Batman: From City to Asylum
I’m not quite sure why, but back when it was fresh out of development, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about playing Batman Arkham Asylum. I had played the game’s demo and actually really enjoyed it. I used to watch Batman Returns regularly although that was some time ago. All I can really recall from my previous exposure to the Dark Knight is a very creepy Danny DeVito, the gadget intensive Batmobile and a law-breaking Catwoman. Of course I was aware of things like his sidekick, the Batcave, the Joker and Alfred, but what was the most prevalent was the fact he had no superpowers. I suspect that the latter was the reason I was never too interested in Batman. My memory of Batman Returns is clearly vague (I see the oxymoron) so rather than associating suave, stealthy and unmeasurably brave to Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego, my perception became heavily influenced by Batman’s portrayal in the occasional cartoon. I was pretty much oblivious to the original realisation of the Cape Crusader by DC comics and so I was a little taken aback by the impressive but unusual style (unusual to me at least) of Arkham Asylum. So, I never actually played Asylum while it was new. I knew that it was supposed to be an incredible game, and in fact the flow of the combat in the demo really convinced me of that but stupidly I chose to let it go by. However, 2011 saw the release of Batman: Arkham City. I had some money to spend, the reviews were raving about it, and so I plunged into the world of Batman. It was amazing so I then played Arkham Asylum which was equally amazing. Having played both games, I can now say that almost all of my knowledge about Batman is born out of Rocksteady’s masterpieces where I learnt, what feels like the first time, who Batman really is.
Arkham City is quite an interesting premise for a video game, though in reality it is highly irresponsible. A section of Gotham City has been cordoned off and has now become a high security super prison which is overseen by the eccentric Professor Hugo Strange. However, the only real security is at the wall dividing the prison from the rest of the city. Within its fortifications, crime runs rampant and some of the world’s greatest criminal masterminds are trying to re-establish their mini-empires. The place is a time-bomb, which most people can see, including a very vocal Bruce Wayne. But Wayne’s protests are not appreciated and he is thrown into the facility …bad move Strange! Wayne is soon reunited with his most dangerous weapon, the Batsuit. Throughout the story, you meet some of Batman’s most infamous enemies. Your first confrontation is with Oswald Cobblepot. It turns out that’s the Penguin’s real name- there’s my first new fact! I was on familiar ground here, but I was most excited about learning about the other characters which I was partially aware of but I had no real insight into who they were. And then there are the characters I had never heard of, Two-Face for instance. Fortunately the game includes a written run down of each of the characters including attributes and back stories. The enemies and allies of Batman each have their own interesting quirks, and its fun to read up about them. However, due to being placed in the shoes of the Bat himself, I inevitably learnt a lot more about the universe’s central character.
My presumption that Batman was quite a clunky superhero was proved entirely wrong. Arkham city is a sprawling environment and the boostable grapnel hook and the ability to dive and maintain gliding altitude allows for rapid navigation of the complex. Even the very minor mechanic that increases the distance you are allowed to be deviated from a direct flight path towards a ledge and still have a smooth landing improves the immersion. Whereas in other games, gliding slightly too low results in a clumsy plummet to the ground, Arkham City avoids this. Rocksteady has even improved falling! If you fall from a significant height, rather than a splat, Batman will use his cape to increase drag and land safely. Although, Batman really comes into his own when faced with a group of armed enemies. At these points you are encouraged, by pain of almost certain death, to stealthily incapacitate your enemies. There are many ways of going about doing this, and for my first few attempts I felt like far from the superhero I was supposed to be. What the real Batman would do in a matter of seconds, I would drag out into several minutes as I took someone out, waited for everything to settle down and then planned my next move. These stealth sequences gradually get more difficult, so it is important that you improve in tandem. If I may say so myself, I felt I managed to do this. No longer was a “Knock-out” a trigger to dive for cover and wait until all the enemies starting following their usually pathing, it was now a distraction for my second strike. My reactions to completing a room progressed such: at first I was frustrated by how long it would take me, as I improved I would celebrate the satisfaction of smoothly spotting prime opportunities and the ability to trick the AI, eventually I would quickly dispatch of a room and rather than the usual fist pump I would calmly move on and think about my next objective- as the true Batman would do. There was a similar evolution in open combat. At first I would shy away from any confrontation but I soon got to grips with the combat system and looked forward to the next group of inmates. Batman does a very good job at giving you the skills you need and developing them until you truly feel like the Batman.
