Batman: Arkham Asylum // PS3
October 12, 2009
For most of my weekend, I found myself with a nemesis. A foe so difficult and merciless that I failed again and again and again, fraying my nerves, testing my patience and placing undue stress on a controller thrown into the sofa time after time. My nemesis was Round 4 of the Shock and Awe (Extreme) Freeflow Challenge in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Not the the most snappily-named nemesis, I admit. But, after I’d completed the main story (more of which after the break), this particular challenge was the only one left to topple for the Freeflow Gold trophy. Yes, I’m a Trophy Whore, but who isn’t?
The beauty of Arkham Asylum’s Freeflow combat mechanic is that it’s totally fair. Every punch, counter, throw, batclaw, batarang and takedown is yours and yours only, and once you are in the groove, is a total flow experience as you guide Batman across the screen, racking up an enormous combo, score skyrocketing, and henchmen lying in crumpled heaps all around. But the harder challenges – and Shock and Awe (Extreme) in particular – require this zen-like flow from the first punch to the last, heaping on the misery with different henchmen types and a punishing timer. I must have failed between 50-100 times before I finally cracked it, and although I turned the air blue for most of those attempts, I never felt like the game was treating me unfairly. The Challenge Modes in Batman are so perfectly-judged that they could easily add on weeks, if not months, to the longevity of this game.
And it needs it. The story mode is over far too quickly. And, although for the most part it is an enjoyable, spectacle-laden romp through the Asylum, it can oftentimes be bogged down by repitition and stereotypical puzzling. In an enormous nod to the Metroid series, and every action-adventure game since, progress is achieved by a series of unlockable gadgets doled out to Batman throughout the game. The constant ‘powering-up’ should be liberating, but swiftly descends into paint-by-numbers gameplay, the game often resorting to a quick gadget-check to work out the way forward. At no point does Arkham Asylum throw you a curveball puzzle that requires more than selecting which gadget to use. The same criticism can be levelled at the Riddler Challenges – an excellent way of fleshing out the Caped Crusader’s past, and a who’s-who of his enemies, but too often a case of ‘hunt the pick-up’. If some of them had been achieved by adding in bespoke mini-games, the whole process could have had even more of an impact.
The game really excels in it’s set-pieces, and none more so than in Batman’s encounters with Scarecrow. The first such instance is particularly memorable, and delivers dark subject matter that really gives the game a sinister edge that is totally congruent with Batman’s ‘Dark Knight’ persona. More of this in the inevitable sequel will be very welcome. Scarecrow aside, it’s perhaps ironic that in a game where supervillains are ten-a-penny that the boss fights are it’s least exciting moments. You’ve faced these boss encounter mechanics a dozen times before; this time they just have a more recognisable skin.
But, gripes aside, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a hugely enjoyable game. It delivers style as well as substance, and a perfectly-tuned combat mechanic that will keep the Challenge Mode alive for months to come. But, because of Rocksteady’s lack of bravery (or maybe even time) to implement a few more bespoke puzzles, Batman is destined to remain just that – a very, very good game – and not the masterpiece that it could have been.