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Batman Arkham Aslyum Day#1: Into the Madhouse

Arkhum Asylum was a pretty hyped game by the time I got it. The demo was strong and there are a lot of expectations around the combat and the narrative. This game could be good. He’s my first day with it, and after soon initial adjustment, it’s a great first day. Spoilers within.

I launch it at Normal Difficulty, from a selection of three. Alright, game starts a bit in media res. You’ve already caught the Joker in a plot (although you find out he came along too easily) and are bring him to Arkham. You arrive and are given limited control of Batman to walk your way through the asylum with Joker strapped to a table and a suite of guards. It’s very Half-Life. Voice-acting is terrific, especially Mark Hamill, who I feel like has been finally unleashed to do the Joker full justice. All of the voice-acting appears to be drawn from the animated series, which is an excellent choice if you think about it; who better to voice a videogame than people who have made their living doing voices for cartoons?

Boy, does Batman handle weird. You’re facing a direction. It’s a standard left-analog move, right-analog look control. But Batman doesn’t move at all when you move the right stick. Only the camera moves. But when you move the left analog stick, it’s huge. Batman snaps to the new direction, sometimes with a cape flourish. I think it’s supposed to be dramatic. It’s not; it’s very awkward and distracting. I think it works better in action, because I stop noticing it as I get further in the game, but man that’s weird.

So, surprise surprise Joker breaks out, I go after him, goons appear, and the first fight begins. Combat quite cinematic. You hit X to create combos with attacks, and Y is counterattack. The core is tried-and-true God of War (to give one example) kinds of fighting, but it has its own unique fluid movement. It handles pretty well, and the attack/counter option comes to me pretty quickly. There’s a cinematic for the last blow of each battle, which is both cool to watch and a good signal that you’re done. All told, first fight is thumbs-up.

Narrative continues with me chasing the Joker through the Asylum. There’s a decontamination room that the Joker has filled with poison gas. You see everyone in the room choke to death, but there’s no way to save them, and you have to then shut off the gas to continue. This game is not pulling punches; the Joker makes sex jokes, Croc (who I see for a brief moment) gives me a credible going-to-eat-you threat, and the villains fuck up innocent people. Dark Knight all the way.

I die once in this scene when I fall into the poison gas and I misinterpret the Right Button as the Right Trigger, a perennial problem for me on the Xbox. Turns out the that Right Button grapple hook is used in a Prince of Persia Time Sand way, to reverse me out of a dangerous mistake. Dear God, there are a lot of mechanics in this game.

There’s also an interesting moment where you have an opportunity to save one of the Joker’s henchman that hanging on a platform above the gas. When you do, you get an achievement, and quickly incapacitate the henchman with a cut-scene fist to the face. It’s a great touch of getting the Batman tone right, and it makes me wonder if I could have ignored the guy and let him die. That would be a cool little bit of agency.

All through this the game is aggressively covering its bases through the tutorial. There’s the batarang targeting, the grappling hook, a “detective mode” that for Batman’s classic ability to see enemies through walls (?) and gathering info about the environment, and a special forensic mode that gets triggered in certain scenes for me to find an object to discover my next step. It’s a smooth introduction for the most part, as I don’t feel like I’m in a tutorial. There’s a strong temptation to stay in Detective Mode all the time to make sure you don’t miss any info, but I also like the environment, and I don’t want to ruin it by having a blue filter over everything all the time.

By the way, the environments are really nice. There’s a gritty creepy feel to everything. I feels dangerous, like a prison. I am enjoying running around these hallways a lot. The autosave helps with this. There’s no explicit save moments, just a little white circle that periodically appears in the lower right corner. Again, very Half Life. Amazing how influential Valve has been.

Anyway, there’s a madman named Zsasz that I have to incapicate by grappling above him, dropping silently behind him, and then doing a quick choke move. It’s a little paint-by-numbers here, but the idea is cool, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to use this creatively in later scenes. I then have to use Detective Mode to find my way out, finding a Riddler Trophy (some kind of achievement) along the way. Story continues on my hunt for the Joker. I find him on some kind of transport. He unleashes some kind of experiment at me, a big mutant thing. I learn a dodge and try to use it, but I’m still getting my ass kicked. Try to hit it, no luck. In desperation, I throw a couple of Batarangs. To my surprise, it dies. Makes no sense to me, but I’m not dead, so I’m not asking questions.

There’s a classic Batman cutscene seen where the Joker offers me a chance to kill him with a Batarang and Batman of course refuses. Joker gets away, but then quickly tells me over a remote camera that his partner Harley has captured Gordon (who was also at Arkham for the Joker’s capture) through a guard named Bowles. I do a forensic check and find that Bowles has been drinking, and then follow the alcohol scent in Detective Mode to get to Bowles. I follow the trail to an elevator, where Harley appears for a cutscene in which she blows up the elevator. Now it’s a Prince of Persia climb up the elevator shaft and environs, and it’s fun for now. There are these symbols on the wall that when you examine them give you a little narrative audio cutscene, sort of like Bioshock recordings except that it doesn’t seem like you can do anything while you listen. It’s much better when you can, by the way.

A couple of short fights and I’m still climbing. It’s getting late, so I’m calling it a night. Back tomorrow.

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