The Joker has it wrong - Batman doesn’t dress like a bat. Batman is a man who dresses up like a man who dresses up like a bat. Which makes me, playing Batman: Arkham Asylum a man who dresses up like a man who dresses up like a man who dresses up like a bat. And if this seems unreasonably convoluted, spare a thought for Sammy “Two Wigs” Wiggerson, my professional body double, who dresses up like a man who dresses up like a man who – oh you’ve already lost interest.
Well now. As the game opens Batman has caught the Joker and is carting him off in his Batmobile to the eponymous Arkham Asylum. Hooray! Game over! Slush Puppies for everyone! Except of course it’s all a not-so-cunning ruse. Arkham’s full to bursting after having ingested a fair dose of the Joker’s own gang members, transferred there after their regular prison was oh-so-mysteriously burnt down. Cue escape, cue the classiest kind of chaos, cue Mark Hamill as the Joker.
It’s a masterstroke bringing back the key cast members of the 1990s animated series, but this is an altogether more grown-up interpretation of the Batman mythology, more akin to the best of the comic series than any of the more recent cartoon or film interpretations. Both Batman and Joker are at the very height of their powers, easing into a fierce, long-lasting animosity in middle age rather than the frantic origin stories we’re being fed on the big screen.
The voice acting is absolutely top-notch, with the core cast well versed in their respective characters. Hamill’s Joker is beautifully manic and sinister, but it’s Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn that steals the show. Air headed, obsessive and more than a little bit crackers, she’s an absolutely marvellous villain who heads up a rather jam-packed cast of hand-picked no-goods from Batman’s copious rogues’ gallery. Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Mr Zasz and Bane all make appearances, and throughout the game there are nods to pretty much every villain the septuagenarian super-chap has ever crossed batarangs with. Despite the silliness of many of these (Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee? Seriously?), it always feels remarkably restrained and carefully measured.
Perhaps the most impressive member of the cast is the asylum itself. Arkham Island is magnificently realised as a grim, looming gothic building, aching with tortured history and more recent horrors being perpetrated on the inmates. Inmates that have just been let loose. Oh deary dear. Taking a leaf from games like Half-Life and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the game presents the island as a single location early on, giving you an idea of its scale and physical boundaries. Thus established, the story then zig-zags around Arkham, letting Bats explore the whole shebang without it ever feeling forced or artificial.
Seeing as how it’s Batman, most of this exploration is interspersed with that special kind of violence that only a thoroughly broken mind like Mr Wayne’s can justify. I mean come on, this is the guy with a specific rule to never take a life, but he spends the entirety of his time beating so many different shades of shit out of practically everyone he meets it’s still highly unpleasant. From the player’s perspective combat is relatively easy to wrap your gnarled finger-claws around, pleasingly intuitive and highly responsive, if not exactly intricate. This is the most common interaction with the naughty men who are now running the Asylum, but the other’s in the game’s pleasingly fresh take on stealth mechanics.
Batman can breathe in space, sure, but he’s not immune to being bulleted to death by angry rifles. This makes the most tense and memorably parts of Arkham Asylum those where you’re forced to go all sneaky around the place to take them out one by one. The stakes are upped throughout, adding collars that alert the rest of the goons every time one of them is taken out, necessitating a quick return to the shadows, and later the booby-trapping of the ubiquitous gargoyles which had previously been such a useful escape route. In fact, it’s this last iteration of the concept that works best, and it’s a shame that there isn’t more of it.
The other thing to mention is that the boss battles are rather stilted and repetitive. Essentially the first real boss you encounter is repeated over and over until it ceases to be a real boss fight and becomes just a fight. The one real attempt to shake things up with Killer Croc is even worse, little more than whack-a-mole with only one mole. Of course this is Batman, and the villains are invariably criminals rather than super-people, so boss battles were never going to be an entirely comfortable addition.
On the whole, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a genuine joy, and somewhat surprising for all that, being such a hefty licence and all. The long history of the Batman mythology is given an emphatic salute by developers who were clearly loving what they were doing, and with gloriously gothic atmosphere dripping from every spandex-clad pore what could have been another tedious workaday flop like recent Superman or Spiderman outings is a pleasure to play. And since this is Batman after all, the chances of it not receiving a sequel are remote. It’s a tantalising prospect. See you in the future. Same bat-time (no), same bat-channel (please god no).