Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Batman: Arkham Asylum" (Sefton Hill, Paul Boulden and Jamie Walker, 2009)


Directed by Sefton Hill, Paul Boulden and Jamie Walker
Written by Paul Dini
Narrative Designed by Paul Crocker
Based on the DC Comics Characters Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Developed by Rocksteady Studios Ltd
Published by Eidos Interactive and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Produced by Nathan Burlow and Matt O’Driscoll

Associate Produced by Joe Best, Scott Burfitt, Gerald Smith and Nathan Whitman
Art Direction by David Hego
Stunt Performance by David Newton
Batman Combat Performance by Marcus Shakesheff
Lead Animation by Zafer Coban
Character Design by Andrew Coombes
Original Video Game Score Composed by Nick Arundel and Ron Fish

Kevin Conroy ... Bruce Wayne/Batman (Voice)
Mark Hamill … The Joker (Voice)
Arleen Sorkin … Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Voice)
Kimberly D. Brooks … Barbara Gordon/Oracle (Voice)
Cree Summer … Dr. Penelope Young (Voice)
Tom Kane … Commissioner James Gordon (Voice)
Wally Wingert … Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Voice)
Dino Andrade … Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Voice)
Steven Blum … Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Voice)
Tasia Valenza … Pamela Lillian Isley/Poison Ivy (Voice)
Fred Tatasciore … Bane (Voice)
Danny Jacobs … Victor Zsasz (Voice)
Tom Kane … Warden Quincy Sharp (Voice)
Duane R. Shepard Sr. … Arkham Security Head Aaron Cash (Voice)
Danny Jacobs … Arkham Security Guard Frank Boles (Voice)
Adrienne Barbeau … Dr. Gretchen Whistler (Voice)
Kimberly D. Brooks … Dr. Sara Cassidy (Voice)
Wally Wingert … Dr. Adrian Chen (Voice)
Keith Ferguson … Dr. Stephen Kellerman (Voice)
Tom Kane … Arkham Security Guard Louie Green (Voice)
Chris Gardner … Arkham Security Guard Henry Smith (Voice)
Steven Blum … Arkham Security Guard Ian Kennedy (Voice)
Roger Rose … Arkham Security Guard William North (Voice)
Chris Cox … Arkham Security Guard Eddie Burlow (Voice)
Chris Gardner … Arkham Security Guard Zach Franklin (Voice)
Steven Blum … Arkham Security Guard Jordan Fraser (Voice)
Wally Wingert … Arkham Orderly Bob Johnson (Voice)
Danny Jacobs … Arkham Orderly Robert Stirling (Voice)
Tom Kane … Amadeus Arkham (Voice)
Kevin Conroy … Dr. Thomas Wayne (Voice)
Tasia Valenza … Martha Wayne (Voice)
Kimberly D. Brooks … Young Bruce Wayne (Voice)
James Horan … Jack Ryder (Voice)
Keith Ferguson … TV Voice (Voice)
Adrienne Barbeau … Arkham Asylum PA (Voice)

Upon apprehending the Joker once more, Batman returns the Clown Prince of Crime to the notorious Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. But what begins as a procedural drop off turns into a night of madness when the Joker escapes custody and takes control of the Asylum as a means of unleashing his latest plan to destroy all of Gotham.


Video games of pre-existing properties are among the most notorious for their simultaneous shortcomings of quality in the gameplay and lack of faith to the source material. From film franchises (“Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Terminator,” “The Matrix”) to cartoons (“Looney Tunes,” “Disney,” “Hanna Barbara”) to comic books (“Superman,” “Spider-Man,” “X-Men” and, yes, even our dear Dark Knight), the attempts to translate to the realm of video games have been incredibly numerous and yet, admittedly, it’s astounding how many of them are created and released to much disdain. You certainly never see them topping the game sales or critics’ charts.


But all of that changed in 2009. And like catching lightning in a bottle, “Batman: Arkham Asylum” set off a firestorm of acclaim completely unprecedented for any other video game of its kind.

“Tell me something. You’ve never let me catch you this easily. What’re you really after?”


Following his defeat at Gotham City Hall, the nefarious Joker (Mark Hamill) is captured by Batman (Kevin Conroy) and brought back to Arkham, much to both the relief of Commissioner Gordon (Tom Kane) and frustrations of newly appointed warden Quincy Sharp (Tom Kane yet again; as with most video game projects, a number of the voice actors pull double, triple and sometimes even quadruple duty!).

During a passage of handling while in transit, Batman watches helplessly as the Joker breaks free and murders his escorts, retreating into the bowels of the Asylum with the caped crusader in hot pursuit. But the night is just beginning as a number of Arkham’s most notorious inmates – including the Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Victor Zsasz, Poison Ivy and the Riddler – all use the Joker’s siege for their own respective opportunities to defeat Batman as he fights his way through Arkham Island to stop Joker’s schemes and take back the Asylum.


“Welcome to the madhouse, Batman!”

With a wide array of inventive gameplay tactics, a fully immersive and richly detailed playable map and a gripping story, “Arkham Asylum” sets out to create an engaging and interactive rendering, giving fans an authentic experience of what it’s like to not just be Batman but behave and think like Batman and it succeeds handsomely.

To date, “Arkham Asylum” still holds the Guinness World Record as the most critically praised super hero game of all time and for good reason.

It strikes a terrific balance of two worlds, creating a piece with feet firmly placed in both comic book lore and video game lineage. That’s the biggest problem with most other games like this. Either the developers create something that focuses so much on the property that playing it is a chore or they attempt to give gamers a well-crafted set of game mechanics without bothering to stay true to the source material. Truth be told, most game adaptations are just a combination of both. However Rocksteady broke the mold by doing something inventively obvious. Something that, frankly, the film adaptations of these super hero characters should consider.

They brought in a writer who knew what he was doing.


“He’s out of control. He’s trying to prove something. I’m not sure if I can stop him this time.”

Paul Dini stands as one of the premiere Batman writers of the last 20 years. His credits include everything from a list of beloved episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series” and its subsidiary extensions like the “Superman,” “Batman Beyond” and “Justice League” continuations to the reinvention of Mr. Freeze and the creation of Harley Quinn to a number of Batman comic book works including “Batman: War on Crime” with Alex Ross as well as “Batman: Heart of Hush,” “Batman: Detective,” “Batman: Streets of Gotham” and contributions to several issues of “Batman,” “Detective Comics” and so forth.

Dini has passion and pedigree when it comes to this cast of characters and Rocksteady had the foresight to not only recognize that but embrace it by tapping and working with Paul to pen the overall narrative and script the game. From there, like dominos, things fell into place with the return of fan favorites Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn.

Like stars aligning, “Arkham Asylum” just felt like something bigger and grander and it paid off in spades.

“There’s no escape, Joker.”

“Silly Bat, I don’t want to escape. I’m having way too much fun!”


As documented in my friend Captain Logan’s review of the game, Alfred Hitchcock claimed that drama was life with the boring portions removed…and it could be argued that with video games, those portions are reinstalled.

Throughout the game, as you work your way across Arkham Island continuing the story by beating up Joker’s henchmen, solving puzzles, finding your way through certain environments, obtaining Riddler trophies and overcoming obstacles and villains standing in your way, the narrative becomes incredibly involved. You don’t just achieve a goal and get transplanted to the next site of conflict. No, you’re Batman and you’re treated as such. As the night wears on with the threat of fatigue, exhaustion and madness, you’re free to roam the island while having to take responsibility for transporting yourself to your next objective, be it by grappling hook, gliding with your cape or, most often, making a run for it like the Olympian athlete that Bruce Wayne is.

As a Batman fan, I really appreciate the injection of that effort and commitment that comes with the territory. By the time you’ve successfully conquered the next objective, you genuinely feel like you’ve earned it because, like Batman himself, you made the commitment and had the drive to stop a bomb from detonating or save Jim Gordon’s life or retrieve information from the Batcave that you needed to continue.


