Before 2009 there had never been a truly great Batman (or superhero in general) video game. We had seen various attempts, some better than others, but never one that truly stuck in the minds of gamers as being spectacular. That changed near the end of August in 2009. Rocksteady Studios took the video game world by storm with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum on the XBOX 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Immediately showered with praise from critics and fans alike it took the Guinness World Record for “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever” until it was dethroned by Arkham City. With the game nearing its ten-year anniversary I decided to replay it and investigate what made this game so special and why it still holds up to this day.
The thing that stands out the most when playing this game is the setting. The decision to have the game’s story take place on Arkham island and inside the contents of the Asylum was a genius move. It gave Batman a reasonable and realistic place to operate in from a game design perspective and allowed for one of the most unique settings in video games. Arkham Asylum is an iconic staple of the Batman mythos and Rocksteady used it to its fullest potential. There are a plethora of Easter eggs found throughout the island relating to different Batman characters, events, and more. This level of worldbuilding mixed with the immaculate design of every corner of the island make this setting top tier.
The overall art direction and game design are some of my favorite things about this game. The look and feel of the Asylum cling to you. It’s gothic, historic, grimy, and lived in. Each area of the Asylum feels unique, from the botanical gardens to Arkham Manor, and the intensive ward to the catacombs. The world design is masterclass but so are the character models. Batman himself and his villains all look pretty much perfect. We’re given comic accurate, albeit, with some alterations, versions of these characters and they look fantastic. They’re unique enough to be new incarnations of these characters but they’re all instantly recognizable.
Speaking of characters, this game excels at the chemistry between characters and expanding on their relationships. Rocksteady did just as much interactive worldbuilding as it did on the visual side of things. Every time Batman interacts with a key character you can feel the history between them. This is a Batman who has been operating for a while and knows how these villains operate. Along with the villains we also get some interactions with Commissioner Gordon, and a ton of back and forth with Barbara Gordon, operating as Oracle. It was refreshing to see such a lived in Batman world brought to life.
Rocksteady brought in veteran Batman writer Paul Dini to scribe the main story for Arkham Asylum and he knocked it out of the park. Instead of trying to break out of the Asylum, the Joker has a wildly intricate plan to take over the island while trapping Batman inside. This allows for a constant back and forth between Batman and Joker, via the Asylum’s intercoms and such, and has Batman traversing the island trying to unravel and foil the Joker’s plan. The narrative takes Batman across and under the island while battling familiar villains all the while. The story makes use of all of Batman’s prowess, highlighting his detective and combat skills, as well as his extensive collection of gadgets.
I’ve talked about the story, setting, and characters, which were all fantastic, but the gameplay is what seals the deal. All the important game design decisions could’ve been thrown out the window had the gameplay not worked, but it exceeds all expectations. Batman can freely move around the island, interacting with characters and completing missions. The traversal, combat, and stealth mechanics shine here. Players are able to run around and even glide, crouch through the corridors of Arkham, and absolutely pummel hordes of enemies. Moving around as Batman feels so satisfying, from the clap of the cape opening fully to the crunch of fists hitting bad guys everything just works. The free-flow combat system is one of the biggest innovations of the game. It would eventually be expanded upon and fully optimized over the course of the Arkham franchise, but the foundation was laid here, and what a great foundation it is.
The combat makes you feel like you’re Batman, zooming across open areas to engage dozens of hostiles with ease. You can incorporate a handful of gadgets to mix-up combos and counters at the perfect time make you feel like the badass that Batman is. Then there’s the stealth element which hits the other side of Batman’s arsenal. Using detective mode, which allows you to see through walls and highlight enemies, Batman can slink around the shadows using his gadgets and the environment to silently take out roomfuls of enemies. Sharpening your skills with both stealth and combat mechanics are incredibly rewarding and make for a consistently satisfying and engaging gameplay loop.
Not only was the normal gameplay loop great, but this game also features some of the best boss battles I’ve ever played. Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Bane, and Scarecrow each have their own unique battles which challenge different aspects of the gameplay mechanics. They also stand out visually from one another and are sprinkled throughout the game at just the right intervals to maintain interest and spice things up at the right time.
The technical aspects are all top tier as well. The cinematography of cutscenes and general camerawork is impressive. The score is astounding, elevating the already haunting atmosphere of the Asylum and providing bombastic pieces during intense battles. The voice cast is perfect, with Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin returning to the roles of Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn, respectively. These are the voices many fans hear for these characters when reading the comics and to have them involved with this game (and franchise) was just icing on the cake.
We were treated to what has now become a fan favorite interpretation of Batman and his mythos. With all the iconic elements in place on a perfectly realized version of Arkham Asylum, everything comes together perfectly. We see all the facets of Batman and his world that we’d want to, along with nods to things we would see in future games. The atmosphere, story, gameplay, voice acting, score, and everything else come together to create a near-perfect package.
Though it’s been almost ten years since Batman: Arkham Asylum was released it more than stands the test of time. Sure, the technical and mechanical aspects would be improved upon and further polished with the releases of Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Knight in later years, but Arkham Asylum will always be the one that started it all. It started a franchise that proved superhero video games could be not just good, but outstanding, which is something we’re still seeing the ripple effects of in today’s market. Arkham Asylum is one of my favorite games of all time and I encourage any fan to give it a replay with the anniversary coming up, I promise you won’t regret it.