Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum (2009) has been around for quite a few years, now, as my students reminded me they were in middle school when it came out. Putting aside the fact that, yes, I am old, and, yes, there have been several sequels to Arkham Asylum (Arkham City, Arkham Origins, Arkham Knight), I am replying Asylum (without having finished City or even started the other two).
There are reasons I never finished City, mostly because it is so sprawling and there are so many side quests that I just decided I wasn’t ever going to succeed at them, so screw it. Asylum didn’t have those issues. It’s a small, short game in the grand scheme of games like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition which take upwards of 100 hours of gameplay if you’re trying to be a completionist.
Mostly, though, I didn’t finish City because it was just more of the same thing. Asylum was good—City is more of it. But where in Asylum the gameplay was interesting and fresh, by the time I was several hours into City I started to get the feeling of “Yes, yes, but what do you have that’s new?” (Which, given that I’m replaying Asylum may seem a bit contradictory, and I don’t really have an answer for why replaying the same old game is more pleasant than playing a new, bigger version of it.)
By contrast, Asylum is very tidy. It’s compact, space-wise, and for the most part the extra quests don’t require a lot of back-tracking if you know what you’re doing. Sure, there is some of that (since you have to wait to acquire the decoder and the upgraded batclaw in order to access certain spaces), but most of those spaces are incorporated into later mission quests anyway, so it’s okay that you sometimes re-trace your steps because there’s a reason to do so.
I also like the speed at which you can gather collectables (like the Riddler trophies and Joker teeth), unlike in DAI and Skyrim, where you have to mine the metal or pick the flowers. Sure, the verisimilitude of taking that time is more immersive the first dozen or so times, but by the time I’ve passed twenty hours of gameplay, my thoughts are more along the lines of “Just pick the bloody flowers already” or “Screw it, I’m not wasting five seconds every ten feet along this path that I’ve run down sixteen times.”
Asylum is also profoundly aware of its audience – both the old-school, hardcore fans of the Batman franchise and those who were drawn in by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series of films in the 2000s. The former appreciate all the “in-jokes” and trivia about characters dating all the way back to the origins of the detective comic series in the 1930s and 1940s. The latter appreciate being told who the inmates of the asylum are (from the well-known Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Joker, and Harley Quin, to Mr. Freeze and Penguin and Rat Catcher and Firefly and Zsasz and Clayface, among others). There’s a depth of history and lore in Asylum that most modern games don’t have—in large part because their characters were created for those games, and don’t draw on a decades’-old tradition.
Asylum also does some things that I’ve seen appear elsewhere—such as the awareness of Batman’s body as a real, tangible thing. Not only does he grunt when he gets hit, but his cape and suit become tattered and torn as the game progresses and he takes damage (this also happens in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, and I liked it there, too). His body literally reflects the arduousness of the physical work he undertakes, an attribute of the game which I appreciate all the more because it rarely happens, even in more recent games.
The voice acting is one of those things that just makes this game. Mark Hamill is the Joker (reprising his role from Batman Beyond), and Kevin Conroy (who has voiced Batman in more Batman-things than I can count) might actually live in a batcave. I am being driven vaguely up the wall by the fact that Oracle’s voice actress is Kimberly Brooks, the same voice actress who portrays Ashley Williams in Mass Effect and Daisy Fitzroy in BioShock Infinite. Brooks is fantastic, but her voice is so distinctive I’m having issues (this happens to me a lot—for instance, Keith David will always be a giant purple gargoyle named Goliath in my head, which means that every time David Anderson speaks in Mass Effect I have this weird disjointed thing happening in my head).
I also like the variety of tools at Batman’s disposal—the explosive gel, the batarangs, the grapple, the batclaw, the decoder. Although the puzzles in the game are largely linear, the variety of tools make the combat much more dynamic than combat usually is; as a player, you have the option to charge in, fists flying, to take a high vantage point and snipe with batarangs, or to sneak around the room silently smothering your opponents into unconsciousness (because remember, kids, Batman doesn’t kill people).
And the Scarecrow mini-levels will just never get old. Not because I’m a particular fan of 3D platformers (I’m really not), but because the idea of using a shift in genre within the game in order to communicate an altered state of reality is just that brilliant. Every time Crane triggers the glowing red eyes and the slightly tilted camera angle, I re-experience a fraction of the original “holy sh**” feeling I had the first time the whole gamespace changed. I loved it then, and I still love it now. Would it work in every game? No, of course not. But it does work here, and it’s still fantastic.
Does Asylum have issues? Of course it does. Harley’s outfit is… well, too little of an outfit for my taste, but it does reflect the aesthetic of comic history. Some of the writing is stilted and clichéd, but, again, it’s based on a genre for which that is the status quo. There might be a few too many Amadeus Arkham chronicles and Riddler trophies, and some of the “find it in detective mode” quests are a little tedious. In fact, detective mode in general is over-used—it’s too useful, in the sense that I have very little incentive not to play with it at all times.
In essence, Asylum has withstood the threat of anachronism; okay, so the lip animations are fairly terrible in light of modern graphics, but the gameplay still has the same freshness it had when I first played it, and when I replayed it to write a book chapter on it in 2013 (in The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime). In part, that’s because I’ve chosen to play a bit more aggressively than I have in the past, taking more risks in order to move through the gamespace faster… and I’m enjoying it, even on my fourth play-through. That’s saying something.