As much as I love Batman, I can’t bring myself to enjoy Arkham Asylum. Yes, the freeflow combat system is interesting. Yes, it’s nice to go up against an array of Batman villains. Yes, the lighting and graphics are surprisingly solid for a 2009 game. None of that makes up for the game’s poor pacing, weird mechanics, lengthy sections of tedium, trial-and-error mechanics that often only explain how to succeed at a section once you fail, and awkwardly linear design that ensures that you rarely have more than one or two ways to approach a situation. I made sure to install both Arkham Asylum and its sequel Arkham City in order to develop a better understanding of what makes City the superior experience, and the two are truly night and day. It’s amazing how much was improved in the sequel.
Batman is obviously the main selling point
I usually use these first paragraphs to talk about the story and characters, but that seems largely pointless when we’re talking about a character as iconic as Batman. He’s the Mario figure of the comic book world, so established in people’s minds that Batman knowledge is probably passed down genetically at this point. Of course, the Arkham series is a love letter to the 90s animated television show, so Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin reprise their roles as the voices of Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn (who, for those who aren’t aware, didn’t exist as a character until the 90s television show introduced her). The thing is, I wanted more; throughout the game, you see references to familiar characters like The Ventriloquist and Catwoman, but they never show up. Granted, the presence of characters like Joker, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and the Scarecrow is nice, but you spend the game traipsing through the prison renowned for holding all of Batman’s villains without seeing more than a few scattered references to the rest of them.
The story is stupid, too
Arkham City has one of my favorite stories in a long time, but Asylum often makes no sense whatsoever. It’s impossible to go into more detail about what makes it so stupid without spoiling the entire plot, but to give you a small taste, there’s a moment where Batman gets injected with a ton of the Scarecrow’s fear toxin and fights it off through pure force of will. This isn’t the only time he miraculously fights off the effects of something he’s injected with, either, and it’s outwardly ridiculous to imbue Batman with a near-superhuman power to shrug off the effects of things that affect literally everyone else. This was remedied in City (and even Origins), with Batman being more mortal and unable to shake off things like poisons, but that only makes his invulnerability in Asylum seem all the more irritating and convenient.
Freeflow was ugly in its early days
The Arkham series is perhaps most known for its freeflow combat system where Batman fluidly and effortlessly zips from enemy to enemy, forming elaborate combos of attacking and counter-attacking. Something I noticed when comparing Asylum and City next to each other, however, was how much the freeflow system was improved in the sequel, especially when it comes to counter-attacking. Where in City you can block attacks from a medium distance that may not actually hit you (just to be safe), trying to do so in Asylum instead causes Batman to break his combo and open himself up to attack. As a result, combat feels far less fluid and satisfying, especially given your ability to dive across the map to a new opponent; it’s easy to see an attack coming and try to get one last attack in on a nearby enemy before reflexively hitting the counter button/key, only to have that attack send you flying across the screen to hit the wrong enemy, breaking your combo because you’re trying to counter an attack that’s suddenly nowhere near you.
Even the predator sections don’t feel right
If you’ve played any of the Arkham games before, you’re no doubt already familiar with predator sections. These are basically portions of the game where Batman is thrown into a room with armed guards, forced to slowly pick them off one by one using such methods as inverted takedowns from conveniently-placed gargoyle statues, explosive gel, batarangs, and even the old-fashioned “sneak up behind them and silently knock them out” move.
These aren’t always as solid as they probably should be, however, and enemies’ ability to keep track of Batman once they notice him ensures that you’re often a single mistake away from having to replay that section from the beginning. Where in later games you’re able to quickly move around the room to lose your attackers, I quickly realized that being spotted meant losing anywhere from half to all of my health as enemies shot at me with unerring accuracy from across the room, following me even as I grappled from gargoyle to gargoyle in a vain attempt to lose them. There are no smoke pellets to lose your attackers, either—you’re often well and truly screwed if you don’t remain 100% unnoticed, and this makes the difficulty of certain predator sections well beyond that of the rest of the game.
