Story Review: “Batman: Arkham Asylum”

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WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of the game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It’s just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.


Idea:

Instead of breaking out of Arkham Asylum, this time, Joker wants to enter it and Batman has to prevent whatever Joker wants to achieve by doing so. This demonstrates how you don’t need grand ideas for a good story. Sometimes something as simple as reversing the usual formula can serve you well. In this case it instantly creates a mystery and gets the audience interested. Why is Joker trying to get into Arkham Asylum? What’s his endgame? The center idea also justifies the limited setting of Arkham Asylum itself. It’s not like Batman cannot leave the asylum. He certainly can. But because of the events which come to pass, it doesn’t make sense for Batman to leave the asylum before the main conflict is resolved. Therefore he stays and confronts many villains from his past. The appearance of these villains are perfectly justified too, because this is where he put these villains in the first place. A very simple and effective idea worthy of all sorts of applause.

Rating: 2 out of 2

Setting:

Almost the entire story takes place inside the boundries of Arkham Asylum. This may sound a little claustrophobic but thankfully this version of Arkham Asylum is more than a simple building. It occupies a huge area made of several separate locations including but not limited to a gothic manor, ancient underground passages, catacombs, a botanical garden and different wards. The size of the facility may seem stupid for the uninformed but it’s suitably overstated for the city of Gotham. After all this is a super-asylum which doubles as a prison for the insane super human villains we can see Batman fighting against. Some of them, like Killer Croc are barely human. The setting not only contains the story focused on a single location, but it also provides variety due to the presence of several different villains.

Of course, on a grander scale the setting itself resides in an original interpretation of the DC Universe, resting comfortably somewhere between the stark realism of Nolan movies and the colorful insanity of the comic books. This is a dark Batman for sure. There is no Robin or no yellow Batman logo here. Things are much more plausible than the comic book adventures of the silver ages. Yet there is ultra high technology in every day use. There are fast acting toxic mutagens. There is poison Ivy. And people are referring to each other using their nicknames in private conversation. So we can safely say things are much closer to comic books than the Nolan movies. It’s a mature version of the DC universe we’re seeing here, balanced perfectly on the slippery edge between too real and too silly.

Rating: 2 out of 2

Characters:

This is a tough one. On one hand you have the legacy of DC Universe, especially the Batman part of it, with its quirky and insanely original characters. One of the best decisions made by DC at the start of things was not giving Batman any super powers. Throughout all these years this decision prevented escalation. Most villains in Batman stories are just ordinary humans. They are neither planet eating intergalactic organisms nor Norse gods from another dimension. They are just criminals with above average intelligence. This opens the doors to potentially interesting stories although, I have to admit, we rarely see such stories in comic books. We can still say the characters in Batman comic books are of the interesting variant. A good writer can always turn them into gold.

On the other hand we have the cardboard cut, empty characters of Batman: Arkham Asylum. This is quite a wasted opportunity given the interesting interpretation of the setting and the cool idea. Sadly the characters in this story, hero or villain, don’t really have any plausible motivations for their actions. Batman: Arkham Asylum is almost romantic in its way of dealing with characters. Joker is doing bad things because he is well …a bad person. Batman is trying to stop him because he’s the hero. He’s supposed to be doing what he does simply because he is who he is.

Part of the reason for this antiquated system of characterisation is probably the game’s presumption of its audience’s high degree of familiarity with the subject matter. Those who have no idea who all these insane people are, are directed to an in-game encyclopedia not much different from the one you can find in the Dynasty Warriors series, although it’s certainly more stylistic. The voice recordings in this encyclopedia are superbly produced and written really well. The problem is the fact that your main source of insight about the characters in the story is these optional, collectible voice recordings. There is no character development to be found anywhere and very few of the character traits you learn from this encyclopedia are to be found inside the main story.

Batman, with his superb deductive abilities, makes horrible mistakes of judgement, relies more on his shiny gadgets than his intelligence and has trouble connecting obvious dots. Bane, a character known both for his great strength and his superior intelligence behaves like a common thug in his brief boss fight appearance.

