Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of my favorite games of last year, so it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to the baleful glare of the Dark Knight, staring at me from beneath my Pile of Shame. Mordor of course borrows heavily from other games – perhaps most notably its combat, which was taken practically whole-cloth from Rocksteady’s Arkham series of Batman games.
Or so I had been told. Thing is, I had never actually gotten around to playing any of the Arkham games, of which there are currently three – Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and the less-loved Arkham Origins (which was, it should be pointed out, developed in a completely different house than the first two). A fourth is due this June: Batman: Arkham Knight. Having played none of them, I decided to start with the first and, according to many, the best.
Note: In the event that you, like me, waited six years before playing Arkham Asylum, this post contains spoilers.
The story as we begin: Batman has the Joker tied up in the back seat (!) of the Batmobile and is taking him to Arkham Asylum, the state of which makes “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” look like a Sandals Resorts infomercial. Being that it’s the Joker and the beginning of the story, this is all part of Joker’s evil plan to ensnare the Dark Knight and take over Gotham, and we’re soon trapped on the island as its staff are held hostage. It’s up to Batman to get down to the bottom of the Clown Prince of Crime’s scheme, delivering countless face-punchings along the way.
And it turns out, such face-punchings they are! As Batman, a large part of your job in Arkham Asylum is punching Joker’s goons in their painted faces, hovering above the action like a near-death experience. The quality of animation and the responsiveness of controls combine to give Asylum’s combat an amazing, flow-y feel, once you’ve bought into the notion that it’s more a rhythm game than a street fighting simulator. Batman drops elbows, flipping nimbly but weightily between assailants, and generally providing criminals with traumatic brain injuries in every melee.
Plenty has been written in praise of Batman: Arkham Asylum since its release in 2009. And while I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game, there were some flies in the Bat-ointment. This is, after all, Bitter Empire, right?
Most glaringly, there’s the issue of the boss encounters. You’ve punched and swung your way around the crumbling asylum and you’re ready to take on one of Batman’s notorious enemies. And this usually involves… punching more mooks in the face. It’s true – almost all the bosses in Arkham Asylum send wave after wave of goons at you instead of fighting Batman directly. The best of the boss setups are Scarecrow’s, but it’s more the atmosphere and establishing material — which in one case actually screws with the player — than the “fights” themselves that make your encounters with him interesting. A face-off with Harley Quinn has her providing color commentary from above the action as you beat up goons on a periodically-electrified floor. It’s variations on a theme for Bane, and even for the final showdown with the Joker.
Where they change the formula, it’s still disappointing. Killer Croc, the half-ton menace who you’re intended to dread as the game’s opening credits play, is handled by walking over floating wooden pallets and occasionally tossing a Batarang at his head. While the Poison Ivy fight is different, it seems more like a classic NES battle than a fight in the way you’ve come to think of fights in the game, and you’re still made to deal with mooks at certain phases in her attack pattern.
But we are talking about a game whose lasting impact has been its combat system. Well, as good as that is, it’s come quite a ways since its debut. Shadow of Mordor may have copied it, but in that game I always feel right there with Talion, with every strike he makes one that I’m there making with him, with the brutal finishing moves a reward for artful fencing. Too often, Arkham Asylum leaves you feeling more like a ringside spectator shouting suggestions rather than a participant in the fight. That’s not to say it isn’t fun – Asylum’s combat system is very forgiving, letting you mash controller buttons and still witness a gloriously-choreographed display of Bat-fists.
Which is kind of the problem. Batman acts like Batman more or less regardless of your skill level – there’s no real mastery involved in this first iteration of the Arkham combat system. This is perhaps an unfair expectation, but playing the game now as someone who has experienced Shadow of Mordor and felt the influence of Dark Souls, it stands out. Batman is just too good, and I got the distinct feeling that he was just letting me help him and that he’d really have done fine on his own. Like I was Robin.
All that said, Arkham Asylum is a blast and it’s certainly worth your time. The Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale pall hangs heavy over the popular conception of Batman, and the Arkham games serve as a wonderful reminder of the franchise’s comic book roots (it helps that the game was written by Paul Dini, who helped write and produce Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and the DC comics Harley series, as well as other DC properties). While I worry about the movies’ influence on subsequent games, I’m so far very pleased with Arkham City’s advancements on the original combat system, which seem to add quite a bit of height to the skill ceiling.
Plus, you get to play as Catwoman.