There are also some pacing issues
Don’t get me wrong—the pacing in general is pretty solid, but there are a few unbearably mediocre sections that seem to exist as little more than padding. First, there are the Scarecrow sections where Batman has to navigate around a nightmare world, platforming around while avoiding the Scarecrow’s gaze (which is an instant fail). Not only are there 3-4 of these sections spread out throughout the game, which seems like far too many, but the fixed camera angle ensures that they never cease to feel awkward. Those are nothing compared to the second example, though, which occurs when you travel underground into Killer Croc’s lair to harvest some spores you need. This part of the game disallows running (lest you let Croc know where you are), so you’re slowly walking around on floating wooden palettes looking for plants. Every so often, tense music will interrupt you as Croc bursts out of the water somewhere nearby, and you have to drop whatever you’re doing to throw a batarang at him. This section of the game ends up lasting 10-20 minutes, and while that may not sound like much at first, the repetition of slowly walking around, interrupted only by annoying Croc attacks makes it absolutely unbearable to have to play through.
Of course, there’s no way to know that you’re supposed to throw a batarang at Croc in the above example. Why not use your grappling hook to unbalance him or explosive gel to knock him down? Those seem like perfectly legitimate solutions to the problem, but the only thing you can do that has any effect whatsoever is to throw a batarang at him, and the only way you know this is to die to him once; the “death” screen offers up hints after you’ve already failed sections like this, and these hints are often things that you should have been told beforehand. For example, after you collect all of the spores you need in Croc’s area, you have to run back to the entrance while he chases you. You end up in a dead end, however, and the only way to continue on is to know to detonate some explosive gel that Batman sprayed in a cutscene 20 minutes earlier. This is hardly the only example of needing to die to know how to actually succeed, either, and this trial-and-error approach to gameplay is clumsy at best and maddening at worst.
Linear corridors aren’t fun
I enjoy many linear games. Take my love of Remember Me and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West as proof of this. Arkham Asylum doesn’t benefit from its linearity, though. It goes a little like this (and this is an actual example): you walk through a door and there are two snipers stationed at guard towers, as well as two snipers on a roof area of the building you need to enter. The only way to succeed is to take out the snipers one by one, because there’s simply not enough space to go around them. While Arkham City affords you the freedom to take a more creative approach to situations like this, Asylum’s linearity ensures that you’re limited to doing what the game demands. In this example, you have to sneak up on the first guard tower, as using a ledge takedown is loud enough to alert the other sniper. Then, you have to wait until the snipers guarding the building you’re headed toward look away so that you can close the distance. Doing it any other way means being riddled with bullets, and the game’s reluctance to give you the freedom to approach situations in your own preferred way ensures that sections like this are groan-worthy.
The graphics are nice, at least
Arkham Asylum looks really good for a 2009 game. Some of the textures are a bit washed out, and the antialiasing isn’t as effective as it probably should be, but downsampling from a 4k resolution ensured that at least one of those problems was a non-issue. Even the low quality of some of the textures is a problem mitigated somewhat by the moody lighting, which is nothing short of incredible during many scenes. If I had to nitpick, I’d argue that the color saturation can become a bit much during certain sections of the game that heavily feature many green and red elements, but that’s really not a very big deal. Cutscene quality is also a bit of an issue, with cutscenes suffering from noticeable compression artifacts, but this isn’t anywhere near as bad as the cutscenes in, say, Rise of the Argonauts.
Anyone who frequents this site knows that I’m not a fan of games using orchestral tracks because of their tendency to be cheap, forgettable emotion-builders. Arkham Asylum is a great example of that, though the short melody that plays before someone comes onto the PA system is a nice touch. Overall, however, the music in Asylum is forgettable at best, existing only to build tension and offering little to nothing that will stick with you after playing.
Here’s what you should do: