Sunday, September 27, 2009

REVIEW :: Batman: Arkham Asylum

When I hear that Batman: Arkham Asylum is a 'good' game--and while agreeing with that sentiment--it makes me wonder what the definition of a 'good' game really is. It certainly means fun and entertaining, but it is not necessarily synonymous with original or innovative. With that in mind, I agree that Arkham Asylum is a 'good,' fun game, but it is also an unoriginal, and sometimes apathetic game.
It's fun because it does what it attempts to do, and does it right--it successfully melds combat, stealth, exploration, and puzzle-solving together while inadvertently ripping off Assassin's Creed and Zelda in order to do so. That being said, Arkham Asylum is unoriginal in that everything it tries to do has already been proven.

Although Arkham Asylum is fun and tries proven methods, there is still room for improvement. I am going to put out 3 suggestions that I think could make Arkham Asylum a better game.

3 Things that Could be Fixed in Arkham Asylum
1. Addition of a Mini-Map
There is a consistent problem in Arkham Asylum in that you can't really tell where you're going all the time. Part of this is caused by the fact that the camera is narrowly zoomed into Batman's cape, and part of it is attributed by the fact that the scenery recurrently blends together with or without Detective Vision™.
What this leads to is a constant re-checking of the map screen by the player in order to figure out where he/she is and where he/she needs to go. This constitutes pressing the 'select' button, pausing the game, letting the map screen load up for several seconds, and then pushing 'select' again to return to the game--an entire process which takes several seconds and must be perpetually repeated.
It really wouldn't hurt to have some sort of mini-map or radar always available on-screen to the player. Adding a simple mini-map in the corner of the screen (Ala Zelda style) would alleviate much of this problem and prevent the player from getting irritated by re-pressing the map screen button so many times in one arena.
Twilight Princess and its mini-map.

2. Arbitrary Gameplay Rewards
Another thing that could be fixed in Arkham Asylum is the arbitrary handing out of gameplay rewards. Currently, in the game there is no definite reason as to why the rewards you get (new items, gadgets, or keycards) don't come earlier or later in the context of the narrative. For example, when you decide you need a new bat claw you haphazardly hop back to the Bat Cave and decide to improve your arsenal only at that specific time, when you could have done it much earlier in the game, if only the game let you. Another example is when the Warden of the asylum conveniently decides to give you a card which magically unlocks a large portion of the inaccessible areas in the game, only after you find him after an indeterminate period of time. Furthermore, Batman only decides to retrieve his handy zip line the second he needs it from his Bat plane by phoning it into a remote part of the island, when he could have easily called it in at any other time in the game.
By giving the rewards out to the player in this way, the game prevents the player from feeling like he or she has actually earned the rewards. In contrast, this puts the player at the game's mercy of giving out new items not when the player has accomplished a certain feat or defeated a certain boss, but instead when the game 'feels' like giving out these rewards.
This is in opposition to other games such as Zelda, in which the gameplay rewards are situated within the context of the game world and story. For example, in a Zelda game the player is rewarded with new items not when Link feels like pulling them out of his backpack, but instead when the player discovers them in a subterranean dungeon or when defeating an evil leviathan.
If the gameplay rewards in Arkhum Asylum actually depended on the player's progress and victories instead of arbitrary backpack pulling, then the game would provide a much more gratifying gameplay experience.

3. Status-Quo Storyline
Arkham Asylum's story leaves much to be desired in terms of clasping onto the player and never letting go. This is because in a comic-book world, everything revolves around returning things to a state of normalcy, back to the status quo.
No matter how much I loved Spider-Man and Batman as a kid, I always despised the fact that things would never change. At the end of every episode, Batman would arrest the villain, Spider-Man would revert to his normal self, and everything would return to the status quo, the same as it was before.
This is the exact reason why it's so hard to get involved with the storyline in Arkham Asylum when it starts out by saying: 'The Joker's escaped and set all the inmates free! What should we do?!' And then ends by saying something like: 'Good job Batman, you returned the Joker to his cell and put all the inmates back. Nothing's changed!'
Guess where he's going by the game's end.

