Review: Batman – Arkham Asylum

Feral Interactive serves up a brooding slice of the caped crusader in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and we took it around the block a few times to give you a shining — and long — review.

Kill this guy on sight

The God Damn Batman
There are a few things that all nerds can agree on: Han shot first, Felicia Day is cool, and Batman is a badass. You don’t need us to tell you about his long legacy of being awesome; movies, comic books and video games have shown generations how the most emo superhero of the 20th century is the coolest. Originally debuting in 2009 on the XBox 360 and Playstation 3, Batman: Arkham Asylum was met with rave reviews from critics and public alike (92 percent average on The sequel, Batman: Arkham City, has recently been released and met with an equally positive response. Mac gamers are just now getting their hands on this brilliant title thanks to Feral Interactive, and it can be nabbed from the Mac App Store for $39.00.

Are there haters? Sure there are. There will always be a pimple-faced hipster out there with a can of Jolt in one hand and an Xbox controller in the other who says Batman: Arkham Asylum is “So two years ago”. Don’t listen to that kid and cheat yourself out of an awesome game. It’s as fresh and current now as it was in 2009.

Welcome to Emotown. Population: This guy.

Descend into Arkham
I realize you all know who Batman is. Just let me get through this.

Batman is a fictional comic-book story about billionaire Bruce Wayne’s life. As a young boy, his parents were murdered by a robber in an alley, and it left him with a pathological need to kick crime’s ass. Combining an arsenal of gadgets, martial arts combat training and a gift for stealth and misdirection, Bruce becomes a detective-vigilante known as Batman. He hides in the shadows. He broods. He punches people in the face a lot.

Like any superhero, Batman is plagued by the nefarious criminal activity of super-villains; criminals who rise above the rank and file of garden-variety thugs by being psychotic and extremely resourceful (and frequently dressed in very showy outfits). Batman historically apprehends these villains and deposits them in the gothic home for the criminally insane known as Arkham Asylum. Here they stay locked up until, of course, they break out and cause him more trouble.

The story of Batman: Arkham Asylum takes place in the inexplicably enormous facility (my college wasn’t half as big as this place) where Batman’s archiest-arch enemy, the Joker, has been interred. Something goes wrong, the Joker gets the upper hand, and the adventure begins as Batman unravels the mysterious story of Arkham Asylum while tracking down and subduing his greatest foes along the way. Arkham Asylum has been a key element in the Batman stories for decades, and many of his greatest challenges take place in this venerable, eldritch institution.

The Long Hallowe’en
The first comment (and compliment) to share about Batman: Arkham Asylum is that there is so much in this game that it can’t be covered in a single review (I tried… Lord, I tried). To paint with a broad stroke: You will undertake a very long, very complex and rich adventure into an unfolding mystery about Arkham and what’s going on within its walls. You’ll use tactics and resources for which Batman is best known: At times you’ll be a detective, seeking out clues and details, talking to suspects and witnesses. At other times, you’ll be solving puzzles and giving your brain a workout to gain ground and protect the innocent (including yourself). At yet other times, you will be like a shadow, hiding in the dark corners and exercising patience and stealth to subdue and intimidate your foes. Then, of course, there will be those times when you ball up your fists and break jaws. Who can imagine a Batman game in which he doesn’t face off against mobs of expendable goons?

Pictured here: Modern psychiatry

The tone of this game is very well suited to the subject matter, and best reflects the darker Batman stories (such as the Dark Knight, The Killing Joke, the Christopher Nolan movies, etc) as opposed to the campier, goofier Batman era (in other words, there’s no “Batusi” level). There’s real violence in this game, some disturbing imagery, and very adult content. Interestingly, it often feels like a slasher horror movie in reverse: Against the backdrop of a dilapidated and grim insane asylum, groups of hapless and terrified victims cower together trying to protect themselves… wondering who will be next. Their numbers dwindle as, one by one, they are separated from each other and mercilessly subdued as they scream in terror. The interesting dynamic, however, is that the hero in this story is the stalker who picks them off one at a time. The victims are bad men who deserve compassionless justice. If Batman delivers one thing, it’s the catharsis of scaring those who prey upon the fearful.

