Batman: Arkham Asylum
I started playing Arkham Knight just recently, which makes this the third game I've played in the franchise. However, while I do intend to write a review of Arkham Knight at some point, I thought it was much more fitting in a Retrogaming column to go back to talking about past games. In this thought process, it makes much more sense for me to talk about where the Arkham games all began: in Batman: Arkham Asylum.
For those not familiar with the Arkham series, it is a franchise of games revolving around Gotham's own Dark Knight, Batman. In conjunction with Warner Bros. Interactive, Eidos Interactive, and DC Comics, Rocksteady Studios helmed a game that pulls heavily from Batman canon, with storylines and characters that litter the pages of the Batman universe in the comic books and animated series. Paul Dini, head writer of the game (who also penned stories in Batman: The Animated Series and Detective Comics), often attributes his inspiration of the game to Batman comic writers, such as Frank Miller, Neal Adams, and Grant Morrison (whose story Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth was a heavy influence on game design).
The story of Arkham Asylum revolves around the calamity occurring within Arkham Asylum's confines. While still incarcerated, Joker--with the help of Harley Quinn and other cohorts--overthrows the asylum's security force and threatens to detonate several bombs he'd previously planted throughout the city of Gotham should anyone try to come after him in his prison. Because of the need for stealth and secrecy, it's up to Batman to infiltrate Arkham Asylum without aid from the GCPD. This proves a dangerous venture, even for Batman, whose utility belt is minimal at this point, having little resources outside of his usual gadgeted comforts. But well, a dark knight has to make do with what he has.
The DC Universe is rich in its worldbuilding, and so it is not surprising in the game that many characters within the Gotham realm are alluded to or shown. Heck, even some characters outside of the Batman franchise are alluded to, though for the most part, the focus on Arkham Asylum is on its numerous Gotham villains. Which, if you're as morbid as I am, is the best part.
I've always loved the Gotham villains the best, not because they're beatable by the likes of non-metahumans, but because there's a certain madness to their methods. The Joker himself is the craziest of the bunch; he goes through his insane notions because he has no care for anything, and because he wants to. There's a lot of madness in Gotham, but most of them can be explained away. Harley Quinn goes crazy for her love of the Joker. Bane has injected himself with enough poison to make him such an aggressive, violent-crazed man. Poison Ivy cares nothing about humanity and only about her plants. Two Face suffers from an extreme case of bipolar personality disorder. The Penguin is a megalomaniacal mastermind who likes the idea of crime.
But the Joker? The Joker is well and truly mad.
And voiced by Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker, anyone?) of all people.
Needless to say, the character appearances in Arkham Asylum are numerous and voiced by a stellar cast, many of whom have reprised their roles from the DC animated TV shows (Kevin Conroy for Batman, Hamill for the Joker, Arleen Sorkin for Harley Quinn).
Take note for non-veteran (and possibly veteran) gamers: Arkham Asylum is NOT AN EASY GAME TO PLAY. Because of its role as the vanguard of the Arkham video game franchise, it is by far the roughest in terms of gameplay when comparing it to its successors, Arkham City, Arkham Origins (which I don't really count, as it was not developed by Rocksteady Games) and Arkham Knight. It also limits Batman to the confines of Arkham Asylum, and while the player does see Gotham City from afar, it is not reachable within the game parameters. Which is a bummer, because I would have really loved to explore the city (though I do eventually get my wish on the sequels).
Perhaps the more difficult aspects of the game falls in the fighting instances. As I said before, the game is a little choppy on that respect, and as a console gamer, it was difficult for me to get Batman to do anything on the controller. Which led to a lot of dying on my part, which then led to a lot of frustration.
There was also the matter of the stealth modes, wherein on occasion, Batman had to steal his way into an area and try to neutralize enemies in a silent manner. This is reminiscent of other stealth games like Dishonored and Assassin's Creed, and it was by far my favorite part of the gameplay. Again, this type of gameplay gets progressively harder as the plot thickens, and even if you are playing on an easier mode, get ready for the Joker throwing a few more obstacles in Batman's way.
Graphics and Animation
Working under the Unreal Engine script, it is no surprise at the tremendous detail that went into the making of the game. Its successors also utilize the same engine, and the graphics are, in a word, amazing. Admittedly, the game becomes more tailored and streamlined and progressively better in the later sequels, but as a beginning game to a franchise, I'd have to say Arkham Asylum pretty much hits a lot of things out of the ballpark. The artwork alone is fantastic, and its accompanying 3D rendering is superb.
So yes, even though I maintain that Arkham City is still hands down my favorite of the franchise (though Arkham Knight is getting real close to smashing that because of the frelling BATMOBILE), there is a great deal of respect for Arkham Asylum. It is, after all, where it all begins.