They don’t get any truer to subject matter than this. In its technical prowess, trim structure, fierce but fiercely contained bursts of freeform violence and continual teetering on the edge of psychological horror, Rocksteady Studios’ spectacular second project is a mirror for the Dark Knight himself – lean, unhurried, purposeful, potent and just the slightest bit chaotic. Quite how the minds behind the savagely passable Urban Chaos: Riot Response managed to produce an action-adventure as expertly judged, as substantial as Arkham Asylum defeats me, but DC Comics enthusiasts finally have the videogame Batman they’ve been waiting for.
The stage is set with a masterful interactive cutscene, Batman escorting the trolley-bound Joker through the corridors of Gotham City’s infamous asylum after thwarting a suspiciously amateurish kidnap attempt. It’s a showcase for both the game’s detailed, seamlessly animated and delightfully over-designed characters and its Hollywood-level voice-acting and script, with Mark Hamill laying on the cackles as Batman’s nemesis and Kevin Conroy permanently unruffled in the role of leading man.
Needless to say, the Joker’s not about to lie down and take his medication quietly: slipping his bonds, he seals himself off in the island with an army of ‘Clown’ convicts and several of Batman’s old foes, chief among them the botany-loving Poison Ivy, ‘Jokerette’ Harley Quinn, bestial Killer Croc and insidious Scarecrow. The ensuing twelve hours of cat-and-mouse antics walk a finely managed line between the campier aspects of Batman lore (e.g. Quinn’s taste in corsets) and the fraught, introspective vibe re-popularised by Chris Nolan’s celebrated The Dark Knight.
Arkham Asylum unfolds at a gentle but inexorable pace, drip-feeding you the components of Mr Wayne’s high-tech arsenal and combat suite as you weasel your way out of the Intensive Treatment centre. The pattern of play gradually pegged down in the process mixes stealth with out-and-out pugilism and rudimentary environmental puzzle-solving, Batman’s one-button-fits-all ‘Detective Mode’ visor allowing him to follow breadcrumb trails of trace evidence, spot weakened walls and sweep crime scenes in the first person for clues.