"Say 'What?' one more god damn time…"

The Vigilante Game
It’s obvious that developers at Rocksteady Studios didn’t create Batman: Arkham Asylum by saying “Let’s make an adventure game” or “Let’s make a combat game” or “Let’s make an RPG”. Instead, they clearly asked themselves “What does Batman do?” and worked backwards from there. The result is a third-person experience that uses your keyboard for movement, combat, other things (including some contextual controls, such as the space bar which allows you to run, climb, or whatever makes sense depending on where you are). It’s highly recommended you use your mouse as well, or a USB game controller instead of just trying to get around on a keyboard and track pad. As Batman, the game gradually educates you on how to employ a wide range of moves and gadgets. You’ll be taught how to run, how to fight, how to evade attacks, how to climb, how to fall from heights (and glide by using your cape), how to open doors or pry things open, etc. Additionally, you’ll learn how to employ staples of Batman’s arsenal, the most commn of which is the grappling rope. You’ll use it to escape danger by climbing to safety, but also to reach places where you can observe what’s going on without being seen. You’ll swing from high places to evade detection and use it to drop down upon poor, frightened criminals. Batman’s “Baterang” comes in handy as well, and can be used to knock foes on their butts or make noise to distract them while you sneak around out of sight. There’s also explosive gel, which can be detonated from a distance, as well as the Bat Claw, which can be used to latch onto items (or enemies) from a distance and drag them to you.

Detective work: Now in grape flavor

An interesting addition to the game that isn’t explicitly paralleled in the comic is “Detective Vision”, which is a camera mode that allows you to see through walls to detect nearby enemies (and determine how they’re armed), find hidden objects, search for clues and a variety of other uses. You’ll spend a lot of the game using Detective Vision and, while it’s not technically a part of the actual Batman story, it’s a clever addition that allows you to better perform Batman-esque tasks within the game.

Game play isn’t just juggled between stealth, detective work and combat, either. Without giving away too many surprises, some of the most creative (and frightening) sequences of Batman: Arkham Asylum are his confrontations against arch-villain Scarecrow. Those encounters are where many of the most unique twists (for both the gameplay and plotline) occur.

"I am the FedEx guy of justice"

Eye Candy
Visually, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a treat. For one thing, you get all the fixin’s from high-detail textures to dynamic shadows and bloom lighting… so, if you have the horsepower, the game looks like a scene right out of a Harry Potter movie (cause, really… bloom lighting isn’t very Gothamy). All those graphical desserts are put to work, too: The environments are designed perfectly with mood and incredible detail. In fact, if you’re a Batman fan you’ll want to spend a lot of time looking over the little touches that are put there for no other reason except to massage the nerd center in your brain. But the best part is that you don’t need a particularly powerful Mac to enjoy the visuals: So long as your machine meets the basic requirements on Feral’s website (OS X 10.6.8, 1.8Ghz Intel CPU, 2.0GB, 10.0GB free space on your hard drive, and a 128MB graphics chip), you’ll be able to enjoy some of the great eye candy. One tip, however: Unless you are tragically strapped for cash, aim to put at least 4 GB in your Mac (and 8 GB is highly, highly recommended). It won’t just help with Batman: Arkham Asylum, but with all your OS X software. And RAM is darn cheap and easy to install.

There’s a lot to being Batman: Detective work, hacking computers, sneaking around in your pajamas, etc. We all know, however, that Batman’s best moment is when he’s beating the living crap out of some lippy thug, and this game gives him a lot of that great hand-to-hand action.

"You want Kung Fu?"

As you progress through various levels you’ll meet differing hand-to-hand combatants of increasing difficulty. At first, just bare-fisted idiots with glass jaws. Later, pipe-toting blockheads. Later still, bad guys with cattle prods. The melee can get quite complex as the combatants attack you in numbers and in a variety of ways. Then again, you are Batman. You’re the guy who takes out the trash.

The combat system is relatively simple and, like many fighting games, combos can be strung together for maximum damage and sometimes to unlock better attacks. Punch one enemy, kick another, punch the first guy again, pummel a third… just keep the beatings going without a pause and the points will rack up, as will the finishing moves.

It’s a very fluid-looking system and possibly the best of its type, reminding me of my other favorite fighting game (Bungie’s Oni). The moves are chained together seamlessly and create a cinematic, natural looking ballet of face-bashing. It truly conveys the expert fighting style that is Batman’s hallmark. The controls, however, are rather easy. Maybe a bit too easy. Button-mashing can usually get the job done with little trouble, and it isn’t until much, much later in the game that you have to give any thought to combining moves in order to stun or evade opponents… and even then it’s really no big whoop. Despite being a touch on the simple side, the combat system is par excellence and serves as a great example of what can be done with in-game combat of this type.

