Batman began his career as the World’s Greatest Detective, but it wasn’t long before people started calling him the Dark Knight.
A modern knight-errant with a strong moral code, he chose the mantle of the bat to terrify criminals. Fighting crime with a combination of detective skills, gadgets and brute force, he strikes from the shadows, hunched over, face covered with a cape, more akin to Dracula than to Superman’s “Big Blue Boy Scout.”
“Batman: Arkham Asylum” is the second major interpretation of this character for the new millennium. The first — Christopher Nolan’s films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight — are black as pitch, but with a gleaming center of hope, honor, morality and personal sacrifice that prevents them from sliding into nihilism.
They depict a Batman for the age of terrorism, raising profound moral questions in a way that would be almost impossible with any other character in film today.
Batman is a profoundly moral character. He refuses to carry a gun and never, ever, kills. He fights for justice and protects the weak.
There’s a sense that only this code keeps Batman — whose character copes with a host of psychological problems — from sliding into madness.
And it is that madness that he confronts, over and over again, in “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” a new game published by Eidos and developed by Rocksteady Studios for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows.
If the theme of the last two Batman films has been how we keep our honor and morality while fighting enemies bent on pure terror and destruction, then the theme of “Arkham Asylum” is how a man keeps his sanity — already a fragile thing in the case of Bruce Wayne — when continually confronted by madness.
The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane is the madhouse of Gotham: the place where all the members of Batman’s colorful rogues’ gallery of murderous lunatics are kept after he catches them. An island fortress, the asylum is a grim place with a dark past.
There has never been a good Batman game, and there have been precious few good super-hero games. Most developers seem content to coast on the power of the character recognition, and not draw upon the unique qualities of interactive entertainment to create something more.
This is decidedly not the case in “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” which is not only the best Batman game ever (not hard to do), but the best super-hero game ever, and, in fact, one of the best games of the year.
This no mere time-filling licensed game. Rocksteady has recruited an A-list of talent to make its project something more, wisely reaching back to the superb “Batman: The Animated Series” of the 1990s to draw on that show’s vocal and creative talent.
Writer/producer Paul Dini has penned the script, and Kevin Conroy’s rumbling baritone returns to bring life to the caped crusader. Arleen Sorkin is back voicing Harley Quinn, and Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) returns with his definitive performance as the Joker.
As the story begins, Batman is returning the Joker to Arkham. He’s uneasy, however. The Joker went down too fast, and Batman suspects that he wanted to be caught. Those suspicions are confirmed when the Joker handily takes over the whole facility, unleashes a host of bad guys and marquee villains, and kidnaps the doctors, the warden and Commissioner Gordon.
The game could easily have become a mindlessly violent romp and still probably pleased a certain portion of the audience. Instead, it manages to capture the feel of being Batman in a number of clever and canny ways.
Merging puzzle-solving, detection and hand-to-hand combat, it constructs a carefully paced piece of entertainment where action alternates with quieter moments, and all of it intertwines with the story.
A number of factors work together to measure the pace. Batman gets to enter detective mode, analyzing locations for clues, hunting down forensic evidence, following nearly invisible trails, solving the 240 “Riddler puzzles” and finding less confrontational methods to get past the bad guys.
Naturally, nonlethal combat is a large part of Batman repertoire, and “Arkham Asylum” does a good job of recreating the bone-crunching fights of the recent films. By stringing together punches and blocks, you can create a kind of fight ballet, as Batman moves fluidly from one enemy to the next, developing more elaborate throws and blocks the longer he can sustain the string.
All this adds up to a superb gaming experience, but one that is probably best left to a mid-teen and older audience.
Although the game earned a “Teen” rating for “alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, mild language, suggestive themes and violence,” the material easily pushes the limits of the designation. (Then again, Dark Knight felt more like an “R” than a “PG-13.”)
There is little blood, and Batman does not kill anyone, but other people are seen dead at the hands of the enemy. Some of the island history and prisoner tapes discovered along the way include disturbing descriptions of violence and insanity. All of the Scarecrow sequences manage to be incredibly horrifying without using blood or gore.
Although the recreation of the death of Wayne’s parents is not graphic, it’s still disturbing. A pervasive sense of darkness and decay looms over the entire game, making it extremely effective and often frightening, but perhaps not for younger gamers.
With the recent films and now “Arkham Asylum,” Batman has entered a little renaissance of quality. Although the best of these items are aimed at an older market, that seems more appropriate for Batman than for any other hero.
He was always a creature of darkness, but at least he was fighting for the light.
Thomas L. McDonald is
editor-at-large of Games magazine
and a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.