hit enough of them that I'm willing to let these things slide.
Fans of the Dark Knight must not miss Batman: Arkham Asylum. This game is everything one would want a Batman game to be and I cannot recommend it enough. In a desert of terrible cash-in games based on big dumb summer movies, Arkham Asylum is a refreshing oasis.