Why is Arkham Asylum Good?

Sure it’s an all-around good game. Hours and days later, I keep thinking about Arkham, and I reconsider what you can guess about my development experience (officially: no comment).

On this face of it, designing a Batman game presents significant challenges at the high level. First, you’ve got this Batman guy. He’s a great character — in fact he’s too much of a character.  How do you decide what your video game Batman can do, what tone and mood to set… when there’s been at least four Bruce Waynes on film in the last two decades? Add in the television versions — the animated series that’s been around in different forms for a while — and even Adam West’s version. Don’t forget the comic books that existed on paper for far longer than you’ve been alive. The printed Batman is the creation of so many artists and writers, each with his own take on the caped crusader, how can all of this come together cohesively? It really doesn’t.

When an audience experiences a single source, they often come away with strikingly different opinions of what a character is about —  along with how serious or realistic the story is. With its striking volume of  material, Batman simply means different things to different people. What’s important to the character and franchise? Brawling? Gadgets? Solving crime? Sneaking around? Rooftop chases? Vehicles? Sidekicks? Villains? Gotham itself?

So, there’s too much there to even try to be comprehensive. To their credit, the developers of this title didn’t really try.  I don’t doubt there was considerable pressure to do more — internal, external, fans  — since  everyone thinks they know Batman. To include more villains. To include vehicles. A love interest. A sidekick.

On the surface of it, if someone told me that a new Batman game would combine sneaking, brawling, platforming, and puzzle solving, I’d probably have told them: that can’t work. Cut something.

And yet this title pulls it off. It also remains loyal to their character pretty much all the way through. None of these gameplay modes is complex or deep, and that’s why I think it works. Brawling is based around a highly directed “use-this-button-against-this-type-at-this-time” sort of whack-a-mole. Platforming consists largely of  jumping and ropeclimbing, no different from what we’ve seen before. Sneaking is guided through obvious hiding spots, kept fresh with amusing AI. So it’s cinematic, fast-paced, and easy to learn.

The result is  hybrid game worthy of praise (and, in my case, envy).

Well Done, Guys

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