As the game begins, Batman is returning the Joker to the infamous penal island to go back behind bars where he belongs... but not all is as it seems! Without giving too much away, the entire escapade was a plot by the Joker to trap the Caped Crusader on the island... while he lets all the crazies and super villains out. But Batman knows that with the Joker, there is always something else going on, and this time is no exception. Before long, Batman is facing off against a slew of iconic arch-enemies and a seemingly endless supply of thugs for him to beat up on.
The gameplay is an intriguing mix of action, adventure, and stealth all rolled into one. Usually when a team attempts to mix varying styles together it ends up that all of them are sub-par, but that's not the case here. The fact that Arkham Asylum hones them all to near perfection is all the more impressive.
Combat is a simple exercise in timing: one button to attack, one to stun, and one to counter. The trick comes down to mixing them up correctly and watching for the onscreen cues that indicate an incoming attack. It seems easy at first, but as you face more challenging enemies in greater quantities, it will test your skills and timing. But it's when you silently drop from the shadows into a group of seven or eight thugs whom you then beat senseless without getting so much as touched that you feel like a proper Bat-ass... wait, that doesn't sound right.
Batman isn't bullet proof, so if the enemies are armed, it's better to stick to the shadows and avoid direct confrontation. These clever little stealth sections make a welcome break from the combat. By hiding in the rafters and moving from place to place unseen, it's easy to flank enemies for silent take-downs, or even hang off an outcropping for a quick inverted take-down leaving them strung up like so much meat. Get caught in the open and you'll fast turn into Swiss cheese, so be prepared to retreat to high vantage points with a quickness. These are almost like mini-puzzles on their own, both challenging and rewarding to take out an entire room full of armed thugs, watching their heart rates rise as they keep finding the unconscious forms of their friends.
The argument can be made that above all else, the Dark Knight is a detective first and foremost. A quick button press activates "Detective Mode," whereby Batman's visor allows him to see, well, everything really. He can follow a trail of whiskey breath in the air to track down a traitor, see where a wall might be structurally weak and thus vulnerable to a dab of explosive gel (a cool new gadget I had endless fun with), or even see the glowing skeletons of guards through walls. In fact, it's incredibly handy, almost making the game too easy. Apparently the developers considered this, because for some reason, I found it quite jarring and distracting when leaving detective mode on for extended periods of time. I don't know if it's the color contrast, but I preferred to switch it on and off when searching an area.
You'll have access to a wide variety of Batman's iconic toys. Batarangs (including multiple ones, or a very cool remote controlled version), Explosive Gels, Batclaws, and even the Line Launcher are at your disposal. They are not only well realized and relatively easy to control, but also serve a purpose in combat as well as exploration. Laying down explosive gel in the path of multiple guards while their backs are turned, only to detonate them all the next time they complete their circuit is a thing of beauty. When searching out the massive number of collectibles scattered about the asylum and grounds, a lot of places you won't have to access until you have the proper tool. This means a lot of backtracking Zelda-style over familiar ground and extensive note taking so you can find your way back to the goodies.
And trust me when I tell you, if you're a completionist like me, you'll be searching constantly. The Riddler has left over two hundred collectibles for you to discover. Some are in directly in your path, others are fiendishly hidden in out of the way corners. In fact, some are hidden in places you'll need to mentally map and return to when you have the proper tool for the job. I've played through the game twice and still haven't found them all. There are also interview tapes involving the clinical diagnosis of the super-villains who populate Arkham. Again, I was never much into the comics, so these back stories are welcome as they expand the story, the characters, and the universe. With so many iconic foes to face, Batman needs to learn all he can to defeat them!
This leads to a quick side note about the boss fights. These climactic moments are hit and miss, but sadly more of the latter than the former. Actually, they are probably the biggest drawback to Arkham Asylum. The disappointment stems not just from the fact that they are overly formulaic, but rather because with such iconic villains to choose from, they aren't particularly well written. I don't want to spoil any one encounter, but there are a couple of times that I knew one was coming up, my reaction was more along the lines of "Really? This is what I'm supposed to do?" This negative trend is almost (notice, almost) a true hindrance if not for the Scarecrow sections, which are fantastic. These simple platforming levels are as clever as they are creepy. They serve as a nice surprise, as well as a welcome break in the action.
The relatively simple upgrade system allows you to progressively enhance The Caped Crusader, each upgrade feeling fresh and adding something to combat or the devices you carry. You gain XP not just by beating up bad guys or advancing the story, but also by finding Joker Teeth and Riddler trophies, so it behooves you to search them out.
Graphically, Arkham Asylum may a bit dated now (texture issues and matting up close, poor facial animations, etc.) but the in-game action animations are among some of the best I've ever seen. Batman moves seamlessly from one bad guy to the next, dealing out painful, yet smooth, beat downs culminating in a slow motion close up as the last foe falls.
The sound work is also excellent, bringing in most of the cast from the cartoon series. The incomparable Mark Hamill returns as the Joker, and he is bloody brilliant as the Clown Prince of Crime. While his exceptional performance steals the show, the rest of the voice acting is superb as well. The moody soundtrack heightens the atmosphere, bringing the dank island to even greater life.
Outside of the main story mode are the challenge maps you unlock by finding Riddler trophies amongst other things. The challenge maps are a fun... challenge. Basically, they work by pitting our hero against waves of enemies and a clock. The goal of these challenges is to get the best score, achieved by racking up higher and higher combos. These are fun once or twice, but the novelty wears off quickly.
In the end, Batman: Arkham Asylum stands as probably my favorite super hero game to date. The combat is visceral, violent, and ultimately satisfying. The gadgets work great, and are effective in all sorts of situations. It's fun to experiment! The stealth sections, admittedly something I'm not usually a huge fan of, work exceptionally well. Using detective mode to track an enemy, plan an assault against armed guards, or discover hidden collectibles, made me really feel like I was always in control. In fact, when you add everything together (a few boss fights aside), I really felt like I was Batman. It's rare to experience such transference with a game, and I can only think of a few titles that can compare in that regard. I can't think of much higher praise than that.
Score = 9.2 / 10