During the dense opening credits of Batman: Arkham Asylum, as the Joker is being wheeled, Hannibal Lecter style, into the titular institution, we’re introduced to the building’s depressing, low-ceilinged environs. More importantly, we’re re-introduced to the dynamic between the Joker and Batman. Per usual, the Joker talks a lot, Batman says nothing, and their great dance, which has been going on since 1940, continues.
It’s hard not to wish that these two would kiss and get it over with already. They’re the Sam and Diane of comic books.
There has never been a credible, palatable, or playable Batman videogame—except LEGO Batman, which doesn’t really count—until now. Arkham Asylum’s story, written by Batman: The Animated Series’ Paul Dini, involves the Joker intentionally getting captured so he and his minions can take over Arkham Asylum, trapping Batman inside. One subtle point Dini makes repeatedly is that hero and villain alike are clearly nutty enough to deserve being locked up in this place.
Batman, as a character, doesn’t require an entire cityscape to roam around in à la the Hulk or Spider-Man. He doesn’t need to hurl city buses or bound over buildings. He’s quiet, observant, and more than a little strange. Those qualities are difficult to articulate in a videogame, but developer Rocksteady has managed to articulate them. The scale of the game feels exactly right. Batman belongs in narrow, claustrophobic hallways, tiny rooms, and vents. He’s a skulker, not a bounder.
You’ll spend much of the game in “detective mode,” a visual filter that lets Batman suss out secrets and passageways. There are puzzles to solve, things to think about, and thugs to clobber, all dovetailing into an exciting mix of the cerebral and the visceral. You’re forever trying to figure out the best way to accomplish things, and it’s that figuring that makes you feel eerily like Batman himself.
The game also feels decidedly adult; it’s unafraid to take dark turns. The writing and themes become unexpectedly morbid in later stages. It’s obvious that Arkham was created with reverence, genuine craft, and love. There’s a rare, considered quality behind everything on the disc, which makes this an absolute must-play.