Calling BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM a revolutionary video game is not hyperbole. If anything, it’s something of an understatement. Released over ten years ago on August 25th, 2009, this game singlehandedly revolutionized the idea of a licensed superhero game. Defying all low expectations, it proved not only passable, but genuinely amazing in nearly every respect.
You have to keep in mind that, for the most part, pre-ARKHAM ASYLUM superhero video games sucked. Or at the very least, they ranged from passable to mediocre. Sure there was the occasional good game like SPIDER-MAN 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK: ULTIMATE DESTURCTION, or MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE. But most game developers regarded them as cash grabs with little lasting value beyond name recognition, or a cheap movie tie-in promotion. And, while Batman games never saw anything close to SUPERMAN 64’s level-bad, mediocre was usually the base level for the Caped Crusader.
ARKHAM ASYLUM shattered that mentality. Then-newcomer developer Rocksteady Studios went all out on this game, even hiring veteran BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES writer Paul Dini to write the script. Having Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin reprise their roles of Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn also added to the game’s value and authenticity. But it was the combination of combat, stealth, gadgets and environmental design that truly, to use a cliché line, made you feel like Batman.
Even in 2019, this game’s legacy is still being felt. Not only did it inspire a fantastic game trilogy, but ASYLUM went on to revolutionize gaming design in general. It is, for all intents and purposes, the game upon which all other superhero games are judged. With that in mind, let’s look back at what makes BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM amazing after all these years.
I Am the Night!
BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM might have rode a post-DARK KNIGHT wave, but the story is remarkably self-contained. You don’t have to be familiar with a specific incarnation of the Caped Crusader to get into this game. Instead, Dini drew inspiration from multiple Batman adaptations while putting his own spin on the character. Thus, a wholly new Batman became accessible for bat-fans.
The story is also quite basic when you break it down. Batman returns a captured Joker to Arkham Asylum, only to suspect something’s off. It was too easy. Turns out Joker wanted to be on the island, even having a bunch of his goons conveniently moved to Arkham from Blackgate Prison. He stages a hostile takeover with Harley Quinn, captures Commissioner Gordon and Warden Sharp, and literally has the inmates run the asylum. So it’s up to Batman to survive the night and stop his plan.
What gives ARKHAM ASYLUM’s weight is the terrain. Arkham Island is a gritty, decaying landscape, its architecture both claustrophobic and uncanny. It’s a gothic sandbox for Batman to explore how he sees fit, as well as an excuse for so many bat-rogues to be under one roof. So you’ll get plenty of cameos from Killer Croc, Poison Ivy and Scarecrow, as well as less familiar names like Victor Zsasz. Everyone else is given history through riddles and audio diaries… I mean patient interviews.
Definitive Batman/Joker Voices
The voice acting also sells this game, primarily on the basis of its two leads. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are, for many fans, THE definitive Batman and Joker. Conroy’s deep growl and Hamill’s maniac cackling are what we hear coming out of the comic panel’s word bubbles. And, while BATMAN: TAS certainly pushed the limits of children’s television, Rocksteady gave the two permission to exceed even those barriers.
Specific praise has to go to Hamill for what might be his best Joker performance. As hilarious/terrifying as cartoon Joker was, he was always restricted by the networks. Hence why everyone got Joker gassed rather than murdered, even if that was still terrifying. Here, however, Joker gets to go full-malevolent, gleefully killing and unleashing chaos like a standup routine. And Hamill’s performance wonderfully strides a line between scary and darkly amusing, something that would continue into ASYLUM’s sequels.
Conroy and Sorkin also bring their flare to the Batman and Harley Quinn roles, both stepping back into these voices like they never left. Sorkin is equal parts maniac and lovable in her sexy nurse outfit while Conroy revives the brooding baritones that make Batman badass. He just sounds right. And it’s proof that Conroy can evolve this voice across the numerous Batman roles’ he’s played since 1992.
However, one overlooked voice in the game is Wally Wingert as the Riddler. You never see him on-screen, but midway through the game Riddler hacks your communications to make Batman complete numerous challenges across the island. Winger’s arrogantly aggravating voice constantly eggs you to submit to his supreme intelligence, ironically making me more eager to solve each puzzle. Anything to wipe that unseen smirk off Nygma’s face.
Punch, Counter, Kick
Simple, challenging, but effective. That’s the basis of ARKHAM ASYLUM’s freeflow combat system. One button to punch/kick, one to block attacks, one to cape stun and one to jump. The attacks aren’t regulated to one button a piece, but instead shift based on how Batman’s approaching a goon. Yet you can still find numerous ways to chain attacks into an ongoing battle phase.
You don’t have to be a MORTAL KOMBAT expert to memorize ARKHAM Combos. It’s all about timing your attacks and being aware of goons’ relation to the environment. There’s definitely a stiffness to ASYLUM’s combat scheme, especially after ARKHAM CITY and ARKHAM KNIGHT expanded upon Batman’s moves and environmental takedowns. But it remains the framework upon which games like SHADOW OF MORDOR, MAD MAX and even last year’s MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN have tried to mimic.
Yet fighting is only half of ASYLUM’s appeal. Rocksteady recognized that Batman also works from the shadows and incorporated masterful stealth techniques to scare enemies. This is especially important for armed henchmen, who will do a number on your health. Thankfully, the convenient amount of gargoyles on Arkham Asylum give Batman ample perches to survey and string up Joker’s goons.
