From his first appearance in comic books in 1939 to Christopher Nolan’s latest cinematic reboot, the Batman franchise has seen countless reinterpretations in print, TV, and film. Batman: Arkham Asylum isn’t the first time that Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego has shown up in a video game, but it is the first one in several years to be come to the Mac.
Originally released in 2009, Feral Interactive developed the game for OS X last year. The game received almost universal praise when it was reviewed for the major consoles and for Windows, but does the Mac version successfully replicate the original’s success?
Throughout the decades, the Batman universe have given us different interpretations of the characters. Each Batman has had a unique personality, from Adam West’s cartoonish fights to Christian Bale’s growling and sometimes-indecipherable threats to bad guys.
Fortunately, the designers decided not to use any predefined version of Batman or his enemies, and instead created their own. The story manages to spin its own version of the characters and create an original story, but fit it into the pre-existing Batman universe.
The game starts with Batman racing through Gotham with the franchise’s most famous nemesis, The Joker. He’s just been caught, and Batman is delivering him to Arkham Asylum, Gotham City’s high-security psychiatric hospital. The warden is happy to have him back, but Batman is uneasy about the situation; Catching The Joker was too easy, almost as if he wanted to get caught.
You spend a few minutes watching the opening credits roll as you accompany The Joker and his escort of guards as they progress deeper and deeper into the facility. The credits end and what do you know? Batman was right – The Joker escapes the guards’ custody and you’re immediately thrown into the fight. The Joker has taken control of the facility as part of an intricate plan, and threatens to blow up bombs that he planted around the city if anyone enters the prison.
The rest of story mode has you delving deeper into the asylum, which the designers did an incredible job adding detail to. The whole world in which you are immersed feels just as eerie as you would expect from an insane asylum with dangerous criminals on the loose that are trying to kill you.
I’ll admit that I’ve never been a devoted comic book reader, but even the casual Batman fan will enjoy all of the characters that the game includes. Arkham Asylum features antagonists from many of the last few Batman movies, including Poison Ivy and Bane.
There are also a few well-placed nods to some enemies that aren’t in the game. These include collectables from The Riddler, the Body of Ra’s al Ghul, and a glance at a cell for Mr. Freeze, (though as far as I can tell, you never get to see him – I may just have missed something). There are many other characters that I had never seen before, but avid Batman fans will recognize immediately and undoubtedly enjoy meeting.
While you work alone, (no Robin here), you do communicate frequently with an assistant back in the Batcave. This assistant is Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, known as Oracle. As I mentioned, most of my knowledge of the Batman universe is from the films rather than the comic books, so I was unaware that such a character existed. Fortunately for people like me, as you meet new people the game offers you access to character files in your menu. These files cover enemies and allies, and give you a brief bio, some interesting stats, and sometimes important clues to help you.
Ultimately, the story is wildly engaging and the environment is expansive, despite being limited to a single island. Most of the story takes place within the building, but you do get to venture outside towards the end of the main story. While the story takes a few turns along the way and you are pitted against different bosses, you’re ultimately just pursuing The Joker through the asylum. While that may sound simple, the story mode doesn’t feel too short at all, and the environment that the developers created is intriguing enough to make you want to take your time to fully explore every cell in the complex.
Arkham Asylum eases you into the gameplay, letting you handle a couple of goons right after The Joker escapes custody. On the computer, the controls are split between the keyboard for movement plus a few actions such as combos (more on that later), and the mouse for shifting your view, attacking, and throwing. I spent about half of the game using this default setup before getting frustrated with it and pairing a PS3 controller to my laptop. This game was originally designed for consoles, and having a controller to play it made it much more enjoyable. I wouldn’t say that the frustration of using the mouse and keyboard were enough to ruin the game for me, but if you have a PS3 controller, I would highly recommend using it.
Arkham Asylum is billed as an Action-Adventure game, so it isn’t designed for you to run around firing guns indiscriminately at bad guys – after all, Batman doesn’t use guns. In the early stages of the game, you can certainly just run into rooms and start using all that martial arts ability to incapacitate your enemies, but as the game progresses, you’ll find that this isn’t a feasible option.
This doesn’t mean that combat is avoided, though. As part of the upgrade system, you’ll learn new attack combos that make you better at taking on several enemies at once. As you hit one guy, he generally will get stunned back, allowing you to knock around the next one. As you perform combos, your attacks hurt more, and the game will even alter the speed of the action to show your hits in detailed slow-mo.
Combat is fun, but Batman relies on stealth, and that’s just what you’ll need to do. The story develops new tasks for you to accomplish, and how to complete them isn’t immediately clear. You’ll need to explore your setting, find clues, talk to guards, and solve complex problems.