Game complete and left wanting more I turned to Arkham Asylum. After playing Arkham City, I couldn’t understand why I had never entered into the franchise from the start, so I decided to make up for that. At first I was a little unsure whether I should go back to play the previous game. I was pretty sure it would be an inferior game combat and gadget-wise. But i was mostly concerned that it wouldn’t be as free roaming as City. I never took from the game’s demo just how large Arkham Asylum is, on the contrary its an entire island! Granted it is significantly smaller, but I was expecting something that was more attuned to the size of a simple mansion, I was pleasantly surprised. The first thing I noticed was the change in UI. The second game’s menu screen felt very gadgety, whereas Asylum’s had quite a strong comic book style, and aptly so. I also think Asylum felt a little darker than city. I’m not sure whether it was the connotations of being in an asylum or how it felt more claustrophobic, but it definitely seemed more sinister. Two omissions in the second game that I was happy to see in Asylum was the Batmobile and the Batcave, Arkham City felt a little incomplete without what I feel are very important parts of Batman. One thing that I really liked was the use of the spotlight in both of the Arkham games to signify waypoints which is a nice little touch. Arkham Asylum is, as I mentioned, an undoubtedly smaller environment, which meant that the collecting made for a much more feasible pursuit than in the second game. The Riddler is responsible for leaving a collection riddles and riddler trophies around the map. What made this even easier in the first game was the fact you only needed to find a single map in an area and the locations of each item was pointed out to you in that area. Collecting these leads to unlocks, plus along the way you can find interview tapes which are recordings of the psychoanalysis sessions of each of the Asylum’s patients as well as tablets describing the story of Amadeus Arkham, the Asylum’s founder. The interview tapes are such a cool idea and further your understanding of each of the characters.
With Asylum done, I returned to Arkham City (don’t worry, I didn’t keep switching between games). Inspired by the access granted to the back story of the characters by collecting riddles, I decided to set out and do the same for the second game. However, this game has 400 riddles hidden across the map (440 if you include Catwoman’s) and rather than finding a map, you must interrogate specific targets. Unless the guy is alone it is not a simple case of “Find-Interrogate”. You must get to the Riddler informant, initiate combat and make sure you takedown everyone else but spare him, and then interrogate. It’s only a small caveat but when my fists are flying I struggle to be selective. Once he has been interrogated, he’ll only tell you a handful of locations. Though there is added motivation as collecting riddles unlocks some stunningly haunting pieces of concept art and it allows you to figure out the location of Riddler’s hostages, who are being held in devious death traps which makes for quite an engaging side mission. With Arkham City and Arkham Asylum under my utility-belt (sorry, uncalled for) I decided it was time to try out Arkham City’s New Game Plus mode. New Game Plus lets you play through the campaign with all of your unlocks from your first playthrough, except all enemies are upgraded. Whereas the enemies in playthrough #1 begin with with no weapons besides the occasional baseball bat and slowly get upgrades such as knives, armour, shields and infrared goggles; this mode starts the game with all enemies fully upgraded. It was at this point that I realised I’m not quite as good as I thought I was, you need to entirely take on the Batman persona to get through this mode. For now, my Batman career is on hold until I get stronger or my enemies get weaker!
The Arkham games are the format’s definitive Batman experience. Through playing them I discovered the Batman as originally intended by DC comics. Plus I also learnt so much about everything else in the world of Batman, including his enemies and their own coloured backstories. I was also introduced to the fact Batman will never willfully kill someone! I’d never really thought about it before, but if I’m ever asked who my favourite superhero is, Rocksteady may well have given me an answer to that question. Finally, if I am to only take one thing from the Arkham games it would be that air vents are the solution to everything!
Thanks for reading 🙂