"The temptation to mis-use this thing is terrible…"

More Batman than you can shake a stick at
If the stand-alone (and very long) adventure were all Batman: Arkham Asylum had to offer, it would still be one of the best games around. Rocksteady didn’t stop there, however, and has crammed this title so full of Batman stuff that nobody could possibly want more. For instance, within the adventure itself you’ll be given puzzles from the Riddler to solve by finding items and places in-game, earning bonuses for your success. It plays like a game within a game and just gives you more ways to enjoy the world as you explore it.

Outside of the adventure, you can try out challenge levels which are “arena”-style maps and scenarios in which Batman is given certain tasks to carry out. In one challenge map you’ll try to beat as many criminals as possible before they take you down. In another, you’ll stealthily pick away from the shadows at gangs of thugs who would overwhelm you if you fought them head-on.

As if that weren’t enough, there is tons of additional stuff that’s available as unlockable content, trophies, character bios to read, and it just goes on and on. If you’re the sort who measures the value of a game by sheer volume of content, it should be clear to you by now that Batman: Arkham Asylum takes the gold medal.

Man waits till parents are dead to wear tights in public. Makes some sense.

One can invent criticisms about any game. It’s easy, because no game can be all things to all people. Batman: Arkham Asylum may not be perfect, but it’s very hard to come up with fair criticisms. It does everything it sets out to do: It puts you right into the Batman universe, gives you a little taste of all the exciting things the movies and comics offer, and convincingly (even lovingly) reproduces key elements of the mythology for you to interact with in a way that feels natural to the player. The game is extremely balanced, well-paced and crammed with as much detail as you can reasonably expect (and more).

Most of the criticisms could only come from unfair expectations and wanting it to be something it isn’t. Not enough puzzles? Go play Escape From Monkey Island. Not enough combat? Go play Gears of War. System requirements too high? Batman: Arkham Asylum is optimized so nicely that if you can’t play it on your machine with the settings on low, then you’re already used to not being able to play very many games anyhow.

There are really only three nits to pick where this game is concerned, and even they’re minor nits at that. First, the controls work in “console” mode, which means Batman moves relative to the camera, as opposed to the camera following Batman. This isn’t unusual for console games but tends to be less common for PC (and Mac) games, so it may take some getting used to if you aren’t much of a console gamer.

Secondly, the in-game directions can sometimes be unclear. For instance, as you leave a room Batman will say “There are still medical personnel who need my help”. Does that mean you missed something in that room? Or that I should move on to the next zone? It can take more time than it should to figure that part out, especially early in the game.

If you really want to make a mountain out of a molehill, you could take issue with some of the voice acting. The Riddler (voiced by Wally Wingert) brings little flair or style to one of the most important antagonists of the Batman universe, but… it’s hard to complain when it’s counter-balanced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (yes, THAT Mark Hamill).

Minor and easily tolerable flaws aside…

We have a winner

"You want me to punchisize your face for free?!"

…Batman: Arkham Asylum is not just a great game for die-hard Batman fans, but for gamers in general. It abundantly rewards Dark Knight lovers with an elaborate, complex and masterful weave of key (and secondary) threads from the long-running Batman legend, but is equally generous to those who are merely looking for a great game without having to become a die-hard fan. It offers a wide and diverse array of play styles and challenges so that it’s always fresh, includes alternate game types for when you’re done with the exhaustive single-player game, and fleshes out every detail possible to turn a game into an experience. What can we say except “yes”?

We strongly encourage gamers who are on the fence to dive in and get this game from the Mac App Store, thus giving Feral monetary incentive to go after the sequel, Batman: Arkham City. It’d be nice to see the very worthy second chapter of this series on the Mac in a timely way.

Until then, what can we say? Enjoy a brilliantly-made game based on a rich mythology that will keep you busy for many hours and is a bargain at twice the price.

Go hit up Feral Interactive’s website for more info.

Corey has been been a tech journalist with a focus on Apple since 1998 and has written for The Loop, MacHome magazine, and as games contributor for The Mac Bible, and co-hosts the iGame Radio Podcast. He works as a… Full Bio