This approach of making an invested effort also gives “Arkham Asylum” an added layer with the subsequent need to texturize and develop every reachable nook and cranny of the Island and its structures. Arkham is composed of five main environments: the Intensive Treatment building, the Medical Facility, the old Arkham Mansion, the massive Penitentiary and the lush Botanical Gardens. The island is further realized with a maze of subterranean caverns, chambers, sewers and catacombs beneath the Asylum…as well as an aforementioned Batcave hidden as a precautionary measure.

“It’s best to plan ahead for situations like this.”

Above all, “Arkham Asylum” is an experience filled to the brim with atmosphere. By confining Batman and the story to the Island, it creates a sense of isolation and claustrophobia, even in the segments that take place outside. In that regard, it reminds me somewhat of one of my favorite films, “Escape from New York.” That idea of creating a self-contained dilemma that Batman has to solely infiltrate and take control of. It’s a wonderful angle that truly portrays Batman as the one man weapon he’s trained and refined himself to become. The game’s inevitable sequel would take this same approach, heightened even more so and it’s an awesome reminder that at the end of the day, Batman can get the job done and, in his own words, “work better alone.”

As a setting, Arkham itself is an ideal choice for a video game. It limits the game area and allows the designers and animators the ability to focus on creating the best environment they can instead of spreading themselves thin in an attempt to create a full blown Gotham (at least for the moment).

Narratively it’s also a tremendous fit as Dini crafts a story that deals with a number of iconic concepts in the Batman universe. Specifically the idea of whether or not Wayne is as insane as the evildoers he puts away and if the collective madness of both Joker and Batman in their struggle is the true source of Gotham’s own descent into lunacy, with Batman’s presence being arguably responsible for the villains and their heinous actions against the city.


These questions are posed and Batman is challenged throughout the game but it’s easily most directly depicted through the three interactions with the Scarecrow as you find yourself influenced by Crane’s infamous Fear Toxin.

At first you’re confronted with the reanimated corpses of Dr. Thomas and Martha Wayne. Later, you relive that tragic night in a beautiful rendition as a hallway in the Arkham Mansion gradually transforms into the alleyway where Bruce’s parents were gunned down and you walk for a few moments in the shoes of a just-orphaned child Bruce Wayne.

The final Fear gas hallucination is the most startling and poetic.


To start, the game performs a self-aware glitch effect and appears as though it’s been forced to restart all the way back at the opening cinematic.

You as Batman, while affected by the Fear Toxin, endure a gamer’s worst nightmare.



The cinematic, however, has been altered and the roles have reversed as the Joker is now the one bringing Batman back to Arkham. You walk the entrance corridor of Intensive Treatment once again, only this time it’s as the Joker and you’re escorting a raving lunatic Batman, who’s now strapped down and helpless in his pleas that he’s not crazy.

This all culminates in the final Fear Toxin level as Batman rises from the dead and wanders through a hallucinogenic Arkham populated with various, insane Batmen either cowering in corners, swinging fists at imaginary foes or feasting on rats.

The story of “Arkham Asylum” is built on the age old foundation of the Joker attempting to prove to Batman how mad the world really is, creating a scenario in which the only way for Batman to conquer him is by abandoning his sanity and diving head first into madness.


“Change. Get crazy. It’s the only way to beat me!”

In classic fashion, the status quo of the proceedings are altered and Batman is presented with an opportunity for change. But the point of being Batman is to endure through the insanity he faces nightly. Thusly the choice that Bruce must (and does) make is the one in which he refuses to change. By refusing to give in and cross that line, it makes his triumph all the more impressive. Where a lesser man might easily crack just for the sake of a hollow victory over the Joker that would cost more than its worth, Batman is a character of superhuman will and discipline. He doesn’t accept the Joker’s offer to change, knowing that doing so would spell certain doom for Gotham and the citizens he’s sworn to protect.

This character portrait is wonderfully conceived and handled throughout the game, courtesy of Joker’s constant presence over the Asylum’s PA system and the subtle toll your time within the walls of this madhouse can take on you as you utilize your combat and detective skills to overcome challenges both external and internal.


