Editorial: How the Caped Crusader saved the superhero genre

When we think back to videogames based on superheroes, very few, if any, gave us the thrill and excitement that should come with taking control of some of the most iconic mutants, spandex-wearing vigilantes, or caped anti-heroes. There always seems to be something missing from the equation. Either the superhero is misrepresented with cheesy one-liners, or the gameplay is so skewed that fighting even the most basic foes is frustrating.

Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum is our caped-crusader in the otherwise dull and poorly crafted superhero genre. It’s not without justification that the game has garnered tremendous reviews from critics and substantial sales figures for Eidos. However, what we like best about Arkham Asylum is the hope it brings us that the superhero genre is not lost in a sea of disappointment.

The Dark Knight has made his rounds in previous titles, usually accompanying the latest theatrical release in the series. Games like Batman Returns and Batman Forever fell short on many levels, mostly because it followed the same general theme as their movie counterparts. While many will argue these movies (and games) were entertaining and true to the classic live-action Batman television series, long time followers of the comic probably felt a bit cheated.

In the films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan’s take on the classic DC comic character changed the way we perceived the Caped Crusader. No longer was the series campy, it was now full of the darkness that artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger originally created for the action hero. The movies took us into the scum-infected Gotham City, which at times felt too familiar for those of us who grew up in big cities. Yes, the Dark Knight was once again the gritty, rough and tough superhero we remember, but with a sense of humanity unmarked by previous entries in the series.

We first started hearing about a video game tie-in for the latest incarnation of Batman around the time The Dark Knight was released in 2008, though many speculated a title would be released sometime after Batman Begins came out in 2003. We never saw a game based on either movie, and to some extent, we’re happy no one tried, otherwise we could of had more games like Iron Man or Incredible Hulk, which proved colossal disappointments in comparison to their movie counterparts, depending on who you ask.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is not based on either of the new Batman movies, but it certainly seems to share the same gritty qualities. In reality, the new Batman game seems more in line with the original source, the Batman comics, than any other form of media, from movies to cartoons. The game features an equal focus on Bruce Wayne’s detective skills as his combat skills. But Rocksteady certainly didn’t forget about the combat. Your attacks come in quick succession via the FreeFlow Combat System. It seems almost effortless to take on a gang of 10 villains, swinging punches from one foe to the next. In true Batman fashion, you block punches aimed at the back of your head, turn around and provide a quick head-butt, kick behind you to knock down an oncoming henchman, and twirl around to punch another bad guy attacking from the side. The fighting mechanics are brilliant, and a welcome addition to any action game, especially a game based on a superhero.

Batman’s arsenal of detective skills, tools, and abilities is beautifully crafted to allow the gameplay to stay smooth through the hairiest of situations. Instead of the sloppy flying and fighting mechanics from past superhero games, Batman quickly throws a batarang to distract an enemy, and gracefully glides in for a silent and stealthy kill. Then, in one tap of the button you are flung to a stone gargoyle high above the scene, disappearing in the shadows. Down below, as a group of The Joker’s henchmen try to figure out what happened, you quickly escape in a steam pipe, discovering a doctor’s office deep in the asylum. As you switch to detective-mode, you pick up on her fingerprints. Throughout the game, detective skills keep you looped in to the friend or foe you are trying to track.

Staying true to the Batman experience, the game takes place in Arkham Asylum, the infamous island that houses Gotham City’s most ferocious villains. Throughout the island lies small puzzles set-up by The Riddler. He’s not the only super-villain to grace the game. In epic boss battles you face-off against The Joker, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, and more. The island is the perfect setting for a relatively open-world style game, because it offers certain limitations without feeling too restricted. The asylum is eerie with fast-attacking enemies through dim-light rooms and prison cells. Historical recorded interviews of the various patients that inhabit the island are left throughout the game as extras.

It’s additions like these old recordings and the brilliant lighting effects that give Arkham Asylum the true ‘good vs. bad’ superhero feeling. Almost immediately, you are inclined to run through the asylum to catch The Joker, and as the story unfolds and you have hallucinations of your parent’s death, you immediately feel invested in the story. The wonderfully developed cut-scenes occur seamlessly through normal action sequences, and at no point are you left frustrated with too much or too little dialogue. Through these cut-scenes and dialogue develops the intricate story that’s so far superior to past superhero games. While most superhero games opt for more action than story, Arkham Asylum’s story is worthy of its own movie. There are very few videogames, let alone superhero videogames that leave us wanting a movie based on the title – but, sure enough, an Arkham Asylum movie would be an incredible experience.

When we play a videogame based on a superhero, we want to feel his/her enormous powers; we want the bad guys to be more than street-thugs. As most superhero videogames, movies, cartoons, or TV shows are based on the original comic book, we feel we deserve a story that we could have just as easily read off the glossy pages, rather than a story crafted for another form of entertainment. In Arkham Asylum, each punch, every horrifying Scarecrow-induced hallucination, and nearly every spoken word feels ripped directly from a comic book. In truth, we are happy Batman: Arkham Asylum is not based on a recent movie; it deserves its own world, its own story, its own soundtrack, and its own set of characters. Rocksteady and Eidos figured out how to give the game some massive personality, and after all, the superhero genre certainly needs a personality adjustment.