Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum review

Taking my dislike for superheroes and stealth, Batman: Arkham Asylum completely re-wrote my perceptions and gave me an astounding videogame experience that left me fascinated by the world of Batman. With its atmosphere and lively characterisation dripping off the walls I was found myself being put through a range of emotions - from being thrilled and empowered by the combat, to being scared and nervous at the unpredictable characters in Arkham Asylum.


Review for Game People


Superheroes have never really done it for me. Call it close-minded cynicism but I've never managed to get past any story that involves a character wearing a costume and talking in an overly gruff voice. I know that comic books serve a greater purpose than just telling a visually entertaining story or enabling the reader to escape into an alternative world. I know that they can serve as thoughtful allegories to the state of the world or social injustice but I've never been pulled towards them. Until now.


Batman Arkham Asylum not only delivered an excellent videogame experience but it so successfully created the intriguing world of Batman that I'm ordering graphic novels and scouring the wiki's to learn more about this branch of fiction I've so easily dismissed until now. The irony is that Arkham Asylum is the least allegorical superhero game I've played. But its sucked me into its dark world by presenting a coherent and page-turning game that more than shares some atmospheric similarities to Bioshock.


From the beginning cut-scene which led me down into the depths of Arkham's cells, I was firmly in the character of Batman - not as a superhero with any special powers, but as a mortal enforcer for good that's just as susceptible to gunfire and fear as the guards and orderlys of the Asylum. This realism to Batman as a character is, of course, obvious to anyone whose seen a movie or read a book, but the grimy and dangerous nature of this environment made this fact apparent at the start.


The storyline itself, chasing Joker through the Asylum and counteracting his many plans to destroy Gotham is reassuringly typical of any mad genius idea. As are the individual quests if I stopped to consider how generic they really were. What made going through the familar fetch, repair, take out five guys in a room approach so appealing was in the way they were all presented. It never felt like I was going from one kill-room to another or finding a platformer section in exactly the place I expected it to be - these were all so expertly crafted as to blend into one coherent and remarkably believable narrative.


The flamboyancy of Joker tied the whole game together for me and the slightly dull overarching story was a perfect vessel for the parade of Batman's villains to take over the narrative completely. I have no previous knowledge to Poison Ivy, Harly Quinn, Zsask, Bane, Killer Croc or The Riddler, but their appearence and individual involvement kept the game fresh and exciting. Their depiction also gave me a fair few moments of varying emotion. The archetypes of Bane & Killer Croc were those of typical superhero bad guys with more sci-fi enhanced brawn than brain, whereas Victor Zsask was a much more realistic and disturbed psychopathic killer than put a bit more edge into the game than I expected.


Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy bring a highly sexual twist to proceedings and they are both characters I have mixed feelings for. The problem is that the way women are portrayed in the game works out to be one of two ways - either they are prudish scientists or alluring nymphomaniacs. Harley Quinn feels more well-rounded as she's more of a feature throughout the game, but the introduction of Poison Ivy is nothing short of pornographic and I felt there should've been a better reason for her inclusion - other than teenage titillation and a large boss fight.


But the biggest name I haven't mentioned so far is the character of Scarecrow and his sections provided the most memorable and affecting parts of this game. His weapon wasn't guns, knives or bulging muscles, it was the simple power of fear and the way it was put to use was incredibly effective. It was never immediately apparent that I was being preyed upon during the first instance - only the slow tilt of the camera and the quiet introduction of whispering voices alerted me that something strange was happening. These effects snowball into some truly memorable jumpy scenes. On several occasions I was honestly afraid of what was going to happen next and the way you experience what Batman's character goes through in these horrific sequences make Arkham Asylum all the more memorable. I'm sure the scene of Bruce Wayne's parents being murdered has been overdone in the films but the way its included here makes for some heartfelt and tragic pathos.


Straying into the gameplay discussion I must also admit that stealth mechanics in games usually leave me feeling neutered, weak and vulnerable. But this was never the case in Batman. I constantly felt empowered by my ability to grapple away into the shadows and pick my enemies off one-by-one. What changed the way I feel about this stealth mechanic is in part down to the enemies reactions. When I took one of them out, the others panicked. Their heart rate increased and they genuinely began to panic - not helped by the gleeful attitude displayed by Joker as he commented on what was going on. I can't overstate how unusual it is for me to enjoy playing a game that requires stealth and the fact I took on all of Batman's talents and style just shows how well-crafted this game is.


Because of its love and devotion for the Batman universe the game succeeds in making that love infectious. I eagerly spent a few hours collecting the audio interviews of the inmates because I wanted to learn more about this place and the characters involved with it. It takes this cue from Bioshock - another game that pushed atmosphere above all else. In that game Rapture became the living entity that housed the story just like the Asylum contains a tangible atmosphere that makes Batman so compulsive to complete.


Thanks to this effort and creativity I was never once taken out of Arkham's world. The connection I felt to the characters and my curiosity to how they all related within Batman's universe has me reaching for the online comic-book shops. Taking my attitude towards Batman and turning it from apathy to unbridled curiosity is just one of the victories of this game - the other is that Batman: Arkham Asylum is a fantastic work of videogame art and deserves elevating to that height.


 


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