Much of the exploration and stealthy movement in the game is focused around the use of that famous Batman grappling hook. In many areas you can look up, find a gargoyle, (of which there seems to be an inordinate amount for an indoor setting), and zip up. Once you are in the shadows, you can either zip around to another perch, or you can jump and glide using your cape. This adds a fun dimension to combat, as you quickly learn to swoop in to pick off your enemies one at a time. You can also chuck your “Batarang” around to attack, as well as use it to trip switches from afar.
The game makes use of a level-up system that’s based, like many games, on an XP bar that is filled up as you fight. You’ll earn “WayneTech” upgrades to improve your suit and learn new fighting skills. I found the upgrade system to be a bit simplistic, but that is just because of my general disappointment with the combat system.
I enjoyed the problem solving in the game more than the combat. At times, it felt a bit like I was five years old again, just mashing buttons without really understanding what I was doing. The combo system is extensive and many gamers will surely enjoy the depth it adds to combat, but I found it to be something that I never fully learned how to use effectively.
What complicated things for me further was the visual perspective. Rather than use a first person view, you are looking over Batman’s shoulder, which obstructs a lot of your view. If you are playing the game on an iMac, that might not matter, but on my 15″ MBP it made the view feel a bit cramped.
This game isn’t just about progressing through the building knocking out your enemies, (remember, Batman doesn’t kill anyone). You will be presented various tasks whose solutions are not immediately obvious. For example, you might need to free a hostage from an inmate, but first you’ll have to figure out how to sneak up to him. You might need to find how to get into a chamber that is locked. There are countless examples of these types of problems, and you’ll definitely need to think about them like a complex puzzle.
While I preferred the problem solving, it was not without its own issues. You can switch from your standard view to a special detective view. The typically low-lit setting in the building makes it tough to see some clues you are looking for, so detective view lights up everything and gives Batman a heads-up-display (HUD).
With this view, items are highlighted so you can spot them more easily. While this made finding things easier, it sort of made it too easy. In fact, just getting around in the building is easier in this detective view, and I sometimes found myself just running around using it, even when I wasn’t looking for anything.
Saving is done automatically at pre-defined checkpoints. It is great not having to worry about getting far in an area and dying without having remembered to save.
Graphics and Performance
I ran the game on my early 2011 15″ MacBook Pro running Lion with a 2GHz i7 and 4 GB of memory. The game takes up more than 9 GB of space on your drive, so if you are planning on playing this on an Air or anything with a smaller SSD drive, that is worth being aware of.
Overall, the performance was great. I did have the game freeze up on me once, but considering how many hours I played it, the one freeze was not terrible. The game gives you plenty of power to adjust settings if you find that things get too choppy, but I found the default settings to work just fine. The fans certainly did get spinning to a noticeable speed, but it was not any worse than ripping a DVD in HandBrake.
The nature of Arkham Asylum’s dark setting deserves some mention here. The environment is beautifully dark and creepy, but this can cause problems on Macs that have glossy screens. I found that I had to turn up the brightness on the screen and close the shades if I wanted to see all the detail that was necessary.
As I’ve mentioned, the environments are extremely well-designed, and the characters all have an incredible amount of detail. The characters’ mouths don’t come close to syncing with their voices, but I didn’t find that to be overly distracting. The actors do a decent job with the voices, but the script often borders on being painfully cheesy.
Other Game Modes
Story mode will likely fill up most of your time with Arkham Asylum, but it also offers a few additional game modes. These are unlocked as you progress and find the Riddler’s collectables. The challenges throw you into a situation and force you to fight inmates. Combat-wise, these situations require you to use much of the fighting technique that you have honed in story mode. This means adapting to the situation’s environment and deciding whether to use stealth or just run in swinging your fists.
Like many games today, part of the appeal of these extras is the fun of collecting trophies. Beyond the personal satisfaction of filling up your screen with new trophies, they don’t actually help you in the story mode.
I simply had a blast playing Arkham Asylum. I spent weeks playing it with the lights off and the volume up, soaking in the well-designed environment as I explored the island. The flow of the game stays consistently exciting, and the designers manage to stuff the game with tons of great characters.
The game was challenging enough for me that I died several times, but not so hard that I got frustrated. You can always adjust the difficulty if you feel overwhelmed or if the game is too easy, but I found the default setting was perfect for me. I did have to consult an online walkthrough at one point when I got stuck, but found out that what I was missing was in front of me all along but I just couldn’t see if because of some glare.
My only complaint was something that many people will disagree with me about: the combat system. Arkham Asylum’s form of attacks felt a bit too unsophisticated at times, as I simply ended up clicking around at a crowd of enemies until they all had keeled over. As the enemies become more challenging, (such as when they begin wielding firearms), I began to use stealth more effectively and immediately started enjoying the challenge more.