One look at the titular building in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and you can understand why Gotham City has such a problem with homicidal madmen.
Outside, the place makes the typical cemetery look like a Smurf theme park. Inside, it's even worse, what with its industrial pipes and gothic gargoyles and guards wearing lacrosse masks. This is a place where Gotham's dysfunctional and delusional go to be cured? Really?
It goes without saying, then, that Arkham is the Joker's very own briar patch—the place in which police keep locking him, the place in which he feels most at home. He and his inmate cronies truly do run the asylum—making for Batman's darkest virtual adventure yet.
One Flew Into the Cuckoo's Nest
The story opens serenely enough. You, playing as Batman, drag Joker into Arkham for the umpteenth time. For a while you accompany the phalanx of security guards who watch the green-haired goon. But eventually you're forced to stop, and the guards are left to deal with Joker on their own.
Big mistake. Joker escapes and immediately frees the rest of Arkham's residents—including the most vile villains Batman's ever faced: Scarecrow. Riddler. Bane. Then Joker invites Batman inside to play. It's a trap, and Batman knows it. But what else can the Caped Crusader do? Wait for Superman to fly by?
Why would he? After all, Batman comes armed with a bristling array of techno gear, from batarangs to grappling hooks to scads of other weapons and doodads he collects and unlocks along the way. And, as always, the Dark Knight brawls with the best of them.
While players can crack open special moves that require serious button dexterity, most of the time they can get by using a handful of simple maneuvers. Pressing the square button on the PlayStation 3, for instance, triggers a variety of jabs, kicks, elbows and haymakers—all seamlessly and cinematically strung together (complete with slow-motion at times).
Arkham Asylum certainly requires Batman to fight, but it encourages him to be smart about it. Even with Batman's bullet-resistant armor, frontal assaults can be suicidal. So staging surprise attacks from dark corners, ledges and air vents become Batman's specialty.
The game also emphasizes Batman's traditional comic book role as, essentially, the world's weirdest-dressing private eye: Players must often use the game's Detective Mode to find unseen enemies, ferret out solutions to crises and even pick up telltale signs of who passed down the hallway. For instance, needing to rescue Commissioner Gordon, Batman follows his trail by tracking the chemical signature of the commish's pipe tobacco.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Game
All of which, of course, makes Batman a guy you'd like to have on your side if stranded inside an asylum filled with crazy killers. He is a point of sanity in an insane world. And as if to prove it, we never see him kill, swear or even lose his temper. He rescues innocent people and pursues his quarry with an unwavering conviction. If there were little old ladies who needed to cross the street in Arkham, I have no doubt Batman would find the time to help.
He's not perfect, of course. Recent big-screen movies have more than convinced us of that. Here, while he never kills anyone, he renders scores of folks unconscious—and, it must be said, sometimes breaks a limb or two. (We hear the snap and, often, the victim's yelp of pain.) But he's the very model of restraint compared to the horrors—and horrible people—around him.
The Joker kills with impunity, and we sometimes see him do it—such as when he strangles a guard with his handcuffs near the beginning of the game. Thus, corpses are littered around the asylum: In one level, we stumble upon the body of a turncoat guard, strapped to a gurney and eyes wide open, a green smile scrawled across his face.
So violence is pervasive, if you haven't gotten that message yet. And Batman must often take down bad guys who've been augmented by a special strength-building serum—steroids on steroids, if you will. In the finale, Joker injects the serum into the bottom of his chin—mimicking suicide.
Joker also makes a handful of lewd jokes, and many of the characters curse (blurting out "d--n," "a--" and "b--ch," for instance). Some of Batman's more shapely opponents—the buxom Harley Quinn comes immediately to mind—wear provocative, revealing outfits.
And, let's face it, this game's downright creepy. When Batman faces Scarecrow—which he does at several junctures—the asylum turns even more horrific than it already is, and Batman envisions talking with his dead parents (gruesome, white ghouls) and fights a legion of skeletons. Even when Batman is completely clearheaded, his environs are nightmarish: Inmates walk in circles or scream at nothing, and one is shown eating a rat.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a competent and, in many ways, intriguing game. But the darkness it embraces is much like Joker's warped sense of humor: When you think about it, it's no laughing matter. Our gentle advice? Leave the asylum to its comic book inmates.