Game review: Batman: Arkham Asylum for PC (EGS)

First, let me apologize for the lack of a review last week. I got stuck playing Into the Dead 2: Unleashed, (Not really a bad thing from the fun point of view, but more for the scheduling issues) and this week’s entry took me a bit later to finish than I’d anticipated. My schedule also wasn’t helped by the number of times this week that I ran out of energy right around gaming time and opted for a nap instead.

I got Batman: Arkham Asylum as part of a generous free offer from Epic Game Store, which gave away all three of the Rocksteady Batman games. But like many EGS offers, it had to wait because of my old crappy internet connection. Then once we did get a better connection, it got lost in the backlog shuffle. But after I played and liked Gotham Knights, I remembered I had this other game full of Batman shenanigans, or Batmanigans, if you like. One ten-minute download later, and I was whisked backward into Bat-History, like *WHOOSH! BIFF! BAM!*

And also *wet fart*

I wish I could say I had a great time with this first outing of the trilogy, but I really didn’t. Part of it could be chalked up to playing a newer game with better tools and a nicer interface, but it really comes down to this game frequently repeating the same things over and over, as if repetition equals fun.  But perhaps even worse is how it takes the brilliant opportunities offered by Batman’s rogues gallery and squanders every last one on terrible boss fights or really, really pointless side quests.

But before we get into any of that, we should cover how this game gets started, which is vaguely similar to the comic of the same name. The Joker takes over Arkham Asylum. But where the comic had Batman away doing other things, he’s right there to see Joker take over with help on the inside as well as from reinforcements coming from his army out of Blackwood Prison. Also, while in the comic, the whole point of Joker’s plan was to force Batman to confront his own inner demons, in the game, somehow Joker’s managed to construct a secret chemical factory to make Bane-like Titans, which he promises to unleash on Gotham if Batman doesn’t stop him. Then he spends the entire game complaining about Batman stopping him after he invited the dude to do so. I just…what?

Let’s just get this out of the way: the story is stupid. Everything from the setup to the dialogue is absolute garbage. Batman is derogatory about everyone’s intelligence, like “Good thing Harley isn’t that smart.” (Except, she’s got a PhD, Bats.) At one point, he even says of of Commissioner Gordon “Jim is smarter than he looks.” He doesn’t comes off as anything but a condescending asshole every time he opens his mouth.

But hey, we’ve got Mark Hamill as the Joker! Yes, so he should talk every thirty seconds on a loop, repeating the same messages over and over. Oh he’s so wacky. But after I’ve heard the same line thirty times while searching an area for side quest stuff, I wonder if anyone in playtesting noticed how irritating it is that he won’t shut up.

Then there’s Riddler, who five minutes after being sprung from his cell instantly went to work hiding trophies and clues to riddles throughout the property. This includes hiding trophies inside of caves, and then bricking over the caves so they can only be opened with an “Ultra-Batclaw.” (a late game upgrade) He also lays out groups of wind-up teeth for Batman to destroy. Why? Eh, why not? To top it all off, he leaves maps to his challenges, leading at one point to the line, “There’s no way you could have found that on your own. Who’s helping you?” You are, idiot. None of what Riddler’s doing makes any sense, and it can’t, because it’s just uninspired game writers trying to figure out how to pad an already bad idea out with busy work.

Take as another example Detective Mode. In theory, it should be a great way to find clues. But the first time it’s used is to track a guard because he had a flask of bourbon, and you’re tracking the alcohol in his breath. Folks, the flask is shown to be spilled on the floor, so the guard only had a sip at most. To track the clouds of alcohol coming out with their breath would mean they’d be so drunk that not even a functional alcoholic could play off their level of inebriation. Not to mention that their co-workers would have noticed and gone, “Hey buddy, you smell like a distillery, so maybe go home.”

You use detective mode to track recent hand prints, specific blood traces in halls scattered with blood, and pheromones, but the dumbest idea is tracking Jim Gordon’s pipe tobacco. Not because you’re doing it, but because Jim is being held hostage by Harley Quinn and a bunch of henchmen, and yet no one notices this dude scattering a tobacco trail like some elderly Hansel? I’m not buyin’ it.

That sums up how I feel about eighty percent of detective mode uses. They go hand in hand with all the other shitty writing to prove that no one knew what to do with “the world’s greatest detective.” Fer fuck’s sake, the folks who made Yakuza games put out a better detective game with a better detective mode. At least in Judgement, you use detective mode to look for clues and solve cases instead of following a trail of bullshit to yet another terrible boss fight.

Given the upgraded skills and tools Batman can collect, there was potential to make a really fun game. You get batarangs, a grappling hook, another grappling hook for opening vents called the batclaw, ANOTHER grappling hook that anchors a line between two walls for long distance horizontal travel, some explosive gel that can be upgraded to work as a proximity mine, and a mini hacking tool for interacting with door locks and traps. At times, they even come close to feeling like fun. Instead, that arsenal is just wasted on room after room of the same enemies and the same side quests, occasionally punctuated by bad boss fights.

“Oh, come on, Zoe,” you say, “How bad can the boss fights be?” Instead of fighting Harley Quinn, you fight waves of the same Blackgate henchmen while she throws switches to electrify sections of the floor. Hop a fence to get away from the current, fight some dudes. Wash, rinse and repeat until a timer counts down and Harley runs away again. Gotham Knights did something similar with the first Harley fight, but then rewarded you later with an actual boss battle, electric sledge hammer and all. It was way better than this crap.

But that’s just one failed fight in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Bane, one of the meanest villains in Batman’s history, is reduced to being a joke fight that sets up a constantly repeating mini-boss mechanic that I’ll call “dodge the bull, and then ride the bull.” Instead of fighting Killer Croc, you run around a “sewer” on platforms chucking batarangs at his neck to knock him back into the water over and over. Instead of fighting Scarecrow, Bats keeps going into a hallucinatory platforming game of hide and seek before finding a bat signal to shine at a Scarecrow hallucination. You don’t even get to fight him for real eventually. That’s taken from you in one of the biggest fuck you’s of the game. But it’s not the biggest. No, that would be setting you up to think you’re going to fight a roided up Joker, only to throw more minions in your face and make the “real” fight with Joker into a pathetic anticlimax. The only halfway decent fight is with Poison Ivy, and the developers still thought they should toss in some cookie cutter minions to keep it from feeling too original or fun.

I’m giving Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 stars, and I would only suggest it to people who wanted to complete the whole Arkham trilogy. It’s a criminal waste of good vocal talent on a script that two stoned Monkeys (I mean the band, not the animals.) smoking pot could have banged out a better version of in one weekend. I’m not swearing off the trilogy, because I believe that there could be lots of ways to fix what went wrong with this first installment. But I really struggled to finish this, and it’s not because of difficulty. It’s just not a very good time. I certainly hope the next game in the trilogy is better, but I think I’d prefer a palette cleanser before diving into it.