Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Blogger Obsessed...

Joker's Renovations to the Visitor Center
I know I'm not the first Charge-Shot!!! blogger to have played Batman: Arkham Asylum, and I hope I'm not the last... although that may very well be the case, as I could see myself leading my third-person, Kevin Conroy-voiced, statuesque hunk of a Bat through the eerie dilapidated halls of Gotham City's most celebrated/terrifying lunatic asylum until my thumbs stop working. This was my third time through (most of) the game, but my first since actually owning a PS3 on which to play it, and every bit of it was as magical as the first time.

A Riddler puzzle that depends on where you stand
Since I received that aforementioned PS3 as a gift, I've spent pretty much every minute where I was both a) in my apartment and b) conscious totally immersed in the game's world. I completed the story mode with enough style and flair to gain enough XP to unlock all Batman's upgrades before the final boss fight (longer and more varied combos during "Free-Flow" combat sessions earn more experience points, which can be used to purchase cool Bat-gadgets). I'm currently embarking on the quest for 100% completion by finding all the hidden Riddler-themed items on the map and unlocking all the combat/stealth challenges. Then it's on the downloadable content. Which will hopefully hold me over until Arkham City comes out in the fall. Who am I kidding? I'll probably play through the story at least twice more before midsummer...

I don't have much of anything new to say about the game, except to profess my love for it. Andrew summed up the gameplay mechanics in his demo review. It's been well noted in Marginalias of the past how well this game stands up against all previous attempts to game-itize the Caped Crusader. So I'll jump right into a rundown of the game's comic-inspired renditions of our favorite heroes and villains and a discussion of how their gameplay mechanics relate to the underlying social and political themes of the Batman universe.

The main villain is obviously the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill from the Animated Series). He's got his trademark purple suit, marionette-like physique, and white skin, but they extended his red lips out to the side, seemingly in homage to Heath Ledger's face scars, and the two paradigms don't gel in my opinion. He's the brains of the operation, orchestrating a trap to lure Batman to the madhouse and unleash hell on him. His main method of thwarting The Bat is to throw an increasingly difficult stream of henchmen in his path - which makes sense, because Joker has always derived his strength from the chaos he sows, the minds he's able to win over (See Harley Quinn and her wonderfully fleshed-out origin story, if his army of infinite henchmen isn't enough). He doesn't even fight until the final battle when he injects himself with a hugeifying serum called "Titan" derived from...

Bane, the game's first boss, who acts as a template for most of the rest of the game's higher level encounters. He basically has three fingerprints that he leaves all over the game: he can take swings at you, he can throw stuff at you, and he can put his head down and charge, leaving himself temporarily vulnerable to a batarang to the face. Bane represents everything Batman isn't: roided out strong, lumbering and clumsy, and too hotheaded to mount a well-planned attack. You have to use your speed and strategy to defeat him in single (+ henchmen) combat.

The next villain you face is the Scarecrow, who doses Batman with fear gas three times throughout the story mode, each time kicking off a platforming mini-game where you have to avoid the gaze of a giant Scarecrow in his nightmare world. There's also an element of henchmen-combo-ing, but his henchmen are skeletons wielding scimitars in place of thugs swinging lead pipes. Scarecrow obviously represents fear, which is so skillfully represented in the game that I literally jump in my seat every time the Scarecrow sees me, even if I know it's coming.

Batman obviously also uses fear to affect his enemies, but the game uses Scarecrow to explore Batman/Bruce Wayne's psyche and look into the things he is really afraid of. Obviously there's the death of his parents, but they also touch on the idea that maybe Batman is just as crazy as the supervillains against whom he vies. It's a well-trodden concept, but skillfully (and creepily) executed in the game.

Next, it's a trip to the sewers with Killer Croc. His level is in two parts: sneak around gathering plant spores to make an antidote to Joker's "Titan" serum, knocking him into the water when he hops out at random points, and then run away from him as fast as possible when he starts chasing you. They make Croc so overbearing and so threatening in this game that any attempt at straight-on combat is unthinkable (which makes you wonder how they brought him to Arkham in the first place), so it's natural to just focus on avoidance. At bottom, he's just big and scaly and mean - and urban legends have taught us that crocs belong in the sewers.

The last boss before Mega-Joker is Poison Ivy, but with a twist: she's been injected with Joker's crazy "Titan" serum which turns her into a gigantic plant-human hybrid, launching deadly spores and grabbing with vines that resemble tentacles you might expect to see in some sick Japanese cartoon. They've played up her seductive powers in the game, allowing her to bewitch certain henchmen and send them at you, wave after wave. According to her character bio, Batman uses his supreme willpower to resist her pheromones, but her situation in the game obviously represents what happens when sexually-empowered women amass too much actual power. At least the "Titan" didn't just make her a Bane-clone like it does for everyone else in the game...

Two-Face's Bifurcated Cell
These are the only five villains with which you interact in the game (I'm not counting Zsasz, he's too weird and uninspired), but there are visual references to pretty much every major villain in the Batman canon, some of which will certainly appear in the sequel. Not only does Arkham Asylum play like a dream, but its remarkably effective representations of well-loved figures from a well-respected comic book universe really take the cake. Plus the music's pretty great, if a little derivative of The Dark Knight. (Someone on the interwebs was kind enough to rip all 4.5 hours of the game's music directly from the audio files - there's no soundtrack available for sale - so that should keep me busy for weeks to come.)

For me, Arkham Asylum alone is worth the price of admission into PS3-land - any other game, including the sequel, is just a bonus. But now that I'm a resident, I'm sure I'll want to stay up to date on some of the newer and more exciting titles available on the top-of-the-line platforms, so expect a greater contribution from me in the gaming space in the future!