More disconcerting is the lack of real motivation in Joker. Even though it can be argued that the plot vaguely resembles Nolan’s second Batman movie The Dark Knight, this Joker is just a half mad evil guy who, at the end of the day, proves to be not that clever after all. Heath Ledger’s depiction of the same character was terrifying not because Joker is a chaotic character without any purpose, but because in that story Joker actually had a point. There was hint of method behind the madness lurking beneath that smiling mask of paint. It’s not the insane who make us uneasy. It’s the barely sane who reject the rules of the society and say the things we know to be true deep in our souls, but reject them because we’re afraid of the implications. Compared to that, this Joker is a simple clown with a huge budget.

The few touching moments are there thanks to Scarecrow, but there is nothing here we don’t know about Bruce Bane.

Rating: 0 out of 2

Plot Structure:

What starts as an intriguing mystery and a horrible crisis quickly turns into something very simple. Joker makes a pact with a person inside the Asylum, when that person doesn’t deliver on her promise, he goes inside to pick up his package of mass destruction. Batman follows him. He throws baddies and some simple traps in Batman’s way. Batman kicks his ass. End of story.

There really is nothing to see here. Of course it works as a simple hero versus villain story but no one gains anything from this encounter. The story follows an almost episodic formula setting up the next installation in a quite irrelevant way and keeping the whole plot of this installation inside itself as an isolated event.

There are hundreds of plot holes and screwed up motivations here. Was this really the best way for Joker to obtain what he’s seeking? Couldn’t he simply kidnap the doctor at her home? How did Harley Quinn escape in the first place? If she could escape and take the warden of the Asylum hostage, couldn’t she also simply take the doctor hostage? After all it should be simpler. How did all the minions of Joker get into the asylum? Are they all insane? They looked very sane to me… Isn’t this a mental institution? Why are they incarcerated here?

We’re expected to ignore all these questions and more. In the end we’re left with an typical silver age comic book story. Even Riddler’s presence as the guy who’s providing the “secrets hunt” doesn’t really make much sense. The story is a more like forced pathway for you to confront a gallery of bad guys without rhyme or reason.

Rating: 0 out of 2

Craftsmanship:

Contrary to popular belief, the word “flawless”, may have different meanings. Usually when it’s about a work of art, it means that work of art is technically all it should be but not more. Nothing special or original. For the most part Batman: Arkham Asylum stays flawless. Visually, it’s a feast. Batman has all the moves and all the gadgets you’d expect from him, yet he does nothing you don’t expect. The dialog is well written and spoken, although you won’t find any lines you’d want to quote when you’re talking to your friends about this game. The music is effective, well used and produced but you won’t find a Batman melody you’d want to hum to yourself, like the one done by Danny Elfman in Tim Burton’s Batman movies.

What elevates this experience above flawless is the scenes involving Scarecrow. This interesting villain, with his hallucination inducing fear chemical, represents a great storytelling opportunity and the developers of Batman: Arkham Asylum capitalise on that. The first hallucination is hardly a surprise, especially for people who have prior knowledge of Batman lore. The event is almost telegraphed. However, the second one improves things quite a bit by its liberal use of dutch camera angles and slowly transforming reality. It proves to be a great way to retell Batman’s origin story in an exceptionally interesting way.

It’s the third hallucination though, which brings Batman: Arkham Asylum into the realm of unforgettable. Utilising the unique properties of the medium, here, writer Paul Dini makes the story jump out of the screen to invade your safe haven of sanity behind the game pad. The dosage of Scarecrow’s hallucinogen is so great that this time, it’s not only Batman who starts to lose his sanity. You join him. You, the player, who has since the beginning of the game identified himself with Batman, questions if he’s losing his sanity too. The story becomes aware of its own existence in a video game and the fourth wall comes crashing down. Sure it’s a disturbing experience, but that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Bertholt Brecht would have been proud.

Not only is it a great way of making the audience feel what the protagonist is experiencing, but in this case it’s also a subtle critic of video game story telling in general. Hitting RETRY this time, you get to see Batman rising from his own grave as he did so many times before, when he died throughout the duration of this video game. Only he literally rises from his grave now, making this hallucinated unreality more real than the video game reality we’re used to. Simply brilliant.

Rating: 2 out of 2

OVERALL:

6 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: “Infamous”
NEXT WEEK: “Wet”

About the author

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By Fasih

Disclaimer

Daniel works at Riot Games.

Fasih works at Crytek.

They have opinions. Their opinions are theirs only and are not necessarily shared by their companies.

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