Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best of All Possible Batmen

You don't need to be The World's Greatest Detective to figure out I'm major Batman fan, but in case my extensive review of The Dark Knight didn't tip you off, I have words to share about Arkham Asylum.

The title of this post might be slightly exaggerated but it gives you a pretty good idea of my opinion about the game. Activision has finally done Bats justice vis-à-vis videogames, halting a dreary, drown-out parade of fail. Their outing (which I experienced via the 360) presents players with the brilliant voice acting of the 90's animated series (which, in my opinion, captures Batman and Joker at their best), the brutal brooding aesthetics of Frank Miller (the only aspect of Miller meriting imitation in my opinion), and the encyclopedic depth of Batman's comic legacy, realized through references, homages, and an impressive character dossier.

Of course, the most important aspect of the game is that it plays like Batman should. The "Freeform Combat" system presents players with the frenetic pacing of the rhythm-action genre in the form of fisticuffs. Conceptually, fights entail frenzied matches of Rock, Paper, Scissors (or Strike, Stun, Dodge) with an emphasis on stringing together long combos to unlock more powerful techniques. It's a much smarter and much more satisfying approach to brawling than typical licensed fair, and even though I happen to be no damn good at it (my combo counter usually peters out at about 8), it's thoroughly enjoyable.

In addition to Zonking and Biffing, (invoked here as old school sound effects; not sexual euphemisms) you also have a utility belt chock full of wonderful toys at your disposal. Batman's signature grapnel gun breaths new life into the hackneyed sneaking trope by allowing you to zip from perch to perch (for some strange reason, the asylum is lousy with indoor gargoyles) to get the drop on fools, as opposed to hiding in boxes or crawling around for five minutes to find the right hiding spot. This is the preferred method for taking out punks with guns, and the only way to navigate situations where thugs have been instructed to kill hostages at the first of Batman. These strategic sequences of cat and mouse, or bat and rats, play more like a strategy or puzzle game than a stealth-action affair, and they truly capture the spirit of Gotham's avenging angel.

My only gameplay gripe, because I've gotta have one, is that the experience feels a little over-engineered at times. You occasionally run into convenient excuses as to why you can't use a gadget, or find yourself forced to clear a room in a very specific way, but I can't stay mad at the game. The very fact that it bothers to explain itself is essentially a good quality, and it's engineering almost always works in the service of variety as opposed to tedium. All the same, I can't help but long for a freer game based on the same model, like an open-ended affair in Gotham.

Lesser oversights include the omission of Shirley Walker's spine-chillingly excellent Batman theme, and the complete absence of Robin. Oracle and Jim Gordan make for good company, but it would have been nice to see at least one of Bruce Wayne's many wards put in an appearence. This is not Christopher Nolan's realistic universe, and therefore there is no excuse to exclude a boy wonder. At the same time, I'm happy to see that the game pays no attention to Batman RIP or Battle for The Cowl. Don't get me wrong, Bruce Wayne has had a hell of a long run, and I can see how killing him off could breathe new life into the Batman mythos, but I'm happy that we got a game that captures him in his prime.

To close on a related tangent, those who are disappointed, or hopelessly confused by the way DC handled the Death of Batman may find some solace in Neil Gaiman's Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?. Then again, you might just be more confused. The story (which is, in typical Gaiman fashion, a collection of stories) stands in 'the gutter' between Batman RIP, Final Crisis, and Battle for Cowl, and offers a brief, metafictional look at Bruce Wayne as Batman that is moving and appropriate, if a little sentimental for modern tastes. It is simultaneously an epitaph for his Era, and an indication of what is to come in terms of comic story-telling.

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