There’s something incredible satisfying about hanging from a gargoyle as an oblivious goon walks below. Pick him up for an inverted takedown, let the others see the body, and it’s not long before they start panicking. These abilities make Batman feel like a predator toying with foes, despite the odds never being in his favor. Again, it makes you feel like Batman.
World’s Greatest Detective
Despite being hailed as “the world’s greatest detective,” not many BATMAN adaptations utilize his detective skills. Movies devote a few minutes or scenes to this attribute but you could argue the Adam West show did it most prolifically. BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM, however, made it a central part of the experience thanks to one revolutionary- now oversaturated- gaming feature: Detective Mode.
Similar to THE DARK KNIGHT’s sonar lens, Detective Mode allows Batman to see through walls and detect enemies by threat level. The world become a mesh of light blue (and red for armed enemies), skeletal structures, and hidden passages concealed from the naked eye. As such, players could investigate crime scenes for clues, locate breakable walls and a possible Riddler trophy in the distance. It’s super ingenious and something of a cheat, since using Detective Mode removes the element of surprise around each corner.
These detective tactics help the player think more strategically. Batman won’t be able to solve every problem with brute force; he’ll have to plan out attacks and solve clues to progress to the next obstacle. And, compared to the vast majority of Batman games which relied solely on punching or platforming, this felt like a remarkable utilization of the Dark Knight’s entire skillset.
If there’s a drawback to Detective Mode, beside diluting the game’s visuals, it’s that EVERYONE uses it now. TOMB RAIDER, THE LAST OF US, ASSASSINS CREED, HORIZON ZERO DAWN- far too many games include a way for characters to scan the environment. They’re fine mechanically but have little narrative purpose beyond providing a way to track enemy movement. You’re not so much focused on the game environment as cheesing your way through a level.
Exploring ARKHAM ASYLUM
ARKHAM ASYLUM’s story and gameplay mechanics wouldn’t be worth much if the environment wasn’t fun to transverse. With three hubs and multiple rooms to explore, this game plays out like a METROIDVANIA title. You’ll find locked or inaccessible areas that can’t be reached without the right gadget. Once Batman receives the exploding gel, line-launcher or grapple claw etc., however, the world becomes even more accessible. Or you can just rip open a Batman-sized air vent and travel undetected.
Likewise, the openness of this sandbox environment gives Batman plenty of room to glide from area to area. It’s not quite as elaborate as future games which let him fly endlessly, but the appeal is still amazing. Especially when you watch your cape, as well as other aspects of Batman’s costume, tear and degrade across the night.
The world is a maze of decrepit paths and high-tech mental facilities- a mesh of old and new Gotham. It feels like a fully-realized establishment lost in the 1800’s that never quite managed to rejuvenate itself. And it’s full of collectibles to find, including one secret room so hidden, it took forever to uncover.
Underwhelming Rogue Fights
Sadly, while ARKHAM ASYLUM did a great job updating Batman’s rogues gallery, the boss fights themselves are weak. Bosses like Bane or the Titan-enhanced goons simply had you trick them into running into a wall, then lay on a beatdown. Poison Ivy’s giant plant was fun spectacle, but all you could do was hurl batarangs. And don’t get me started on Titan-Joker.
Killer Croc’s fight was intriguing enough for the stealth focus. Creeping across wooden planks, you couldn’t risk making noise or the vibrations would tip Croc off to Batman’s location. So there’s a decent layer of tension, especially when he arises from the water and charges you, leaving Batman with only so much time to batarang his shock collar.
However, the fights that everyone remembers to this day are the Scarecrow sequences. Under his fear toxin’s influence, Batman not only hallucinates his worst memories, but the environment itself transforms into a surrealistic nightmare. These obstacle courses appear without warning and dwarf Batman in their scale, with an enormous Scarecrow searching for you in the middle. These segments are tense and brilliant.
The third nightmare is by far my favorite for how it plays upon the player’s fear in a meta sense. Taking a cue from ETERNAL DARKNESS, the game “glitches” and presumably restarts, making us think that something’s wrong with the disk. But no, it’s just Scarecrow playing tricks through the fourth wall. While ARKHAM CITY’s Mr. Freeze fight is Rocksteady’s best boss fight, Scarecrow’s segments remain their most creative.
ARKHAM ASYLUM: Be the Bat
BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM did something remarkable: it captured the essence of a comic book character. It looked great, played smoothly, featured iconic voice acting and offered a love letter to Batman lore. More importantly, it gave a big middle finger to all crappy licensed movie games of the 2000’s. This was not a lackluster spin-off or tie in; it was original and treated seriously by the game developers. And it convinced other companies to follow in Rocksteady’s footsteps
Rocksteady would later turn this standalone title into a trilogy with ARKHAM CITY and ARKHAM KNIGHT. Those games expanded upon ASYLUM’s foundation and perfected Batman’s gameplay skills to a tee. Sure the “bigger is better” open world set-up got excessive, especially with how many Riddler trophies you had to collect. But gamers respected them overall for their commitment to quality, KNIGHT’s disastrous PC port aside.
Without BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM, we wouldn’t have last year’s SPIDER-MAN game, nor the upcoming AVENGERS title. ASYLUM proved that you could make a great video game based on a superhero and have it sell. And the industry has clearly taken that information to heart. Even a decade later, it’s still a ton of fun to play like the Batman.