Batman: The Animated Series (I'll just call it TAS from here) was a huge part of my childhood, and probably one of the best interpretations of Batman. This was before adult cartoons on television were a thing, so there were shows that frequently toed the line and had more mature themes. TAS was one of them. Everyone who saw this show remembers Mr. Freeze's new origin story in Heart of Ice. It was so good that it caused Mr. Freeze's comic origins to be changed to resemble TAS. Harley Quinn, Joker's sidekick, also originated in TAS and made the move over to the comics. TAS took home awards for a reason, and Arkham Asylum readily acknowledges that. It brings back Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamil (Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn) to voice their characters. It's not too surprising since Paul Dini wrote the game; he was responsible for some of the best TAS episodes (including Heart of Ice).
Arkham Asylum plays it smart with the Batman mythos; it is what it needs to be. It relies on well known bits about the character and the best of the rouges' gallery to form the plot. The game's overall plot is similar to the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth. Of course if the game strictly adhered to Grant Morrison's harrowing story, then it wouldn't be much fun at all. Think of this as a loose adaptation made for a Hollywood crowd.
The game starts with Batman bringing the Joker to Arkham Asylum. From there, all hell breaks loose with the Joker seizing control of the asylum. Instead of the Joker's sadistic move of making Batman realize he's just as batshit insane as anyone in the asylum, it all ends with a "let's go hard and punch face" boss battle.
Sort of a cop-out.
The overall plot is solid; it's well paced, and you want to continue. The end game of the Joker basically just wanting to punch it out with Batman... doesn't feel very Jokerly. At his best, he's holding a mirror to us and proving some horrible truth. This just sort of reduces him to a video game villain. Unless that's the...joke? It's a video game, so we expected a punch-face battle? Doesn't seem like much of a Joker endgame. I'm simplifying the plot, but basically Joker plans on using a formula called Titan (which is basically Bane's Venom on crack... or.. mixed with crack?) to create an army of Banes and fuck with Gotham. The thing is.. all of this could have been done without getting Batman to the asylum. So the assumption is that this was his endgame; to fight Batman.
The game seems linear at first, but it eventually opens up and allows for exploration and backtracking. It plays out similarly to Metroid Prime (or...yeah, Castlevania) where upgrades will help you get to previously unreachable areas. There's not a map completion percentage or anything, but there are Riddler challenges that consist of scanning a specific area of a level, or finding a trophy of a question mark. Completing these rewards you with experience which allows you to upgrade Batman's health and attacks.
While it is rewarding to backtrack and collect these upgrades, the design of the game makes it difficult. The asylum isn't just one building, it's broken up into several smaller buildings. For the most part, all of the buildings look very similar which becomes an issue. Metroid Prime has very unique areas so it's easy to remember where you need to backtrack to. Arkham Asylum blends together, which means you really have to comb over everything again.
What the fuck is wrong with Gordon?
The combat system is simple and excellent. It's hard to describe it exactly but everything sort of flows together. If you have a combo going you'll automatically flip around to the next henchman. You just aim Batman and he goes. You'll have to add in some counters or else your combo will be broken, but it's incredibly satisfying. It makes combat cinematic and nearly effortless which feels great. At the same time, it can make the experience feel a bit shallow. That's not to say that the game doesn't provide a challenge... just that it often feels scripted. Of course, as with any opinion, this will vary. I tend to enjoy games with melee combat systems that are difficult to master. Arkham Asylum's is not that.
The game has a heavy stealth element involved, especially when enemies have guns. You have several means of distracting enemies but the main problem here is the AI. When alerted, the AI tends to group together. I understand that you need to work to separate them but it is very difficult. The AI will spend a large amount of time grouped together and staring at one spot on the floor. Waiting for them to separate enough to pick one off is agitating. It's not that I'm doing poorly at these sections, it's that the AI will sort of slowly wander away from an area and it seems to get confused at times.
A part of the game that I particularly enjoyed were the encounters with Scarecrow. There are a few sections in the game where you'll get fear gassed and experience some events from Batman's past, or just some surreal weirdness. Unfortunately the pay-off to these sections is basically a stealth based mini-game.
Overall, this is a satisfying game. It's sort of hard to have a lot to say about it; it's a game that doesn't necessarily do anything unique, but everything that it does is well done. There's plenty to do and see here, and it's always fun to have Kevin Conroy being Batman.
The Score: 8.5/10