Despite the game needing a story to motivate the player's goals, this is about as one-dimensional as the narrative can get. Playing through the game, I'm not compelled to pursue each goal, because I don't care about the inevitable outcome of the story. What I want from a story is change, tension, things to go wrong, mystery, suspense--things that the film 'The Dark Knight' all did admirably, but fail to apply to Batman's video game counterpart.
If Arkham Asylum attempted to create a more challenging, multidimensional story, it would provide an incentive for the player to keep playing the game and it would create a more satisfying experience in the end instead of containing the detached and apathetic feel it currently has.


In conclusion, Arkham Asylum is a fun game, but it's too safe. It doesn't offer anything new, challenging, or unique. Even though Mirror's Edge is a game that has remarkably more frustrations, I would say Mirror's Edge is still more fun than Arkham Asylum because it offers something that Arkham Asylum does not have: an original, exhilarating experience. When it comes down to what I want in a video game, it is all about providing a unique 'experience'; the feel of being able to do something in another world, to journey through a compelling story, to challenge myself in new ways. Arkham Asylum doesn't fully offer an original experience such as that, and so, despite its accomplished design, the game eventually remains more to be desired after its completion.

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At 10/01/2009 5:34 AM, Blogger Ben304 said...

I've yet to try the game, but have been thinking about this review for a day or two now and applaud you for bringing up points 2 & 3 in particular.

Interesting points to keep in mind for any game, not just a specific game or genre of game.

While point 3 is one I hear regularly - "Make sure that the main character undergoes some form of change during the story" - the second point is not really something I recall seeing discussed anywhere else, and it is certainly something else to consider when designing one's game.

At 10/01/2009 10:13 PM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

Hey, thanks for commenting on my blog! It does loads for my self-esteem issues.

I would still very much recommend Arkham Asylum even though I thought it could have been a better game, so don't let me stop you from getting it.

As far as point 2 goes, it just seemed kind of a cheat by the game; in Arkham Asylum, instead of killing a boss and taking his awesome new device, you would instead just kill the boss, then return to the bat cave for a cup of coffee and decide to open up the bat locker and find some new bat toys to reward yourself. Not the most satisfying way to earn rewards.

At 10/02/2009 4:56 AM, Blogger Ben304 said...

The fact that you have made two very well received games and go into in depth discussion on how gameplay and story elements can be improved (something that the indie games community should be hungry for) and still get so few blog comments still perplexes me.

And yeah, I can see that Batman saying "Oh, I might begin using this item that I had here all along now" would be disappointing, compared to something like Zelda's method of finding cool stuff in dungeons.

As for getting the game - I'll add it to the list. The list with another 70-80 games already on it :D

At 12/04/2009 5:25 PM, Blogger Ascovel said...

I used to be(and in a way still am) a big Batman fan, so I decided to try the demo, but I found the game very average at best.

The worst thing was the writing I guess. It was plain moronic. I couldn't stand hearing the characters talk.

Also, Batman seemed to be played by Sylvester Stallone's bulkier brother. He looks ridiculous. Even though the gameplay was fairly decent I really couldn't take seriously the fact of controlling this caped flying tank.

Another thing is that right from the beginning the story seems to be going into an unexciting direction. I've already read great comic books about Batman confronting the prisoners of Arkham. In one of them he becomes a patient himself. This game seemed like a terribly diluted Batman fanfic in comparison.

I don't really mind Batman returning to his usual status quo at the end of most adventures. It's difficult, but you can still make a story equally interesting as if you had complete freedom. Often introduction of key secondary characters just for one specific Batman adventure helps to create tension and sense of uncertainty. However, this game couldn't intrigue me even to in the smallest extent with the beginning of its story.I find this its storytellings' biggest weakness.

At 12/05/2009 7:10 PM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

I would agree and say that the greatest strength of the game is its melding together combat, stealth, and exploration in a way that emulates Zelda. It's quite enjoyable to enter a new environment in the game, spot the twelve strategically pacing guards, and then plot out your devious method of demise to take them out one by one without getting detected.


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