This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Batman Arkham Asylum.
Like everyone else with the kind of social skills required to hang out on the Internet, I love Batman. I adore him from his cute little pointy ears to his big stompy boots. And I especially love how he expects to be taken seriously. I had my doubts about Arkham Asylum because it looked like a dark, gritty game with scary horror elements, and how can you have scary horror when you're Batman, ostensibly the most capable fictional character since Jesus? (Ooh, edgy!) And how can you have dark grittiness when you're Batman, a man who swishes about in his underpants and a fabulous cape? This does feel like reaching for the low-hanging fruit--and Batman is nothing if not a low-hanging fruit--but I just love that bit in The Dark Knight when Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart are talking about bringing down the mob, and it could almost be a scene from The Departed, until Batman flounces in wearing pajamas and a bucket on his head and no one bats an eye. But once I mentally adjusted for Batman's underpants, I made the shocking discovery that Arkham Asylum is quite good, which probably won't be as shocking now as every other reviewer has said the exact same thing, but it really is. It's one of the rare games that balances stealth and action and makes them both equally fun: where the stealth isn't just a frustrating game of grandmother's footsteps and the combat doesn't make me feel like I fucked up the stealth. Batman, after all, is a master at making even his fuck-ups look like something he meant to do all along.
The combat is controlled simply and animates beautifully, flowing seamlessly from punch to counter to eye-watering heelkick to the chops with bone-crunching, trouser-tightening elegance. And meanwhile, hiding in the rafters tracking a quartet of thugs, picking them off one-by-one before pouncing onto the final terrified straggler, holds all the appeal of following children home from school with none of the sex offender registration.
But you don't call a sewage technician to redecorate your bathroom, and you didn't come to me to hear about how a game is good, not when every other review's done that already. I could go on about how the combat flows and how the atmosphere's solid and how the highlights for me were the Scarecrow sections where Batman's perceptions of reality are skewed in favor of a nightmarish, introspective, delusional glimpse into the darkest recesses of his soul and how jumping on people is cool, but I must always seek to stem my gushes constructively. For example, while it is cool to jump on people from high places, spreading your cape like a black and terrible flasher of the night, your cape fills such a massive portion of the screen as you're swooping down that it's hard to tell what you're jumping onto and and whether or not they deserve it. Also, it's amazing how I only really care about auto-run after it's been taken away. If I fail to hold down X every time I move, Batman marches ridiculously around like a pompous sergeant major with a broom stuck up his arse. I thought we'd perfected this technology! Push the analog stick to run, push it halfway to walk. This would have also freed up a button that could have been used for... I dunno, the Bat Spank?
Another tool in Batman's arse...nal is the Detective Vision. I guess you can't call it Bat Vision 'cause that would just be a black screen. When it's turned on, you can see the enemies through walls, secrets, objectives, and things you can grapple onto. So a pertinent question would be "Why would you ever want to turn it off?". The pertinent answer would be, "Because otherwise you'll see the whole game through a colored filter and all the characters will be replaced by glowing teal skeletons, and you might feel a bit guilty about all those artists who put so much work into not making the game look like a surreal radioactive skeleton fever dream."
And then there are the boss fights, if one can call them that. I expect more from a climactic encounter than than just beating up legions of henchmen while their leader sits on top of a lamppost shouting encouragement. But then this is the Batman Mythos, where half the villains are just gang leaders in gimp suits with no superpowers besides an amazingly good human resources department, and any of them going toe-to-toe with Batman would end up with a perfectly flat surface where their face used to be. But even the fights with the actual superpowered ones aren't up to much. The absolute nadir of the whole game for me was an encounter in a sewer with Killer Croc, which they spend the whole game hyping up and which consists of walking very slowly around a tedious labyrinth waiting for Croc to pop up, whereupon you whack him back down with a single Batarang in the manner of a dog owner wielding a rolled-up newspaper. And then there's the fight with the roided-up juggernaut fellow which is repeated something like twelve times, which you win by--and I hope you're wearing a sturdy hat, because this may blow your mind--sidestepping their charge so that they run into a wall, a gameplay mechanic that is only slightly less common than the fucking start button.
Finally, the writing is. . .well, it's not exactly terrible, but any game where the line "It's over" is countered with the line "I'm afraid it's only just begun" isn't exactly going to astound the screenwriters' guild. You might say I shouldn't expect too much from comic-book writing, but what kind of excuse is that? Comic book writers do not undergo mandatory lobotomies. Was Watchmen just comic book writing? Was Schindler's List just a bunch of flickery lights on a wall? What I will blame on comic-book writing is the fact that there's no closure. It all ends with disappointing inevitability with all status quo restored and all the big name villains dropped down convenient holes so that they can make their next guest appearance on Amazing Man-Child #165 or whatever.
But after all that, my complaints are still just minor fissures in a crust surrounding a very solid core and I can still recommend Arkham Asylum. Consider me a praiser by exception, in that everything I don't mention is perfectly fine... which is why I should probably mention the box art. This is the pettiest gripe I've ever indulged, but of all the colorful villains and visceral action this game has to offer, the best they could come up with was Batman standing there with a look on his face like he'd forgot what he came in here for? Just goes to show Batman is always the least interesting character in everything he's in. What can you do with a character who responds to everything by either punching it or deploying Bat Anti-thing Spray. . .then punching it?
He is the night: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
So riddle me this: how do they signal Batman when they need him during the day
"I eat punks like you for breakfast"? What is this, Judge Dredd?