The mechanics of the game make for an interactive and well-rounded experience. “Arkham Asylum” is thankfully anything but a simple beat-em-up, button masher as the story gives you multiple opportunities to examine different angles of the Batman character. This is probably more clearly represented by the invention of “Detective Mode” and the plot points that require the following of a given DNA trail.


Whether it’s the pheromones of Poison Ivy that you keep on record or traces of alcohol-laced breath or a given character’s fingerprints, the ability to do some genuine sleuthing is just awesome. That was a revolutionary breakthrough in approaching Batman as a video game character and it works so incredibly well.


“Detective Mode” is an invaluable asset to Batman’s mission. Played as a portrayal of what Batman sees through the state-of-the-art lenses embedded in his cowl, “Detective Mode” re-creates the environment in a simulated blue landscape (following certain trails calibrate the vision in assorted alternate colors like green and purple), highlighting non-lethal targets in blue and armed targets in red that, given the proximity, can be seen through walls and air vents. This allows you to track movements and plan out tactics for combat and stealth approaches alike. Whether it’s a matter of incapacitating armed henchmen first or making sure you’re undetected in an area, it’s a necessary tool that once again gives you the ability to think and strategize as Batman himself would in the field. Admittedly, “Detective Mode” can be interpreted as a potential crutch that gamers could easily rely on too heavily but as long as you incorporate it into the gameplay as needed, it’s a good bit of fun.


Given his ties to the comic book world, Dini also uses a number of great storytelling devices and nods. The most present is the idea of Batman’s access to data and assistance from his comm-link connection to Oracle, who periodically guides you on given objectives by pulling up Asylum schematics or offering information she’s dug up on Joker that fills Batman in on the plot as it unfolds.

The story of “Arkham Asylum” is a well told drama, moving from events to events with gradual escalation. The overall plot itself is somewhat small in comparison to other Batman stories but when you look at it as a comment on Batman video games, it was clearly the best game based on the character by a mile.


Ultimately it concerns Batman fighting to stop the Joker from developing and using a mutagenic compound called Titan, an advanced form of Bane’s Venom formula that he’s manipulated an Arkham doctor named Penelope Young to concoct for him. With Titan, he plans to create an army of steroidal-enhanced monsters that he’ll unleash upon Gotham City. Thank God the game isn’t really about that story so much as it’s about you working to prevent that plan from occurring. As a result, what could’ve been a rather hokey idea is turned into a simple backdrop for an involving character study that takes place before that scheme could be hatched. It’s not the genuine plot of the game itself but rather just another one of the Joker’s deadly antics that you have to hinder.

“It’s just a twisted diversion. The real action’s on Arkham.”

The narrative does introduce a number of secondary characters though, some of which are quite worthwhile in varying degrees. There’s Arkham Security head Aaron Cash and Quincy Sharp, who’ve probably become as synonymous with Batman’s supporting cast as characters like Chief O’Hara or Leslie Thompkins in previous iterations.

“You need to stop this now. Before it goes too far.”

“Stop? But everyone’s dying to see what I do next.”

What is there to say about the cast? It's Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the Batman and Joker I grew up with. Perfection. I love that the "Arkham" game series has given a new generation of fans entre into these two and their performances as these classic characters, as new fans are now taking the initiative to go back and discover their previous performances in the animated series and film projects.


Arkham’s set pieces, with its labyrinths of holding cells, elevator shafts, catwalks and corridors is rendered in a wonderfully moody array of texture and lighting. I was genuinely creeped out by the Penitentiary segment of the game once the Joker unleashes the more stark-raving mad lunatics in head gear and strait jackets.

The sense of atmosphere and darkened locales as you stalk through the air vents of Arkham Mansion or the greenery of the Botanical Gardens is absolutely palpable. It’s very reminiscent of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s seminal graphic novel “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” albeit through a more Dini/”Animated Series” filter.

I’m especially a fan of certain sets and sequences. The spaces inside Intensive Treatment, particularly the giant Intensive Treatment Lobby, and the open space of the Medical Facility are wonderfully composed and very vertical with a number of platforms and catwalks at varying heights. Its great fun to strategize on getting the drop on Joker’s Blackgate thugs and it gives Arkham a great sense of scale.


