A Very Thankful Weekend with Joker and Bats

Writing about my slight case of Thanksgiving Blues actually chased them away. By the time we sat down to dinner on Wednesday night, I was filled with holiday cheer and ready for the weekend to come. When work started back up on Sunday night, I had enjoyed a mini-vacation that was everything it could and should have been. Shockingly, it included a lot of gaming.

While my girlfriend proceeded to demolish Braid and The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition in the space of three days, I was hopelessly lost to Arkham Asylum. A lot of people compared it to Bioshock, but I’d have to say Arkham owes a lot more to Beyond Good & Evil. That explains why I never found myself getting bored and why I’ve gone back to the game on a higher difficulty immediately after completing it the first time.

The melee combat and the battle with Poison Ivy stand out in particular as areas where Arkham borrowed wholesale from BG&E, but the way Arkham keeps mixing up the challenges is very much in the same spirit. Before you have a chance to tire of beating thugs, you have a stealth sequence in which you pick them off one by one. Before the stealth sequence can slow down the game, you are working your way through the next section of the map. Then you fight a miniboss and get a new tool.

For the most part, I would say that Rocksteady were very careful about ensuring they never provided too much of a good thing. Although I must say that two encounters with Scarecrow would have been sufficient and I got a little tired of the fights against the super-thugs, since the trick was the same every time and Arkham Asylum goes to that particular well quite often.

Aside from those very slight missteps, Arkham Asylum was a smashing success for me. What I particularly loved was how the game consistently raised the stakes and tension every time I thought it had maxed out. The game opens with Joker seizing control of the Asylum and before you’re a quarter of the way through, you’ve had to rescue Jim Gordon and fight Bane. No sooner have you won that victory, and started thinking that you’re on the way to restoring order, than you discover Joker is planning on creating an army of Banes once he gets hold of some research materials. Even as you parry that attack, Ivy gets loose and starts to destroy the entire island.

Learn about Jokers fantastic retirement benefits!

Learn about Joker's fantastic retirement benefits!

At no point did I feel like the writers or designers were trying to stretch their premise and put some filler into the game. From the start it is clear that the Joker has a plan to keep Batman putting out fires throughout the long night, and it is totally in keeping with Poison Ivy’s character that she causes a completely unforeseen catastrophe midway through the game.

In fact, I was impressed with how right Rocksteady got each of Batman’s enemies. Fighting Scarecrow is a battle against insanity, and we get a deadly cat-and-mouse through Batman’s disintegrating reality. Bane is a knock-down, drag-out fight with a dangerous brute. Croc, as Batman says, is just an animal, and animals get trapped. Ivy uses plants to transform the battlefield until it favors her, and uses seduction to provide herself with cannon fodder.

I’m not certain how I feel about the final battle with Joker, because the thing about Joker is that he’s not difficult to defeat. It’s defeating his labrythine plots that poses the problem for Batman. Joker himself, however, is no great combatant. Rocksteady worked around this, but their solution seemed a bit off to me.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Still, it feels like a proper Batman adventure from top to bottom, and it was wonderful to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles for this game. And I must thank Crispy Gamer’s Russ Fischer for highlighting one particular sequence that really nails what it means to be the Dark Knight. He writes:

Arguably, the two missing elements are Gotham City and Bruce Wayne. Both of these, however, are almost more useful as things Batman wants and can’t have. Gotham, no matter how corrupt, is a dreamscape compared to Arkham Island. The city’s skyline is bright and tantalizing and unobtainable. Bats has to see the night out; he can’t just run to the city and do an easier gig.

There’s a reason, too, that the big Wayne building dominates that skyline. If Batman wanted to truly retreat from the insanity of Arkham, Bruce Wayne is the shell to hide in, and that building on the horizon is a reminder of his existence. The horror of Wayne’s childhood is all that he is allowed to revisit, and the game’s story is stronger for it. If we’re going to wallow in the madness of the lunatics who burst into existence along with Batman, we should really wallow deep, and Bruce Wayne is the shallow end of the pool.

If he hadn’t pointed this out, I would have missed the resonance of this one particular sequence midway through the game. Just after a truly nightmarish, harrowing encounter with Scarecrow and a tough slog through Croc’s lair, Batman breaks emerges from a tunnel built into one of the island’s cliff-faces.

It is the first clean breath Batman has drawn in what seems like hours, and the oppressive ugliness of the preceding scenes have done an admirable job of making you feel the same revulsion and emotional exhaustion he must feel. You stand on the edge of the cliff, a lovely promontory from which not a yard of Arkham is visible, and stare across the stretch of calm, moonlit water to the Gotham skyline. It is a sublime, peaceful moment.

Then you jump from the cliff and glide in a sweeping arc back toward the island, literally descending back to its madness and turning your back on the only peaceful vision you will see.

    • Tom Endo
    • December 4th, 2009 5:15pm

    I liked Arkham Asylum’s gameplay, but I think it’s one of the ugliest games I’ve looked at in a while. The mid 90′s roid rage comic book aesthetic combined with the Unreal 3 engine’s propensity for shiny surfaces left me out cold.

    I think the main thing is that it’s hard to have a Paul Dini script and the animated series voices and not wish the visuals followed suit.

    • I did find myself wishing that Arkham looked more like The Animated Series and the thugs are impressively ugly, but overall I liked the aesthetics despite Unreal 3′s wax-museum qualities. I mean, it’s Arkham Asylum, the ugliest, most dilapidated place in the Batman universe. It wasn’t much prettier in The Animated Series, although it was certainly more stylish.

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