Batman: Arkham Asylum

[I played Arkham Asylum back not too long after it came out, and I wrote this entry, but never published it. It’s certainly not my best work, but now I’m playing Arkham City, the sequel, so I feel it’s important to get my perspective on the first game out there.]

Certainly this is an exceptionally well crafted and technically accomplished game. That said, I’ve pretty much been having just barely enough fun and little enough frustration for me to keep playing it. The first and third Scarecrow bits were neat, I’ll grant. But the actual gameplay does almost nothing for me. It’s such a stiflingly linear, guided experience. The base combat system is good, but all the extension of it feel so artificial and game-y – These guys you can’t counter, and must stun; These guys you can’t hit, and must dodge; Here are some cool moves you can do, but only when your combo meter is high enough.

The armed guard stealth rooms are better, but you go through 90% of the game before they finally take away the crutch of the gargoyles. That first room with the booby-trapped gargoyles was my personal high-point. The game finally gives you the space to solve a problem in a variety of ways, without providing an obvious safety net. It’s the sort of set-up that encourages improvisation and generates the personalized experiences that I cherish in games. That it takes place in a room that we already know from earlier in the game is an extra bonus, and a good example of a re-use of a game environment.

The collectibles, on the other hand, are a bad re-use, at least for me. An intangible experience point reward isn’t a good enough hook to get me looking forward to it, and the audio logs aren’t all that interesting since, unlike with say Bioshock’s, there’s not a lot to actually be learned from them. The big problem, I think, is that most of the time there’s not any gameplay associated with going back and getting them. To use an example, in Metroid Prime there would frequently be extra little challenges that had to be accomplished to get an upgrade. You’d see a missile power-up above a half-pipe that you couldn’t get to, you’d get the boost ball that you need to reach it, but then once you’ve got the necessary mobility power, it’s non-trivial to reach the missiles. You have to use the half-pipe to build up enough speed to jump up to them. You get this extra bit of interesting gameplay that at the same time teaches you about using one of your new abilities. In Batman, it’s reduced to “Here’s a breakable wall that you can’t reach. At some point we’ll give you a button that breaks walls remotely. Be a good boy and press that button, and we’ll give you the collectible that’s right on the other side of the wall.” There really is something of a demeaning feel to it. At the least, they could let me make notes on the map, so that I’d feel like I had some control over the environment. The secret-revealing maps that you find, while they better fulfill the function of guiding the player to the collectibles, don’t give the same sense of empowerment that coming back and tracking something down based on your own notes would.

I’m not even going to bother to elaborate about how insipid the boss fights all are.

The game actually reminds me of the corrupted segments of the 2008 Prince of Persia – they’re a similar sort of low-impact guided tour through an environment that feels open, but that there’s really only one way through, punctuated by rhythmic, artificial-feeling bursts of combat. But Prince of Persia opens up, and brightens up, and at least lets you choose which corrupted area to tackle next.

It’s a well-made game, but ultimately one that routinely failed to make me feel much of anything.

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