There’s also the intimidating story point of having to enter the ominous sewer dwellings of Killer Croc and I gotta tell ya, the first time I played that level was in the dead of night and the echo of Croc’s hisses were downright scary! The confrontation with Croc is also a great example of using the idea that Batman can’t (and shouldn’t) engage in a battle with all of his foes the exact same way. Croc’s lair is constructed with a series of floating planks that you have to crouch and walk on with subtlety and finesse so that you Croc can’t determine your location. You can’t just confront him as a combatant, he’s too deadly. So the game once again creates a scenario that makes you work harder, think things out more so that you have no choice but to behave as Batman would.


The game’s score, composed by Ron Fish and Nick Arundel, is as brooding and bombastic as our hero. I’m a real fan of the claustrophobic track that plays repeatedly whenever you enter the Intensive Treatment Lobby and all of the driving material used during the fights and physical encounters very menacing and pulsating.

There’s also the charming muzak that plays in the glass domed Greenhouse of the Botanical Gardens, which felt very reminiscent of the “Pretty Poison” episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” so that’s a great treat.


I really love the track from the 2nd Scarecrow encounter, with the tinkering notes of sadness and heartache as Batman transforms into young Bruce Wayne kneeling over his parent’s bodies. There’s also great string work in quieter moments like when Batman’s in the Batcave or right after an objective has been accomplished. Other moments, like this great one when Batman has to glide through a cliff side after Poison Ivy’s Titan-enhanced plants destroy the Batcave, has a tremendous use of chorus and it’s very effective.


“Can you hear me Batman? I know you can.”

In addition to the main story arc, the game is given a great side-objective as Edward Nygma, the Riddler, hacks your communications and informs you of the daunting task of acquiring and solving a total of 240 Riddler trophies and puzzles scattered throughout Arkham Island.


From a collection of patient-interview tapes documenting conversations with Pamela Isley, Jonathan Crane, the Joker and Nygma himself to various items and puzzles that when scanned reward you with dossiers on Batman characters like Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Penguin, Catwoman, Black Mask, Ra’s Al Ghul, Killer Moth, Clayface and others to a series of stone carvings supposedly left throughout the Island by fabled and demented founder Amadeus Arkham, the Riddler’s challenges provide a fulfilling side-story that tests Batman’s thoroughness and patience (as well as yours as a player).


“Showtime, Batman!”

Remember that whole tangent about how the Titan-monsters destroying Gotham would’ve been hokey?

Well for all its greatness leading up to it, “Arkham Asylum” does kind of end on a “meh” note as Batman is faced with…you guessed it…a Titan-enhanced Joker. The boss fight itself doesn’t quite match the elaborate impressiveness of the encounters with Scarecrow, Croc or even Ivy, which is a shame since it’s the final battle and all. Once the novelty of seeing the Titan Joker wears off, it’s a rather lukewarm ending compared to everything that came before, save for this one great moment in the following cinematic where Batman puts explosive gel on his knuckles to take Joker down once and for all.


“I’ll never let you win. Never.”

Ultimately, “Batman: Arkham Asylum” is a classic tribute to the world of Batman while also forging a bold new dynamic for the process of adapting film, TV and comic book properties for the video game medium. It’s arguable that even with its sequels, it has yet to be surpassed and it’ll be interesting to see if Rocksteady or any other developers and publishers use it as a template for adaptations in the future. I’m sure they will and, probably, already have.

The fact that it can stand toe to toe in engaging gameplay with similar console games like the “Call of Duty” or “Assassin’s Creed” series while also boasting a compelling drama and portrait of Batman and his cast of friends and foes that rivals anything found in the comic books or motion pictures speaks volumes.

“Arkham Asylum” is a terrific gameplay experience and if you’re a fan of the character it’s one of the few outlets to date that gets you the closest to wearing the cape and cowl yourself.


It's over, Joker.”

Over? Why my dear, delusional Dark hasn't even begun.”


Chas Blankenship's "Bat-Mania" is proud to present "Batman: Arkham Asylum" - The Video Game edited feature length presentation of the entire game story through cinematics and gameplay.


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