Rest assured, I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is unquestionably the best licensed game I've ever played. At the end of the day, however, that's a fairly low hurdle to clear -- it better reflects the game's quality to say it's one of the best stealth-action games ever made, and easily the best video game 2009 has had to offer thus far.
Considering Rocksteady's extremely limited pedigree, the amount of polish and detail present in Arkham Asylum is remarkable. I'm not referring to the game's graphical detail (though Arkham's visuals are impressive in their own right) -- but rather, the unsettling atmosphere which pervades the titular institution. Arkham Island is realized in a very imaginative way -- what was once a soulless "supervillain deposit box" in Batman's theatrical outings has become a living, breathing world. It's very much a character in the game's proceedings -- akin to how Rapture became more than just a series of underwater pipes in BioShock.
Easily the best video game 2009 has had to offer thus far.
Arkham's underlying menace is personified by Batman's anarchistic foil, the Joker, who's expertly voiced by Batman: The Animated Series veteran Mark Hamill. He's eerily omnipresent from the very first scene in the game, where even when strapped to a stretcher and wheeled through the halls of Arkham like a death row inmate, he playfully pesters everyone within shouting distance.
As his role shifts from captive to captor, the Joker's presence becomes even more overbearing. He constantly jeers at his subordinates over Arkham's PA system, his dispatches mostly consisting of harmless bat-puns and empty threats. As time elapses, more hints of the bile which has accumulated during his career of countless thwarted plots begin to slip into his messages. It's very, very unsettling, and adds even more gravity to Arkham's hopeless atmosphere.
I wish all of the game's characters could have received the same amount of exploration -- though most are simply given sizable bios. In addition, the main villains' deeply troubling psychoses are revealed in recorded interviews with Arkham's too-helpful (see: naive) staff. Every single one of these interview tapes is worth locating, from the puzzle-filled ramblings of the Riddler to the downright terrifying admissions of Mr. Zsasz.
The Batman franchise's lore doesn't just lend itself to the game's rich storytelling -- in fact, all of the players' arsenal and combat mechanics are dictated by a timeless, completely inflexible tenet of Batman's credo: He can't kill anyone. Even in self defense, Batman doesn't kill people. When placed inside a madhouse, chock-full of the scum of the land, being stripped of one's lethality is an alarming prospect.
Fortunately, his credo doesn't prevent him from punching, kicking, bataranging, or batclawing people. Heck, it even permits him to pull people off ledges, provided they can survive the fall.
The aforementioned methods work well enough when pitted against a group of pugilistic thugs, lending themselves to long, stylish combos -- but things start getting complicated when said thugs start packing heat. The necessity of strategy in these precarious situations is one of the best parts of the game -- and amazingly, never fails to feel fresh.
You've got a number of ways of neutralizing the roomfuls of gun-toting thugs you'll often encounter -- stringing them up by their feet on gargoyles overhead, swooping down on them and knocking them out, incapacitating them with explosive charges and pulling them off ledges are just a few possible outcomes. However, if you fail to mix up your strategies -- or carelessly saunter into their field of vision -- you will be shot. Most likely to death.
Once you start executing these stealth segments with finesse, there's no way to describe the exhilaration you feel as you effortlessly shatter the fragile bravado of a group of Joker's lackeys. You almost feel bad for these nameless guards as their numbers begin to dwindle -- especially once the unseen Joker begins to laughingly root against them.
While not stylishly dealing with the Joker's henchmen, you'll spend a fair amount of time simply exploring the Asylum. The Riddler has sprinkled 240 secret items across the island, ranging from tucked-away trophies, the aforementioned interview tapes, and actual "Riddles," simple clues pointing out environmental objects you'll need to locate and scan. Most of these riddles involve references to other Batman nemeses -- an additional treat for fans who're disappointed that their favorite baddie didn't make it into the game.
The game's weak points are few and far between -- the largest misstep being the boss fights, which almost universally fail to be as intense or dramatic as the non-boss slugfests. There's a mercifully small number of these repetitive encounters, but the ones that are present somewhat subvert the game's seamless storytelling. There's one notable exception which is less of a boss fight and more of a lengthy, terrifying subterranean showdown -- but again, I don't want to spoil it for you.
Also, about halfway through the game, you'll realize that Batman spends a startling amount his day ripping grates off of walls. I get it -- Batman's gotta climb into some ventilation ducts to get the job done. Still, regardless of how much I appreciated the game's constant attempts to stay relatively within the realm of realism, I would have had no qualms with equipping Batman with some kind of futuristic grate-bolt dissolving goo.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is completely delightful, and definitely warrants your hard-earned money. It's a crisp, refreshing oasis tucked within the mid-year drought -- fortunate, as its lowly licensed trappings would have surely drowned it in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
I certainly hope it does well -- if only so Rocksteady can continue to take the Caped Crusader in other bold new directions. Whether DC knows it or not, this franchise is Rocksteady's now -- and while its potential future Batman titles might not possess the uniquely unnerving backdrop that Arkham Island provides, I can't wait to see that Batsignal illuminate the sky once again.