Revisiting Batman: Arkham Asylum Ten Years Later
August 25, 2019
"Don't you just love this place?" It’s funny and weird to look back and see how things can change over the course of time, even a decade. In the mid-2000’s, we were still in a run of not-so-great superhero films, and great superhero games seemed to be few and far between. Batman had seemed to be on the sidelines of the mass mainstream since 1997’s Batman & Robin, with Batman being best presented in the ongoing DC Animated Universe of the Justice League series. In 2005, Christopher Nolan first tackled the character with Batman Begins, which was a refreshing new look at the character, almost perfectly capturing what made him so beloved. 2008 saw the real start of the superhero renaissance, as Iron Man surprised all with how great it was, and the summer brought on the blockbuster that was The Dark Knight. While The Dark Knight set a new standard for not just Batman but superhero films, video game players were still waiting patiently for a great game about the caped crusader. Batman’s good games were very, very few and far between, mostly falling into middling and unspectacular with only a few glimpses of greatness. That’s why, when Batman: Arkham Asylum was first announced in 2008, it was met with a resounding… well, not a whole lot of excitement. Fans had been burned before. But as time went on, and we saw more and more of the project, the anticipation grew. Slowly more news about the game came out; Paul Dini was writing, they were using stories such as Grant Morrison’s A Serious House on Serious Earth as inspiration, and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would be back to voice Batman and The Joker. The trailers leading up to it showcased an atmospheric game that seemed to perfectly capture the Dark Knight, and by then people couldn’t wait to get their hands on it. There isn’t much to say about Batman: Arkham Asylum that hasn’t been said over the decade since its release. It received rave reviews, awards, and still stands as one of the great games based on an existing property ever, even one of the best video game experiences of its generation. Every decision feels perfect in regards to understanding what would work best for the character. The idea to have a ‘contained open-world’ was a brilliant one, especially with the decision of Arkham Asylum being its location, along with the fact that said asylum is located on its own separate island. There’s enough openness to the world that there is quite a bit to explore, but you are still primarily in a closed off space that suits the character perfectly. You’re trapped on this island in the midst of chaos, but it’s this same eerie claustrophobia that works for Batman against the villains; once he is around, there’s nowhere for them to go and hide. Rocksteady weren’t simply able to smartly use their location choice to add to the general feel of Batman, and the atmosphere and game wouldn’t have succeeded as much without what I believe to be probably the best aspect of the game, which is its impeccable design. Arkham Asylum feels like a gothic horror nightmare. Ominous shadows seem to grow and breathe all around, reaching out at you as you creep by henchman and glide through the sky. It’s a beautiful environment that is a character onto itself, and every separate area that we travel to feels different whilst also not straying from the overall feel of the island itself. Its gothic nature and design also holds what feels like decades of history. There is a sense of dread oozing from all corners, unspeakable horrors and monstrosities of the past left over and haunting the grounds now and forever. A big selling point was how the game will make you “Be the Batman.” As gamers, we were used to such phrases being tossed around, even now, about any property that adapts a pre-existing character. Of course, once you actually got your hands on the controls and dived in, we saw that it wasn’t just a simple buzz phrase used for marketing. Much kudos has been given to its simple but great approach to combat, but it’s everything else that made you feel like the Dark Knight through and through. Hiding atop gargoyles, gliding from one building to another, hanging up enemies upside down as they passed by, and silently taking out henchman individually to build terror in the others around as they realized what was happening was executed flawlessly. Watching them nervously turning around constantly and staying close to groups was incredibly satisfying. Though detective mode may have ended up a crutch in ways with it being easy to keep it on constantly (and missing the game’s great design in cases), flipping it on and seeing different people’s heart rates going crazy as they were terrified was always smile inducing. The choices you had about whether or not you’d go into a situation fists swinging or silently haunting corners and picking off people one by one was freeing, along with the different ways you could go about doing it. Batman’s gadgets were smartly used and designed, and it gave an extra replay value in seeing the variety of ways you could deal with a situation or a group of baddies. The love and care for the property was double, even tripled, with the easter eggs and side searching you could do. As someone who loves Batman and loves easter eggs/references, this was always one of my favourite part of the Arkham games. The Riddler’s games trophies were one thing, but the scanning of locations that were references to villains both widely known and obscure was a treat (Clayface’s cameo in particular is one I adore with how it was presented). The interview tapes were a brilliant way to add extra lore and background to the story and characters, especially with the way they ended up having their own payoff at the end. This wasn’t simply an attempt at making a great Batman game, but one that genuinely honored the character and his history since his very beginnings. All of this can only be as good and memorable as the meat of the entire game, and the story is a good example of simple and great. Joker being caught and escaping as part of a bigger plan in detonating bombs around Gotham is one thing, but it’s simply a means to an end to have all the other villains released and run amuck. The villains here feel very carefully chosen, and used very well to change up gameplay as you go along. I remember the stress of rushing out of the sewer with Killer Croc attempting to have me for dinner, the great use of Poison Ivy and her plants overtaking the island (adding to a change in the terrain that works wonderfully), and the encounter with Scarecrow and the effects we go through with his fear toxin remains as brilliant as the day I first played it. Is the final battle a bit of a letdown? Sure, in that it doesn’t really change much up and ends up being relatively simple, but by that point there had been so many great things I experienced that I didn’t really mind, and don’t even now. Last, but certainly not least, all of this could possibly only work as well as the characters, and we were lucky to have all the fantastic voice actors we got to join along for the adventure, all perfectly encapsulating the characters they were playing and making the title more immersive because of it. Of course, the big emphasis and excitement was on the fact that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returned as Batman and Joker, and it’s a treat to hear the two of them play off of each other right from the get-go. To many, myself included, Conroy and Hamill are the definitive versions of their characters, so being able to have an extra piece of entertainment that includes them, and gives them a worthy script from someone who understands these two characters inside and out, is a joy in and of itself. It alone makes the game worth playing, as you can tell they are having a great time with it. I didn’t really set out to have this article be this long, I even cut back (with difficulty) on some areas I could gush about more and more, but that seems to be the power of this game. I remembered loving it then and still loving it now, but having the opportunity to sit and actually think about it at length constantly opens up great memories of the first time I played it, and the fact that all of those feelings return full force whenever I replay it. It’s a game that, ten years removed, is still deserving of all the praise it received when it was released, and will remain a benchmark in how to handle pre-existing property in a new form. It was a surprise how phenomenal it actually turned out to be when it came out, but it’s no surprise that it still elicits such love and excitement all these years later, and will undoubtedly ten years from now. Now if you’ll excuse me, all this reminiscing has made me decide to go play Arkham Asylum again.