Arkham Punch: The Asylum Story

WTF is Batman: Arkham Asylum?

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a really popular videogame in which Batman has to stop Joker from taking over a big prison by punching everyone in the face. A bunch of the comic book villains are also there, and Batman has a bunch of gadgets that he sometimes has to use, and he sometimes has to sneak up on people and punch then from behind, or swoop down on people and punch them once he’s knocked them to the ground. Also, if you’re bad at the game, sometimes he punches thin air.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that this game had a really good story, but the story is what I just told you, plus a drug that turns people into super strong mutants, making them harder to punch.

Parts of the game that involve punching things

Most of the game involves punching things. On the X-Box controller, there’s one button to punch, one button to guard, one button to run/jump/skip, and one button to hit people in the face with your cape, which doesn’t do any damage, but makes them back away from you like WTF. I made it through my first playthrough on normal difficulty by mashing the keys pretty much at random, so the game is very forgiving.

There are two main kinds of punching quests in the game. In the first kind, you get attacked by a whole bunch of guys who have various types of weapons, but usually not guns. In this quest, your goal is to punch these guys rhythmically, so that you can build up your punching multiplier and punch them in more and better ways. In the second kind of punching quest, you attack a bunch of guys with guns, and, because they have guns, you have to skulk around in the shadows and sneak up on them from behind, picking them off one by one, as they slowly grow more nervous about how they’re all getting punched.

The second kind of punching quest is more entertaining, but also more stressful. The rules governing what your gun-holding victims can see and not see aren’t clear. As Batman, you are effectively invisible when you lurk in certain places, even if it makes no sense that no one else can see you.

That said, the game designers do a really good job of keeping the situation light, and it’s fun to watch your victims scramble around, reorganizing themselves when they discover that one of their group has been knocked out. The game also gives you Detective Vision, which shows you where your enemies are, even if they’re behind walls, so you can plan your skulk accordingly.

Aside from the punching quests, there are also boss battles, which generally involve punching your way through wave after wave of regular dudes, and then throwing a batarang or something at the boss. The boss battles are okay, but the game structure is looser than usual, so it feels less like the boss battles are turning points in the story, and some of them might not be considered boss battles at all, in the traditional sense.

Parts of the game that do not involve punching things

Parts of the game that do no involve punching things are always in service of finding more things to punch.

There are a few sequences where you face off against Scarecrow and, while you do punch things during those sequences, the main emphasis is on platforming your way past obstacles without drawing Scarecrow’s attention. Those sequences are also preceded by little vignettes where Batman hallucinates his back story – one, late in the game, is metatextual in a fairly clever way, because what Batman essentially hallucinates is that the game isn’t working. There isn’t anything to punch or otherwise do in most of the vignettes, but they add some texture to the story.

There are also some sequences where you have to use your detective skills to follow a trail, look for evidence, or solve simple puzzles. Part way through the game, you get a thingamabob that decrypts computers and you have to wrestle with the control sticks until they vibrate at the right frequency, whenever you want to use it. Sometimes there’s a time constraint, but it’s not very hard to do.

I liked the stuff that didn’t involve punching, but it wasn’t as developed as the punching stuff itself. I’ll admit that, when it came time to face Killer Croc, I was feeling pretty resigned, and thought, “Great. Now I have to go punch this guy in the sewer.” When it turned out that the battle with Killer Croc was mostly a navigation challenge, punctuated by lazily hitting him with a batarang when he jumped out of the water, I was pleasantly surprised. There’s enough variety that the game stays interesting.

Parts of the game that involve women (besides me)

One of the villains you face is Harley, and one of them is Poison Ivy, and, for obvious reasons, I was interested to see how that would go. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it.

For a fighting game, this is an unusually all right treatment of women, but it’s still not great. Ivy doesn’t have a lot of clothes, and Harley’s wearing a ridiculous, impractical outfit that leaves me comfortable saying they’re both hypersexualized. On the other hand, Harley gets to be funny, and Ivy gets a real boss battle – the second toughest, if not the toughest battle in the game.

The game designers are careful to arrange it so that, as the player, you never actually punch either Harley or Ivy at any point. There’s a cutscene where Batman knocks Harley down when she lunges at him and, when you battle Ivy, she climbs inside a giant plant, so it’s really more like you’re battling the plant. I’m not sure how I feel about that, because it separates them from the other villains, but I also would probably not have enjoyed beating them up.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but one nice thing about the game is that Batman isn’t a chauvinist dick to Harley and Ivy when he encounters them. In general, the Batman of this game treats the villains in a businesslike way, and his relationship with these two is no different. (We’ll talk about his homoerotic relationship with Joker another time).

A lot of the doctors at the prison (which they’re pretending, for some reason, is a mental hospital) are women, and a lot of the back story you uncover is about female doctors being victimized by the male inmates in some way (even Harley started off as a doctor who was corrupted by Joker). The game seems to think that that’s scary rather than titillating, which seems appropriate.

You also have Batgirl on the phone with you sometimes, mostly so that Batman has someone to explain what’s going on to, but she doesn’t play a major role in the story.

In general, I’d say that Arkham Asylum comes out better than average in terms of its female characters, but I wouldn’t hold it up as a shining example or anything.

Other Observations

  • As other reviews have noted, the game has great graphics and looks beautiful, but practical considerations mean that you spend a lot of time in Detective Mode or Batvision or whatever while you’re playing. That strips out all the great-looking stuff in the graphics in favour of showing points of interest on the map. It’s useful to have, and I wouldn’t wish it away, but I also wish that I had had more time to take in the locations before everybody was dead. (Once everybody’s dead, you can walk around as much as you want, just as in life).
  • Batman’s suit gets all torn up and distressed-looking as the game goes on, and that’s cool.
  • One of my favourite things was hearing the other characters address Batman as “Batman” and comment on what he was doing. Like, “Hey, everyone, Batman just ripped that grate off the wall!”
  • It’s so fucking funny that his name is Batman, though. I can’t get over it.
  • I really want to be Catwoman, and I’m gonna be pissed if there isn’t a lot of Catwoman content in Arkham City.
    • Like, seriously, I probably feel about being Catwoman the way the target audience for this game feels about being Batman.
  • It’s cool when you jump off something high and fly around using Batman’s cape to glide.
  • It’s cool when you use that horizontal zip line thing and kick people in the face while they go “What?!”
  • The checkpoint save is pretty forgiving, but I’d still rather have the control of locating visible checkpoints and choosing when I want to save at one.
  • My least favourite part was when Joker joked that slapping Harley around was his hobby. Fuck that.
  • My favourite part was when I’d stalked and punched all but one of Joker’s henchmen and Joker came on the radio to tell the last guy, “You can do it, buddy!”
  • I forgot that Bane was in this game until I started searching for reviews.

In conclusion

I’m being glib because I have a hard time taking Batman seriously. Arkham Asylum is a pretty good game in general, and a very good fighting game, and an excellent Pretending to Be Batman game, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into. It’s also surprisingly tame and non-stress-making for a story whose raison d’être is violence. I could see people letting their kids play this game, and the designers could probably see that, too.

I want there to be a game that’s just Catwoman.

Image: Batman: Arkham Asylum; Rocksteady Studios | May 15, 2015