Years. That is how long people have been waiting for a good Batman game. There have been attempts at greatness, and even a few games that have approached it, but overall the Dark Knight has had a dubious relationship with video games. Lousy tie-ins and awful titles have dogged the caped crusader in a vicious cycle, only now broken by probably the finest comic book game ever made. In short, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a resounding success.
The game's combat is simple and to the point. You have a button for attacks, a button for counters... and that's the extent of it. This simplicity might turn some off, but it works wonderfully to give even a novice the feeling that they can in fact fight like Batman. Furthermore, the game also does a good job of maintaining a healthy level of challenge. While you can easily mash your way through a crowd of three or four, Arkham Asylum more often pits you up against ten or more thugs at a time, making precision timing and strategy a necessity.
Accompanying the fighting system are stealth sequences that bring out the silent predator. Batman is only human, and when confronted with armed thugs, stealth becomes preferable to getting riddled with bullets. The game plays upon this well, simplifying the stealth elements into an easy to learn but still deep experience. If you want you can simply perch yourself up on a gargoyle and glide kick your foes into oblivion. Or you can toy with them, using your gadgets to lead them into ambushes and traps. Whatever you choose to do, it's all great fun.
The game does an admirable job of incorporating the Dark Knight's gadgets as well. You'll start the game with just batarangs, but as your progress through the asylum you'll gain everything from explosive gels to launchable zip lines. The game uses these in a variety of ways. Some, like batarangs, are endlessly useful in combat. Others serve as tools to open up and explore the asylum, and explore you will. Many of the Batman's gadgets serve dual purposes as well. Early in the game, you come across explosive gel that in addition to blowing away walls, can be used to set traps for unsuspecting thugs. The batclaw can pull down wall grates, but it can also be used to drag an enemy closer to you to assist in the bashing of his skull. Overall, the game just does an excellent job of giving you multiple options for handling every scenario.
In addition to the story's various missions, the game boasts hundreds of “Riddler trophies” scattered throughout the game's environments. Collecting the trophies can get a bit tedious, but doing so unlocks a number of rewards, the least of which being the challenge maps. These are a lot of fun. A lot of the fist fights in the main game can be over really quickly, and with many challenge maps focus on extended periods of brawling, it really highlights how much fun the fighting system can be. The stealth focused, “predator” maps are also a treat but flawed in that they reward points for winning quickly. The best part of the game's stealth was experimenting with ways to dispatch your foes. To do well in the challenge maps, one is forced to just seek the fast possible path toward completion.
Arkham Asylum also sports some excellent production values. The environments and character models are incredibly detailed, boasting some of the best use of the Unreal Engine 3 in recent years. Additionally, the sound is fantastic. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammil are brilliant as Batman and the Joker, and the rest of the cast performs equally admirably. The music casts an appropriate ambiance and the sound effects really add to the game. The audio works hard to make you feel the crunch of the bones you're breaking.
The game does possess its flaws. The story isn't any work of brilliance. It carries the game, but the plot never really does much with the whole “inmates running the asylum” bit besides having you run around to subdue them. There are some great isolated moments. The sequences involving the Scarecrow can be downright eerie and even reminiscent of Eternal Darkness, but overall the story felt a bit disjointed. The asylum is a masterwork of creepy atmosphere, but it might have been nice if it had had a better narrative to accompany it.
The game also ends on a rather abrupt and disappointing note. Arkham Asylum's boss battles vary in quality, some are creative while others just feel lackluster. The more generic stuff comes to a head at the very end, leaving the game to end on a rather anti-climactic note. There are some other minor issues. The camera can be a bit unfriendly at times, and the stealth sequences can feel a bit scant in the main game, but beyond this there is little to complain about.
In the end, Batman: Arkham Asylum is fantastic and a must have for franchise fans owning a PS3 or Xbox 360. It's dark and moody, exemplifying all the characteristics that makes the Batman franchise what it is, while still remaining a fun, thrilling thing to play. You'd be a fool to pass it up.