Unlike most reviewers, I didn’t really like Batman: Arkham Asylum, and I’ve been trying to figure out why this is. What I’ve realized is that a big part of the problem for me is how unsatisfying I found the progression of the game to be. It got praised in reviews for having the trappings of an exploration-driven Metroidvania-style game, but underneath, it’s linear, stock-standard action-adventure fair, albeit well polished and styled.
The first problem is that exploration is never really encouraged or rewarded. Sure, there are collectibles strewn about the environment, but they all just give generalized experience points, rather than a more specific or interesting reward. And the act of getting to the collectible is never interesting – you just see it, and either you have the gadget that will get you to it, or not. Contrast this with something like Metroid Prime, where there will often be a neat little piece of traversal in order to get an energy pack. Having these little extra bits of optional gameplay to acquire a collectible is a reward in its own right, and makes it feel special. Even with the feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2 – the most generic, pointless collectible out there – there would often be a tricky little jump or some-such that made getting them feel satisfying.
The other big letdown is that the game rarely takes advantage of the backtracking inherent in its structure. When a player revisits an area, a game should use the time to show the player how much they’ve grown in the intervening time. They should have new means of traversal or fighting, so that what was once an arduous journey is now a relaxed one. Or (and Batman does have one great example of this, that I’ll touch in Part 2) the game should present the player with a new challenge, but in this place that the player already feels familiar and comfortable in, letting the player use their prior knowledge of the space to their advantage.
Instead, Batman allows the backtracking to become mundane. The best, most interesting encounter in the outdoor environment is the first time you go through it, and have to hide from and deal with snipers. After that, I feel they might as well have replaced the exterior sets with loading screens. Part of the problem is that the grappling hook is the most fun traversal tool in the game, and its the one you have from the start, so you don’t really get a feeling of growth or improvement.
If you strip away these structural elements that I found unsatisfying, you’re left with the core gameplay mechanics: the combat and stealth systems, both of which I thought were competent but lacking. A topic I’ll elaborate on in Part 2.