Batman’s video game legacy seems storied like few other licensed characters, since DC’s caped vigilante has had more than his fair share of interactive adaptations. However, Batman: Arkham Asylum, released on August 25, 2009, raised the bar to unimaginable heights. Carefully crafted into the experience is nearly every facet of modern Batman mythos that’s withstood the test of time across three decades. This includes the character’s darker edge, an emphasis on his haunted psyche, and horror, the latter of which often meshes well with Gotham’s setting.
The acclaimed storytelling, courtesy of Harley Quinn creator Paul Dini, and gameplay also set the first Arkham title apart from its licensed video game counterparts. Buttressing all of the above is an incredible voice cast, a few of whom reprised their Batman: The Animated Series roles.
Serious House on Serious Earth
Rocksteady’s initial Batman experience is in many respects derivative of a graphic novel from the prolific Grant Morrison, Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth (1989). The comic’s and game’s premises mirror one another a fair bit. Each casts Batman in the middle of an Arkham riot with Joker as a frontrunner. The two tales even share an embedded narrative–ambiguity concerning the past of Arkham’s founder, Amadeus Arkham, slowly unfolding over time. Though Morrison’s beloved work serves as the Rocksteady title’s bedrock, the game’s tone ensures it stands on its own, due in no small part to award-winning Batman writer Paul Dini.
Akin to BTAS, Arkham Asylum tells somewhat of a mature story within a framework that remains friendly to younger audiences. As such, the title seems a love letter to the animated series, helped by the casting of Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker), and Arleen Sorkin (Harley). Adult themes mixed with comic frivolity are mainstays throughout the narrative, from the opening with Joker’s capture and subsequent escape to Scarecrow’s mysterious post-credits scene.
Admittedly, Arkham Asylum’s ending doesn’t stick the landing as strongly as the rest of the narrative. (Titan Joker isn’t the franchise’s finest moment.) Yet, the overarching plot and story warrant much praise. Trapping the Dark Knight inside a “madhouse” replete with some of his greatest foes makes for an unparalleled interactive experience. Helping seal the deal are a few lesser-known villains, such as Victor Zsasz, receiving time in the limelight. Even Scarecrow’s inclusion demands applause. His machinations force Batman to confront his inner demons to an extent few other cross-media projects had before Arkham Asylum, specifically with regards to the Wayne murders.
I Am Vengeance… I Am the Night
2009 marked a mid-generation period for gaming. Sequels to games from earlier in the PlayStation 3’s and Xbox 360’s lifecycles launched alongside Arkham Asylum, including Assassin’s Creed 2 and Uncharted 2. Still, Rocksteady’s project proved there was room for improvement. Its gameplay alone evinces as much. If in 2009 third-person action games necessitated something to jumpstart innovation, Batman’s venture into Arkham kicked the door in.
Fluid hand-to-hand combat with a beat ’em up flair set Arkham Asylum apart from the crowd. For the first time, players actually felt like the Bat. Springing from one enemy to another, effortlessly countering, and performing well-timed combos with gadgets doesn’t only feel good on the controller, it looks eloquent on screen. And let’s not get started on stealth. Overall, there exists a smoothness to every combat encounter, a simplistic complexity, if that makes sense, that cannot be replicated. Yet, many third-person action titles went on to emulate Rocksteady’s achievement. Sleeping Dogs, Assassin’s Creed III, and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor represent but a handful of examples. It’s fair to say, then, Arkham Asylum redefined the genre.
“Arkham is a Looking Glass”
Perhaps one aspect of Rocksteady’s first foray with the Caped Crusader that doesn’t receive enough acclaim is Arkham itself, both the Asylum and the island at-large. The dimly lit halls of Arkham’s gothic interior paint a harrowing atmosphere, a maze of cells, offices, etc. like no other. Even while backtracking there’s hardly any way of knowing what may be tucked around one corner. Maybe a pair of Joker teeth are clattering along the stained linoleum floor, adding to the eeriness of an empty corridor. Or perhaps an inmate hides in a corner, lying in wait for the perfect jump scare opportunity. All of the above and more amplifies tension, propelling the player further into the experience.
The grounds of Arkham Island are similarly well crafted. A full moon hovers high over the island, lighting the path ahead, distorting shadows in areas that beg to be explored. Upon doing so, players are likely to stumble across an array of worthwhile collectibles and secrets. A Riddler Trophy might be concealed in a missable nook. The answer to a riddle referencing an obscure Batman rogue can be found in many a cranny. Some intricate detail that only wants for attention, like the Arkham City plans, is bound to catch a player’s keen eye every now and again. To call the design of Arkham Island masterful would be a gross understatement. It’s a paragon of great game design, further evidenced by the Metroidvania elements that still make the experience feel so refreshing.
Perfecting the Eerie Nemesis of Crime
Arkham Asylum excels beyond the Caped Crusader’s gaming legacy. It counts as a first deep dive into Batman mythos for many players. Meanwhile, others consider it their return to the character, after having been away for a time. What it represents in its totality, however, is near perfect execution of the vigilante’s stomping grounds.
Gotham exemplifies a place of iniquity, the city’s criminality emboldened by wealthy folk, politicians, and the like, all of whom benefit from it far too much to make the necessary changes. The Dark Knight, in a perfect world, could be that change, or, at the very least, might serve as the first step towards progress. An agent of justice finely walking a moral gray line, Batman willfully descends into the bowels of depravity, yet comes out ready to continue his crusade, scarred but still intact–physically and psychologically. Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum, 10 years ago today, captured this in spades, doing so in a manner that, arguably, has only thus far been managed in the comics.