From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Batman: Arkham Asylum for the Sony PS3

From top to bottom, Batman: Arkham Asylum for the Sony PS3 is a vivid, detailed, and sometimes chilling foray into the gothic world of Batman.

The premise is simple: Batman delivers a newly-captured Joker to Arkham Asylum, the notorious Gotham prison housing all his vanquished supervillain enemies, only to find himself at the center of a sinister plot. The Joker plans to make Batman witness his creation of an army of huge, bestial soldiers by using the Titan venom, a chemical compound developed at Arkham. The Joker’s more personal ultimate goal, which he reveals just before the big final boss fight at the end, is both unexpected and satisfying.

Every step of the way, the Joker is in control, leading and taunting Batman through the game’s earlier levels. But Batman is not without his own resources: an array of gadgets that allow him to master his environment by gliding with his cape, grappling up to ledges and gargoyles, using the Detective Mode view to locate enemies, and more. The fight controls are simple but responsive and effective. The game wants you to feel not only physically powerful but clever, focusing on both fighting and detective skills, and it gives you plenty of tools to do both. Despite the perils of the nighttime environment and its denizens, it’s clear that you, as Batman, are the most dangerous creature at Arkham.

The narrative in this game, written by Paul Dini (a veteran writer and producer who has written for Batman: The Animated Series), holds the game together and gives it added depth, demonstrating the increasing importance of strong scriptwriting as video games become more complex.

The game takes place over a single night, and takes Batman not just through Arkham Asylum but all over Arkham Island, in and out of various large, impressive buildings. From the moldering cemetery to the abandoned mansion, the lavish, realistic settings are filled with nooks and crannies to explore, many of which contain the 240 extras — riddles, trophies, interview tapes, and secrets maps — left for you by the Riddler.

Throughout this long, dark night, Batman encounters and must deal with any number of lunatics, henchmen, and sub-bosses, but it is his battles with Scarecrow and the hallucinations Scarecrow induces that are the most developed and affecting. The Scarecrow sequences are genuinely chilling, and delve deeply into the Batman mythos, producing some disturbing images.

The graphics are gorgeous, taking full advantage of the PS3’s processing power to deliver sharp, detailed settings and characters. (The game is also available on the Xbox 360 and the PC.) Where possible, the game integrates gameplay with narrative and dialog. For example, during the opening gameplay sequence, Batman — under your control — escorts the Joker through the entrance to Arkham, while the Joker taunts Batman, his head and body swiveling in surprisingly naturalistic movement to follow Batman wherever you move him.

The voice-over performances are strong, particularly that of Mark Hamill, who reprises his Batman: TAS role as the Joker with intelligent, psychotic glee. The soundtrack supports the narrative without intruding, creating a sense of menace and urgency where appropriate.

The game is a little on the short side, but the richness of the world and the large number of extras make up for a briefer linear gameplay. The game’s foremost flaw is that while it provides maps of the island and its various buildings, it’s not always clear how to get from one place to another; a door that was unlocked before may be locked now, and because the buildings are so large and labyrinthine, it can be difficult to figure out how to get out.

A more minor flaw — which some will see as a strength — is that despite the budget that Arkham Asylum’s massive scale clearly requires, the warden somehow couldn’t afford to clothe Poison Ivy, who saunters through the game in panties and a half-undone shirt. (While Harley Quinn’s outfit is also brief and geared toward seductiveness, she has the excuse of wanting to please and amuse her paramour, the Joker.) Of course, this game, as with most games, is geared toward teenaged boys, but as the number of adult women who play video games continues to grow, the industry would be wise to be responsive to more of its consumer base.

One note of caution: this game is a dark ride, its nightmarish imagery of corpses and skulls inappropriate for young children.

Overall, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a strong, satisfying game that lets you taste what it’s like to be Batman, up against nearly insuperable odds, but finally winning the day. Or, in this case, the night.

Melissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.