The Essential Games: Batman Arkham Asylum (2009)

Rocksteady’s incredible licensed hit hasn’t aged a day

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I captured all the screens in this piece on an Xbox One S, running Return to Arkham Asylum (2016)

Arkham Asylum is so good that I was convinced I had already written a piece about it for this series…but it turns out I hadn’t. It’s so profound in its quality of design, pacing, visuals, writing, acting, and sound that I think anyone who isn’t opposed to the idea of “Batman” should play it right now.

The first time I finished the game in 2009, on the PS3… I didn’t like it much at all.

That’s not a joke. I could tell why it had reviewed so well, and the fighting system and voice acting immediately grabbed me, but the strange garish visual design, over-reliance on canned stealth puzzle sequences, and constant prevalence of grates and ducts to crawl through put me off.

I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.

Grabbing a big chunk of the old animated series cast was a stroke of genius on the part of the game’s creators, and they leaned on that effectively in the marketing. But the visual design of the Arkham series is an outlandish mix of hyper-realism and comic book exaggeration. Everyone is huge and beefy, to the point where this actually sort of ties into the plot. The characters have realistic skin textures stretched over aggressive proportions. And the neon-soaked noir lighting bathes these borderline-monstrosities in bright colors and inky real-time shadows.

It’s an acquired visual taste then, and one that I didn’t acquire at all on my first playthrough. I wrote a mixed review for the small computer magazine I worked for at the time, and moved on.

Then months later, I played through it again on PC and man this game is so good.

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Oh sure, it still has a garish aesthetic and a uniquely dark personality even among Batman stories, but those decisions also come together to create a timeless thing that’s as fun to play now as it ever was.

Its masterstroke is its pacing. Pace is so hard to get right in a video game, but Arkham Asylum succeeds on every level. Its world is just big enough to invite you to explore as you unlock new Bat-gadgets, but just small enough that the next story objective is always a quick jaunt away. And each of those story objectives is interesting. Each differs a little bit from the last, throwing in new types of level design, enemies, and combat techniques. And all of these moments are actually relevant to the story.

It has one of the most functional stories in the history of gaming.

The side objectives get short shrift in this scenario, with many of them being quick collectibles. However, the Riddler puzzles do just enough with their clever riddles and their requirement that you manipulate the game camera in some fun ways to make them memorable.

As a result, the game is tight and quick and exciting. You’ll always feel motivated to see what’s around the next corner, and every so often the game slows down just a little bit in case you want to take a break.

All of the sequels more or less threw this out in favor of the big open worlds that modern games increasingly contain. The individual levels and the story beats are still great in the followups, but the worlds are filled with so much more stuff going on that they never recapture the intimate, precise feel of the first game.

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The visual style has grown on me more and more over time. Yes, the characters are sometimes-hideous and might not be your thing, but they’re also stylish and expressive. And the amount of thick high frequency detail to the textures and lighting means the game’s look somehow still holds up ten years later.

Expression carries even into the control system. The game makes a statement sixty seconds in when you press the analog stick all the way forward and Batman doesn’t run. You think to yourself, “Is this just for this opening?” No. That’s the entire game. If you want Batman to run, you have to hold a button.

I think more games should have this level of fiddly movement control.

You have a great level of attachment to Batman throughout the game, and every action, from fighting guys to traversing the world to planting gel that blows up only certain walls…is fun. I’ve revisited this game many times over the last ten years just to experience the feel of it again.

The easiest way to play Arkham Asylum in 2019 is the remastered version on PS4 and Xbox One. It’s available through Game Pass, and it gets regular discounts. The remaster isn’t just the original game running at a higher resolution. Instead, a new team at Virtuous took the original game and upgraded it to Unreal Engine 4. That brought in brand new lighting, shadowing, and materials. The entire game is now covered in real-time screenspace reflections. Most of the artwork also got upgraded or redrawn entirely, and it really shows. The random NPCs around the game world got the biggest upgrade. In the original game they had generic faces that were essentially half-faces that were then mirrored across their head, and here they all have unique assets for their characters.

I love it.

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The old fan in front of a light trick.

Some folks didn’t like how the visuals changed, and I get that. This is an iconic game, and nothing was really wrong with the original look so it’s weird from a certain perspective to change things. But I think the changes are smart and all of them are in line with the original weird aesthetic of the game. It’s truly like seeing the game upgraded with modern visuals, and brings it more in line with the still-incredible look of 2015’s Arkham Knight.

If you play on PC, you’ll get the original Unreal engine 3 visuals, but if you have an Nvidia graphics card you can use Apex PhysX effects. This adds a layer of accelerated particles to the game, giving it a more dynamic feel. Papers and leaves fly around. The environment breaks down into dust and bits during fights. Cloth swirls around realistically. It looks great.

Unfortunately, none of those effects were added to the remaster, and the remaster isn’t available on the PC. So there’s no way to see the new assets and lighting alongside the Physx stuff.

But that doesn’t really matter. Regardless of what system you play on, Arkham Asylum is a breathlessly fun Batman game with a dark, thrilling story and pacing that will keep you playing for longer than you expected. Once it clicked with me back in the day, I finished it 100 percent, and I used to replay it every year. I hadn’t touched it in a couple of years, and finally playing through the remaster on Xbox One brought all my superlative thoughts about it flooding back.

Yes, there’s something to be said for the majesty of today’s incredibly huge open worlds like those in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or even Arkham Knight…but I really miss this sort of “middle-ground” experience which blended the best bits of an open environment with a tight linear hyper-focus for the main campaign.

Arkham Asylum is one of the best licensed games ever made, and a game with a design so good that it’d work just as well completely divorced from its license. Most of the games inspired by it in the last ten years didn’t notice its breathless sense of pacing, except for that Captain America movie game that no one liked save for me.

Yes, I played through Captain America: Super Soldier multiple times. But that’s a tale for another time.

The Essential Games is an ongoing feature where I ramble on about games I think are important and still hold up today. You can find the other entries here. Thanks for reading.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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